Bobby Bonilla was more than just that Mets contract
What the Bronx-raised star had to fight through to get his millions
This report was done in collaboration with FiveThirtyEight as part of a new video series called Contracts, which documents some of the amazing, weird and interesting contracts across sports.
You know the story by now — or at least the outlines of it. In what is known as one of the worst contracts in baseball history, the New York Mets agreed to pay Bobby Bonilla $1.2 million annually (with an 8 percent annual interest rate) every year for 25 years beginning in 2011. Bonilla made more money last year than any of the Mets’ four best pitchers — Noah Syndergaard, Jacob DeGrom, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz.
Bonilla is now synonymous with that contract, but it’s not the only thing that should spring to mind when his name is mentioned. Bonilla also should be credited with everything he overcame to reach a point where he was one of the best baseball players on the planet, a six-time All-Star and someone worthy of being offered a five-year contract for $29 million in 1991 to play baseball in New York.
Born in 1963, Bonilla spent his formative years in the South Bronx at a time when that area was symbolic of urban decay. The population of New York declined by nearly a million people in the ’70s, roughly equal to the number of people who lived in San Francisco. The trend was particularly acute in the South Bronx, exacerbated by flight to the suburbs, the decay of rent-controlled housing and numerous cases of arson so building owners could collect insurance on underwater properties.
Bonilla, whose heritage was Puerto Rican and Cuban, grew up about a mile from Yankee Stadium in the Jackson projects. Back then, it was called the “40th Precinct” because it averaged 40 homicides a year to go along with 25 to 30 robberies a month, according to an Associated Press story on Bonilla in 1989. Bonilla recalled that he and his buddies used to often hear gunshots hitting the sidewalks and panicked people shrieking. He would look through the peephole in his front door as neighbors jammed needles in their arms.
“Yeah, it was rough, it was the South Bronx,” Bonilla told the Associated Press. (Bonilla, who currently serves as a special assistant of player services for the MLB players association, declined to be interviewed for this story.) “You talk about pressure in baseball? There is no pressure in baseball. Pressure is growing up in the South Bronx.
“If you’re looking for trouble, you don’t have to look far. I lived in it, but I wasn’t stuck in it.”
His parents divorced when Bonilla was 8 and he went to live with his mother, who was a psychologist, his twin sisters, and brother. His father lived five minutes away and remained a big part of Bonilla’s life.
Bonilla watched his old man deal with pain as an electrician, often getting jolted by hidden wires in abandoned buildings. That’s all it took for Bonilla to focus on baseball.
“He was always there if I needed him,” Bonilla told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “He’d take me with him on his jobs to show me how hard he would have to work and he would say, ‘Is this what you want to do?’ I mean, one bolt of that electricity would knock you off the ladder. I’d say, ‘No, Dad. I’ll work at my baseball a little harder.’ ”
It took until high school for the right people to notice, but Bonilla was destined to be a baseball star. He was new to the sport and raw, but also gifted and wrapped in a 6-foot-3, 250-pound shell.
“I mean, people talk about the pressure of playing in the big leagues, but where’s the pressure compared to growing up in a ghetto and looking for ways to get out?” Bonilla told the Times, just two years into his playing career. “I’m talkin’ about houses burning and people starving, and I’m supposed to be tremblin’ playing the first-place Mets or . . . Dodgers? I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had. Sports has always been my release. I’d turn on the news as a kid and couldn’t wait for Warner Wolf. How many murders can you put up with in a day?”
Bonilla got out of the South Bronx for good when the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him out of high school in the early 1980s. By 1985, Bonilla was a rising minor-league prospect. Then, at 22, he broke a leg in a collision with another player and was out for the year. The Pirates decided not to protect him on their 40-man roster, assuming no one would draft an injured minor leaguer.
The Chicago White Sox swooped in and snagged Bonilla before the Pirates got him back in a trade involving pitcher Jose DeLeon. By 1987, Bonilla was the Pirates’ starting third-baseman. A year later, he was a 25-year-old All-Star and launched on a 15-year career in the big leagues.
Bonilla was a washed-up player by the time the Mets wanted to punt on his contract. But it doesn’t change the fact Bonilla overcame a great deal at low odds and was a monster success by any measurement.
Instead of getting $5.9 million for the 2000 season, Bonilla instead will get nearly $30 million by the time 2036 ends. As our friends at FiveThirtyEight point out, shedding Bonilla’s contract freed the Mets to sign Mike Hampton, who won the National League Championship Series MVP that year, and get to the World Series.
Bonilla is an easy punching bag. But it’s not fair to forget where the man came from.
This article has been changed to correct which MVP award was won by Mike Hampton and that Bonilla had Cuban ancestry as well as Puerto Rica.