Pirate on the Plank

Oct. 14, 1991
Oct. 14, 1991

Table of Contents
Oct. 14, 1991

Washington Redskins
Bobby Bonilla
NHL Anniversary
Jock Dorms
Eric Green
Murray Pezim
Point After

Pirate on the Plank

Even as he tries to push Pittsburgh to postseason glory, free-agent-to-be Bobby Bonilla reckons that at season's end he may have to jump ship

When the fire came and burned down the building at University Avenue and 175th Street, it was the rats that got out first. In the South Bronx, it is always the rats that get out first. When the fire went out and the rats came back, the building was simply shoved over and made into a vacant lot, which in the South Bronx is called urban renewal. With his parents and siblings, the young Bobby Bonilla had lived on the top floor of the five-story walkup at University Avenue and 175th Street for four years. But when the fire came, he was already long gone. "Whenever it got bad where I lived," Bonilla says, "we would just move."

This is an article from the Oct. 14, 1991 issue Original Layout

That Bonilla may soon be on the move again cannot be especially reassuring to followers of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who this week can watch Bonilla attempt to leave his mark on the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series and soon thereafter may watch him leave altogether. And because any neighborhood Bonilla leaves is, almost by definition, a neighborhood that is worse off than it was before, the Pirates could suddenly have a distinctly South Bronx look about them. Even as Three Rivers Stadium fills with World Series hopes, there are fears that next year it will feel something like an abandoned building.

The Pirates, who play in one of the smallest markets in baseball, are likely to lose rightfielder Bonilla to free agency in the off-season; and leftfielder Barry Bonds—last year's National League MVP and a good bet to win the award again for 1991—will be eligible for free agency next year and is already talking about wanting to play in San Diego near his off-season home. Catcher Mike LaValliere is eligible for free agency, and shortstop Jay Bell, second baseman Jose Lind and 20-game winner John Smiley can go to salary arbitration in the off-season. "The way baseball is now," said Carl Barger, the Pirates' president before he fled in August for the same job with the expansion Florida Marlins, "you almost can't afford to win."

And so the carefully constructed, masterfully managed Pirates, division winners for the second year in a row and owners of baseball's best regular-season record, find themselves in a curious situation: They'd better cash in with a world championship right now, because next year they won't be able to pay the price of success. And the Pirate who has become the very symbol of this conundrum is Bonilla. Even while he does his best to help Pittsburgh fend off the Braves, he says that the likelihood of his remaining with the Pirates has been reduced to "about 2 percent."

Having so spoken, Bonilla then picks up a bat whose feel in his hands is as comforting as worry beads. When he was growing up, Bonilla actually slept with his bat in the bed that he shared with his younger brother, Javier. "If something was on my mind, I would wake up in the middle of the night and pick up the bat and take some swings," he says. Javier had to learn to wake up and remain motionless until his eyes had scanned the bedroom looking for the bat. "It was a nightmare," Javier says. "He almost hit me a couple of times." Whenever Bonilla stopped by to visit his girlfriend, Millie Quinones, her mother, Wilfreda, would remove a cherished glass centerpiece from its place on her dining room table, her eyes rolling to the heavens each time she snatched the thing out of the are of his batting stroke.

Atlanta pitchers displayed little in the way of glass arms as the Braves surged to their unlikely division title (page 87), but they will no doubt treat Bonilla's bat with care in these playoffs, fully aware that he spent the regular season using it to destroy National League pitching. He finished among the top five hitters in eight offensive categories, and he finished seventh in RBIs with 100, a nice round figure from a nice round figure. Bonilla legged out 44 doubles this year to lead the league, despite a body that puts most people in mind of the Michelin Man.

On the eve of the playoffs, Bonilla was impervious to the pressures on the Pirates and the pressures of his own uncertain circumstances. "You talk about pressure in baseball? There is no pressure in baseball," he says. "Pressure is growing up in the South Bronx. We're talking about houses burning and people starving, and I'm supposed to be trembling because we're playing the Braves?"

Leaving home one day at the age of 12 to play basketball with friends, Bonilla encountered a local huntsman out for a morning's target practice with his fowling piece. "I walked out the door at 7 a.m. and there went a guy chasing somebody down the street with a .22," Bonilla recalls. "We were all ducking under cars to stay out of the line of fire."

Even trips to the corner grocery could turn into unwanted adventure. "I always looked out the peephole before I went outside, and one day I saw people in the hallway," he says. "When I opened the door a crack, I could see they were shooting heroin. When you see people injecting themselves with a needle, you know something is wrong. I was just 10 years old, but that made me realize that was not where I wanted my life to lead. But it's very hard to get out of."

Bonilla's father, Roberto, worked as an electrician, and often he took his son with him on jobs. "My father would go up into these old buildings where the wires all look the same, so you couldn't tell negative from positive," says Bobby. "Sometimes he'd get knocked off the ladder by the shocks, but he always got right back up there. Every time some kid tells me I'm his idol, I say, 'No, no, your parents should be your idols.' When I was growing up, my idol was right there—my father."

Roberto and Regina Bonilla divorced when Bobby was eight, but the father could not stop worrying about his four children, so every night between eight and nine o'clock he would leave his apartment on Colgate Avenue and drive to their home on University Avenue. When he honked his horn, the kids were all supposed to run to the window so that Roberto could see they were safely home for the night. "And if one of us wasn't upstairs," says Bobby's sister Milagros, "he would wait until we got home."

