PITTSBURG — PITTSBURGH -- The locker assigned to Bobby Bonilla for five seasons is tucked away in a distant corner of the Pittsburgh Pirates' clubhouse. In pre-game moments Friday night, Saturday afternoon and again Sunday morning, however, Bonilla chose to sit with his thoughts in front of the locker of trainer Kent Biggerstaff, the locker closest to the door that leads to free agency. Does he have to make it so obvious?
The Pirates have announced they will make another effort to sign Bonilla, 28, but no one in the organization doubts Bonilla's locker will be occupied by another, probably less-skilled, body next season. "He's already notified the post office to stop his mail here," Andy Van Slyke said. "He just hasn't given them a forwarding address yet."
The Pirates have grown accustomed to the notion of Bonilla's defecting. They acknowledge the 1992 Pirates may present a different, less-intimidating image. "The Attack of The Killer B's" will lose its plurality, not to mention a hundred or so RBI.
At the same time, the Buccos must acknowledge this pending series against Ted Turner's TV Tomahawks and a possible confrontation with the other league constitute their final opportunities to collaborate with Bobby Bo and perhaps a last chance -- for a while, anyway -- to play into late October.
"Keep us together, and the chances are very good we can repeat . . . you know, three-peat," Barry Bonds said in simple analysis. "Break us up, and the chances are slim."
In two compound sentences, Bonds expressed the simple truth that is an underlying element in the Pirates' pursuit of this pennant. In the Steel City, the idea is to strike while the iron is here.
Certainly, this is not a battle cry or even an overriding sentiment in the Pirates' clubhouse. Jim Leyland, the manager who affects the most positive form of mind control, won't allow anxiety-filled thoughts. And others in the clubhouse embrace his non-crisis thinking. "We're trying to win this year because we're in a position to win," shortstop Jay Bell said. "We don't deny Bobby's importance or that without him, we're not as good a team. But we don't dwell on the idea of him leaving."
Bonds preaches the gospel of "sign him," saying, "I want to play with Bobby for a long time. We're a good combo." But he also says, "Look at the Braves. Who expected them to win this year? I guess we could win next year without him . . . It just won't be as easy."
Bonilla senses the state of the team. But what can he say that doesn't sound as if Reggie, Jose or Darryl wrote his material? Opportunity to play with a winning team is a prerequisite for him as he chooses with whom he will make his millions. And he can help turn around a franchise. So he is less affected by the "last hurrah" possibility.
Still, when the Pirates clinched the division championship Sept. 22, Bonilla and Bonds embraced near second base. The moment wasn't exclusively celebratory. "We knew this could be the last time," Bonilla said, "so we want to get it done. This can be our year." Next year, there may be no "our."
Bonilla is not alone as a pending free agent. The Pirates can lose catcher Mike LaValliere, third baseman Steve Buechele, pitcher Bob Kipper and reserve infielder Curtis Wilkerson as re-entry free agents. And the club must offer salary arbitration to pitcher Bob Walk within five days of the end of the World Series or he can walk, too.
Each has contributed to the success of the Pirates, a team that -- more than most -- embodies the greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts phenomenon. So the departure of any one can damage the fabric of the team. "You can't just go into your local 7-Eleven and get a No. 3 hitter like Bobby with your 'Big Gulp,' " said Van Slyke, who signed a three-year, $12.65 million contract extension in April.
"But the other potential free agents are important, too. They don't run 'Blue Light Specials' on them at K-Mart, either . . . I'd like to see us stick together. But if we're not going to, we better make sure we take advantage of what we have now."