New York Mets primer: First see Bobby bunt Now see Eddie bunt

February 28, 1992|By Joe Gergen | Joe Gergen,Newsday

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- On the first day, Bobby Bonilla bunted. Check that. He attempted to bunt.

It was a rude (and hilarious) awakening for the highest-paid player in baseball, an honor he is expected to concede whenever Ryne Sandberg puts pen to contract.

No sooner had Bonilla slipped into a New York Met uniform -- No. 25, for those scoring at home -- and joined his new teammates for a workout yesterday than he found himself in an uncomfortable position: crouched in a batting cage, with his hands spread far apart on the weapon that will earn him $29 million during the next five seasons.

"Bunt?" he said with mock indignation. "I haven't bunted in a game since 1986." Then he proceeded to prove it.

In manager Jeff Torborg's meticulously planned training schedule, such fundamentals as bunting receive considerable attention. And so it was that Bonilla joined a group that included Eddie Murray, Kevin Elster, Bill Pecota and D.J. Dozier on Field 7 for a lesson in self-sacrifice. Clint Hurdle, the organization's Triple-A manager assisting in camp, was in charge of the pitching machine.

Noting the photographers and television cameramen who had followed Bonilla from another field, Hurdle hesitated as the man prepared for his initial test. "Wait 'til the cameras are ready," he barked. "OK, roll 'em."

He fed one baseball into the machine. The ball hummed toward the plate. Bonilla squared in textbook form but the ball sailed under the bat. Murray, standing near the third base line, let out a huge laugh.

Hurdle loaded another baseball. Bonilla squared again. The pitch also flashed under his bat. Murray almost doubled over. Finally, after popping up the next three offerings, Bonilla succeeded. He responded by holding both arms aloft in triumph.

Then it was Murray's turn.

"When's the last time you bunted?" Bonilla asked.

" 'Seventy-three," Murray replied with a straight face.

"Come on, Sweetness," Bonilla trilled, "don't hurt yourself."

With the assurance of a man who had spent an additional day in a New York uniform, Murray quickly squared and popped the first pitch into the top of the cage. Bonilla laughed. "At least I made contact," the batter said.

Murray's second attempt was much better. The ball rolled slowly dTC down the third base line and spun to a stop in fair territory. "Look at that," Murray marveled. "Perfect." Bonilla said nothing.

Fortunately, the Mets are not paying their new cleanup hitter to bunt. Torborg wanted to familiarize the middle of his proposed batting order -- Howard Johnson, Bonilla and Murray -- with the concept. "That was just for the day," the manager said. "I'll have those guys go back to what they normally do tomorrow."

The expectation is that the big three switch hitters will terrorize opposing pitchers. Each of the trio has hit at least 30 homers in a season, although only Johnson achieved that figure last year. In Bonilla's case, his home run total with the Pittsburgh Pirates dropped from 32 to 18.

"I wanted to hit .300," he explained, "and [Pirates batting coach] Milt May said if that was my goal, I had to take the walks."

Bonilla followed the advice, doubling his walks from 45 to 90 and raising his average from .280 to .302 in the process. He also cut his strikeouts from 103 to 67 and still managed to drive in 100 runs.

Would he do it again? "Of course," he said. "There's no reason to be greedy." Not with Murray, who had 96 RBIs for the Los Angeles Dodgers a year ago, batting behind him. "I know what it takes to hit .300," Bonilla said, "and I know what it takes to hit 30 homers."

The man said he is willing to do whatever is best for the team. "Hey," he noted, "I'm just an employee." Torborg said he would be perfectly happy if Bonilla repeated his 1991 season.

"Whatever he did out there [Pittsburgh], I liked," the manager said. "The RBIs and runs didn't drop [much]. I'd rather see a guy make contact. Less strikeouts mean more action."

If Bonilla feels the need to justify his salary with extraordinary production, he gave no indication during his first day on the job. "It's not a big hangup for me," he said. Whether it is for the media or the fans may not be known until he goes hitless -- with an error or two for good measure -- in a nagging defeat, the kind of game even the most blessed of major-leaguers occasionally endures.

Certainly, others are taking notice, former teammates among them. Bonilla remembered a conversation with Barry Bonds, perhaps the next free-agent superstar headed out of Pittsburgh, after the terms of his new contract were disclosed. "He said," Bonilla recalled, " 'Bo, from where we came from, for that kind of money I'd mow the lawn and sing the national anthem.' "

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