Regina Bonilla-Rodríguez was by then working toward a master's degree in social work at Columbia University, and she was determined that her son Robert—as he is always called by family members-get a better education than the one he apparently had in mind for himself. "Originally I was going to go to vocational school, but my mother didn't want to hear it," Bonilla says. His mother got him enrolled at Lehman High School, a predominantly white, middle-class school that, for Robert, required a daily round-trip odyssey of nearly an hour and two city buses. "I didn't really know about racism and had never given it much thought until I got to high school," says Bonilla. "There were always a couple of guys there saying, 'You don't belong here, we're going to blow your head off.' "

Bonilla had the kind of high school baseball career that probably would have gotten him drafted if he had lived in Clearwater, Fla., or Santa Barbara, Calif., but he was not drafted by any major league team in any round when he graduated in 1981. "There are a lot of kids with talent in the cities, and major league teams should be taking advantage of that," Bonilla says. "Maybe they're scared to go into the neighborhoods."

When Bonilla's high school coach, Joe Levine, learned that a national high school all-star team was to be sent to Scandinavia that summer, he filled out an application for Bonilla that included the eye-popping statistics few scouts had seen him accumulate. "I really don't know what he wrote, but it got me on that team," Bonilla says. Another team member was Jim Thrift, whose father, Syd, went along on the tour. It was Syd Thrift, a former Pirate scout and later Pittsburgh's general manager, who finally brought Bonilla into pro ball. After growing up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, Bonilla had to go to Europe to get discovered.

The Pirates signed him and sent him to their rookie league team, where Bonilla hit .217. "I looked terrible because I hadn't played as many games in high school as most other guys had," he says. His prospects now more uncertain than ever, Bonilla attended a technical college to learn to be a repairman. His second minor league season provided no reason to quit his day job either. He batted only .228, but because he was a switch-hitter who showed promise of power, the Pirates were in no rush to give up on him.

Bonilla was living on $600 a month and spending as much on long distance phone calls to Millie back in the Bronx as he was on rent. When she made what was intended to be a holiday visit while he was playing winter baseball in Puerto Rico, they decided to get married. They were so broke that Juan Agosto, now a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, had to pay for their wedding license. "I had about $22 to pay for a dress," Millie recalls. "I wore gray suede shoes that were so cheap that when I took them off after the ceremony my feet had turned gray. But it didn't matter. For me it was the best thing in my life. I knew we were going to make it."

By 1985 Bonilla had just about made it with the Pirates when he broke his right leg in a collision with Bip Roberts during spring training. Four months later, when he'd mended, he was shipped to the low minors. "I don't think they thought I would ever play again," he says. "That's how badly I broke it." He was left off the Pirates' 40-man roster that winter and was snapped up by the Chicago White Sox, but he was in Chicago only four months before Thrift brought him back in exchange for pitcher Jose DeLeon. "When the Pirates traded for me," says Bonilla, "it was like returning to family."

But the family started to split apart last winter when Bonilla took Pittsburgh to salary arbitration and lost, and then began rejecting contract offers—first $13.5 million for three years, next $16.8 million for four—from the Pirates. He was stung in April when Pittsburgh signed centerfielder Andy Van Slyke to a three-year deal at $4.2 million a season. "We offered Bobby more than we offered Andy," insists general manager Larry Doughty. Still, it wasn't enough. The Pirates were pleading poverty, telling Bonilla and their own fans, in effect, that if they paid him what he was worth on the open market, the franchise would go broke. "We were beginning to buy that until they turned around and gave Van Slyke $4.2 million," says Dennis Gilbert, Bonilla's agent. Negotiations broke off in July.

"They're not going to come up with an acceptable offer or they would have done it already," says Bonilla. "What are they waiting for? What do I have to do in Pittsburgh to make them want me to stay?" Apparently playing in 159, 163, 160 and 157 games over the past four seasons didn't do it. "I gave him a day off last year, and unless he's struggling I'm not going to give him another one," Pirate manager Jim Leyland said earlier this season. "He drove me nuts on the bench."

Pittsburgh third basemen Jeff King and John Wehner both went down with back ailments this year, forcing Bonilla to play 60 games at the hot corner before the Pirates acquired Steve Buechele from Texas in August. It is rare enough these days for a player to acquiesce to a change in his position in the batting order without a public tantrum, and almost unthinkable that a star of Bonilla's magnitude would change from rightfield to third base without complaint. "Changing positions didn't bother me," he says. "I've proved what I can do. The numbers will be the same as they've been on the bubble-gum cards for the past six years."

Millie will be disappointed if she and Robert have to leave the Pirates. "Pittsburgh is my home," Millie says. "The people here are great. As soon as they meet you, they want to invite you over. They open their homes to me, they cook for me, and they don't even know I'm Bobby Bonilla's wife. I'm from New York—I could take their TVs."

Millie could find herself right back in New York before long. The winter bidding for her husband's services promises to be heated, and the two potential bidders mentioned most often are the New York Mets and the New York Yankees, the latter hoping that Bonilla will find special appeal in returning to the Bronx.

But first, of course, there is this matter of unfinished business in Pittsburgh.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRADespite contract woes, Bonilla and his bat have produced statistics as hefty as he is.PHOTORONALD C. MODRABonilla not only switch-hits at the plate, but also is a most obliging switcher in the field.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIn keeping with his jacket patch, Bonilla may hit the road—perhaps back to the Bronx.