On occasion, Big League Stew honors a birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career. Please join us in lighting the candles.
Roberto Martin Antonio Bonilla was born in the Bronx in 1963 and he later became one of the biggest stars in the league when he played for Pittsburgh in the early '90s. Bonilla and his alliterative teammate Barry Bonds were known as the "Killer B's," but their futures could not have turned out more different. Bonds became the best player in baseball while Bonilla became best known for a never-ending contract that he signed with his hometown New York Mets.
The Mets first signed Bonilla in 1992, but injuries reduced his effectiveness. They brought him back in 1999, but quickly realized their mistake and worked out a deal to defer the majority of his salary so they could afford to bring in other players to bolster the team. He agreed to defer $5.9 million of his contract and they agreed to pay him $1.2 million a year for 25 years, from 2011 to 2035. That plan, it later emerged, was predicated on Mets owner Fred Wilpon's investments with Bernie Madoff, which he regarded as a financial guarantee. Now, the Mets are teetering on the financial brink, and Bobby Bonilla will be collecting more than a million dollars a year from the Wilpons (or whoever buys the team from them) for the next quarter-century.
He was quite good in his prime, but modern metrics make it appear that he wasn't quite as good as baseball writers thought at the time. He was second to Bonds in the MVP voting in 1990 (the first of Bonds' seven MVP awards), and third in the vote in 1991 behind Bonds and the Atlanta Braves' Terry Pendleton. But because he possessed an iffy glove, he may not have been one of the 10 best players in the league in either year. The Pirates could never quite figure out where to put him, shuttling him between third base and corner outfield for most of his time with the team. And injury limited him; he only played 150 games six times during his 16-year career.
He sure could hit, though.
Best Year: 1991 Pittsburgh Pirates: .302/.391/.492, 18 HRs, 100 RBIs, 90 BB/67 K, 4.5 rWAR
It's actually not easy to pick his best year. You might be tempted to go for 1990, when he hit 32 homers with 120 RBIs and finished second in the MVP, but hitters across the league had a better time of it in 1990, so his performance a year later is actually stronger in context. His 1988 and 1989 seasons were very similar as well. In all, from 1988 to 1991, he hit .284/.359/.495, averaging 24 homers and 102 RBIs. He had the 16th-most homers and fourth-most RBIs in baseball over that period.
As I mentioned in my John Kruk birthday post, you have to remember that the late '80s and early '90s were a really low-scoring period. So while Bobby Bo's numbers may not look particularly eye-popping today, at the time they were really noticeable, and the Mets made him the highest-paid player in baseball when they gave him a five-year deal in the offseason after this 1991 season.
They lived to regret it. Particularly after Barry Bonds signed the largest contract in baseball history in 1993, a six-year, $43.75 million deal with the Giants that may well have been the best free-agent contract ever signed. Bonds was worth it and then some. Bonilla disappointed the Mets, not because he played badly — from 1992 until mid-1995, when they traded him to the Orioles, he hit .278/.362/.508, averaging — but because they expected him to be the second-best player in the league, when in reality, the MVP voters were just wrong and created higher expectations for the Pirates.
Worst Year: 1999 New York Mets: .160/.277/.303, 4 HRs, 18 RBIs, 19 BB/16 K, -1.5 rWAR
Bonilla didn't play out the entirety of his first Mets contract. They traded him to the Orioles in 1995, 3 1/2 years into the five-year deal. After that deal ended, he signed as a free agent with the Marlins and was a member of their 1997 championship team. But they traded him to the Dodgers in 1998, and that offseason the Dodgers traded him to the Mets, who found themselves on the hook for the rest of the contract the Marlins gave him. They regretted the trade almost immediately.
If you ever wondered why the Mets were so eager to get rid of Bonilla that they were willing to pay him through 2035, his .160 average is a good place to start. He was catastrophically bad. But that wasn't the only problem. During the 1999 NLCS, he famously played cards with Rickey Henderson rather than watch the game. That didn't inspire much loyalty in his teammates, either, after the Mets lost the game to the Braves in 11 innings.
As an unnamed source with the team told Sports Illustrated:
"Guys who saw (the card game) wanted to take a bat to their heads after the game," one person affiliated with the team said. "There were players crying and screaming in the dugout (after the Mets lost the game in 11 innings). Then they walk in the clubhouse and see that?"
Their move to release him and defer his salary worked out in the short term, as the team won the National League championship in 2000 in part due to moves they were able to make with Bonilla's freed-up salary. But with the Mets' shaky finances teetering close to disaster, it looks like Bobby Bo may have gotten the last laugh.
Claim to Fame: These days, Bonilla is most famous for his deferred contract with the Mets, but he actually also has a deferred contract with the Orioles. They'll be paying him $500,000 a year through 2015. Give him credit for being a long-term planner.