NEW YORK -- Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Bobby Bonilla sat in front of his locker at Shea Stadium the other day, happily answering reporters' questions about the possibility of fulfilling a lifelong dream and returning home to play for the New York Yankees.
Orioles fans grow frustrated supporting a second-rate team that is reluctant to acquire high-priced talent. Pirates fans grapple with the flip side of the problem, supporting the best team in the National League as it's on the verge of disintegration.
Bonilla is eligible for free agency this year, reigning NL MVP Barry Bonds and Cy Young winner Doug Drabek the year after. The prevailing sentiment is that the Pirates will be unable to keep all three. Playing in a small market, they simply don't generate enough revenue.
The players' union disputes the latter point, but for now that's irrelevant. The Pirates' front office is trying to exercise fiscal restraint in an explosive market. The amazing thing is, the club performs in a vacuum, oblivious to its ongoing contract disputes.
Credit manager Jim Leyland, who set the tone by publicly confronting the sulking Bonds last spring. Leyland spent 18 years in the minors as a player and manager. He's stern but sensitive, and his team leads the NL East by 5 1/2 games despite losing nine of 11.
The players should be concerned only with repeating as division champions, but they're constantly reminded this might be the last hurrah. For most, it's not a distraction, or even a motivation. It's just part of the everyday routine.
"The only thing I think about is, if it's the last one, I want to get that hurrah in," outfielder Andy Van Slyke said. "You can't base a season on whether Bobby's going or not. That's ludicrous. I don't care if you have Babe Ruth on the team as a free agent,
you don't base the whole season on that."
On the other hand, Bonds said, "If Bobby Bonilla goes to free agency and we lose him, it's a big blow for our ballclub. You can't go and think it's not, that we're going to be all right. It's a big loss no matter how you look at it."
Bonilla, 28, is a rare blend -- a switch-hitter with power, and versatile in the field. Last season he drove in 120 runs and was second to Bonds for NL MVP. This season he's batting .294 with 13 homers and 66 RBIs. His stats might be even better if he wasn't splitting time between rightfield and third base.
The Yankees reportedly are desperate to sign Bonilla, who has the same agent as Jose Canseco and wants a similar contract (five years, $23.5 million). The Pirates prefer to limit his deal to four years. Bonilla rejected their latest offer of $16.8 million.
The other day, he spoke glowingly of the Yankees ("they've got a really nice young team") and their star, Don Mattingly ("I'm a big fan of his"). He grew up in the Bronx, and New York apparently means as much to him as Los Angeles did to Darryl Strawberry.
This obviously is not good news for the Pirates. Still, Bonilla refuses to predict he'll leave Pittsburgh. "All signs point to that," he said, "but when you're dealing with the negotiations and the kind of money we're dealing with, who knows what could happen?"
Presumably, the Pirates are sorting their priorities. They have already given Van Slyke a three-year, $12.65 million extension. They might decide it's not worth bidding against the Yankees for Bonilla, and focus their energies on keeping Bonds, who is batting .292 with 17 homers, 76 RBIs and 35 stolen bases.
Here's the problem: Bonds, 27, is a year younger and a better all-around player than Bonilla, but he isn't nearly as popular in the clubhouse. The two dress next to each other and are good friends, yet they're complete opposites. Bonilla is engaging and forever upbeat. Bonds, too, can be charming, but only when his mood strikes.
Both players lost arbitration cases last year. Bonds is more likely to harbor ill will, so even if the Pirates decide to make him their cornerstone, there's no guarantee he'll return. Like so many other native southern Californians, he probably wants to play close to home.
Drabek (10-10, 3.24) is an issue unto himself, and Leyland -- who wept when free-agent first baseman Sid Bream signed with Atlanta -- reportedly is annoyed over the prospect of losing more players. It's a wonder the Pirates play so well together. But they do.
"We all came up about the same time," Drabek said. "To do what we have the last couple of seasons, I'm sure everyone wants to stay together, make it happen again. But if it doesn't, that's part of baseball. You just deal with it."
Back at his locker, Bonilla was again holding court, citing Van Slyke's contract as proof of the Pirates' hidden wealth. A few stalls down, Van Slyke just shrugged. "I hope he gets everything he wants," the outfielder said. "He probably will get everything he wants. I just hope it's in Pittsburgh."