Bonilla trade to Yanks still may occur

March 31, 1991|By Jerome Holtzman | Jerome Holtzman,Chicago Tribune

BRADENTON, Fla. -- If Philip K. Wrigley were alive and Barry Bonds was with the Cubs, Mr. Wrigley probably would take out a full-page advertisement in the Chicago newspapers: "Please don't boo Barry Bonds. He's doing the best he can."

Here at McKechnie Field, winter home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bonds has been a daily target of the so-called boo birds. He has been hearing the catcalls ever since his yelling match a month ago with Jim Leyland, the Pirates' manager. Not many people missed it; for several days it was constantly repeated on national television, ending with Leyland shouting, "If you don't like it, if you don't want to be here, go home."

The booing has diminished somewhat and lately has been limited to Bonds' first at-bat. But it is expected to increase when the Pirates return to Pittsburgh for the regular National League season.

Because of this possibility, I mentioned to Carl Barger, president of the Pirates, how Mr. Wrigley may have tried to defuse the situation and asked if he would be likely to follow suit.

"I don't think so," Barger replied. "We don't have the budget for it."

In essence, that's the problem. Barger insists the Pirates, a small-market franchise, must stay within a limited budget to survive. His player payroll has risen to $25 million, $5 million beyond the break-even point. Said Barger: "The way it is now we can't stay out of the red."

So the Pirates are trying to cut down. Three front-liners from last year's divisional championship cast are gone: Sid Bream, R.J. Reynolds and Wally Backman. Now it appears they are trying to trade Bobby Bonilla, who is among their four high-salaried stars, to the Yankees. If they close the deal, it would chop $1 million from their payroll and also solve the first base problem created because of Bream's departure.

For Bonilla, a power-hitting switch-hitter, the Pirates initially told the Yankees they would take first baseman Kevin Maas and two minor-league prospects. But they have since upped the ante. Now they want Maas and Roberto Kelly, an established outfielder who would replace Bonilla in right field.

Said Bonilla: "It'd be a good deal for the Pirates."

Bonilla, who was raised in the Bronx, only a mile from Yankee Stadium, didn't say whether or not he would want to go. But, surely, he is aware that if he was with the Yankees he would be a $4 million player. With the Pirates, he isn't exactly hurting; he will pull down $2.4 million this season despite two consecutive losses in salary arbitration. Doug Drabek, the NL's Cy Young winner, leads the Pirates' money parade at $3.335 million. Also in the big-buck category are Bonds, $2.3 million and center-fielder Andy Van Slyke, $2 million.

"I understand the economics," Bonilla said. "If I stay in Pittsburgh, I'll have a good year and if I play somewhere else I'll have a good year. I always give it all I got."

Bonilla is a treasure. Last year was his best ever: a .280 average, with 32 home runs and 120 runs batted in, most RBI by a Pittsburgh player since Willie Stargell drove in 125 runs in 1971.

Said Leyland, speaking of Bonilla: "He can hit the ball out of the ball park from both sides and he never wants a day off. I'm a very lucky manager to have him on my club."

Assuming Bonilla stays, Leyland once again will have the best outfield in the majors: Bonds in left, Van Slyke in center and Bonilla in right. Last season Bonds became the second player in big league history to hit 30 or more home runs and steal 50 bases. In the MVP ballotting, Bonds received 23 of the 24 first-place votes; Bonilla was second. Van Slyke also does it all; superb in the field, and reliable at the plate: 17 home runs and 77 RBI last season.

The Pirates also have a good pitching staff: Drabek, Zane Smith, Bob Walk and John Smiley are the rotation starters. Last year, because of Leyland's juggling, the Pirates had a record 19 pitchers win a game or more. Their bullpen, at best, is average. Closer Bill Landrum led the club with only 13 saves. But as Bonilla said, "I'm sure Leyland will work his miracles." Last year five of Leyland's relievers got the last out.

The infield is the weakest part of the club. With Bream gone, Gary Redus and Carmelo Martinez will platoon at first base; neither has played a full season at that position before. Jose Lind, marvelous defensively, is at second. Jay Bell, who also carries a Golden Glove, is the starting shortstop. Jeff King is at third. Mike Lavalliere and Don Slaught will share the catching.

Despite the off-season defections, the Pirates still have a strong nucleus and should continue as a contender. Still, they lack depth. Their only established utilityman is Curtis Wilkerson, the former Cub. Wilkerson is having a good spring and can play all infield positions, including first base, if necessary.

Leyland was hoping the farm system would provide him with at least one or two good players whom he could give the club good depth but admits "We don't have them."

As for for his run-in with Bonds, Leyland insists it was largely an aberration. "I don't want to lose Barry Bonds," Leyland said. "I'm not an idiot. He put on the damndest show for us last year. He played his butt off."

Leyland also expressed dismay that the fans have been booing Bonds. "If I was a fan I might boo a player who loafs," Leyland said. "But I would never have the right to boo someone like Barry Bonds. He plays hard all the time."

It was time for the Pirates to take the field. In parting, Leyland emphasized, "We have no attitude problem here."

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