Fans help new arrival join family

July 30, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

They cheered him at the airport, cheered him for throwing a ball into the stands during batting practice, cheered him when he took his position in right field.

They were standing and cheering in the right-field bleachers, standing, cheering and bowing, too. Public address announcer Rex Barney welcomed the "newest member of the Orioles family," leading to even more applause.

Bobby Bonilla couldn't believe his ears.

And the fans were just getting started.

They cheered when he struck out on three pitches with men on first and third and one out in the first inning. And they didn't boo when he grounded out with men on first and third, two outs in the seventh and the Orioles trailing 5-4.

"The reception was totally tremendous," Bonilla said after going 0-for-4 in his Orioles debut, a 7-4 loss to the Chicago White Sox.

"It was quite different. I think they should have mixed in a few boos. I would have been used to it. I wasn't used to total applause. Mix in a couple of boos, and make me feel right at home."

Bonilla was kidding, just kidding. He described himself as "totally juiced" by the fan reaction, and described the entire experience -- from the airport to the ballpark -- as "overwhelming."

"I had heard they were wonderful," he said at a pre-game news conference. "Eddie Murray paid them a nice tribute. He said, 'Baltimore fans, there's nothing like 'em.' Tom McCraw, my hitting instructor in New York [and former Orioles hitting coach], said the same thing.

"He said they were really struggling one time and he went over to a gas station to get some gas. He was thinking that they were going to rag him. And they said, 'Don't worry, we'll get better.'

"The fans were saying that collectively -- 'We're all going to go through this together.' I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' He said, 'No, Bobby, it's true.' "

Bonilla flashed his trademark smile.

"I'm waiting for my first pit stop at the gas station," he said, laughing.

You know the old line about New York: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. The reverse is true for an Orioles star in baseball-crazed Baltimore. If you can't make it here, you can't make it anywhere.

No one in Baltimore cares about Bonilla's problems with the New York media, or about the time he called the press box to request that one of his errors be changed.

Heck, the average Orioles fan would argue that Bonilla was right to cuss out the rude New York press, and demand the name of the official scorer who would dare give him an 'E.'

It's the ultimate baseball culture shock, going from New York to Baltimore, and it left Bonilla reeling. "I couldn't believe how nervous I was," he said. "I was like a little kid."

Of course, he was nervous.

Everyone was so nice.

The bottom line is, Bonilla can't be as bad a guy as he appeared in New York, and can't be as good a guy as he appeared yesterday. Whatever, he's one of ours now, hon, and if he leads to the Orioles to the playoffs, he can run for mayor.

Indeed, Friday night's trade should do wonders for Bonilla's image, which was on the mend, anyway. His two previous managers, Jim Leyland and Dallas Green, speak highly of him. And they're the critics that count.

Perhaps, as Orioles farm director Syd Thrift suggested last week, Bonilla just got "New Yorker-ized." Orioles third baseman Jeff Manto described him as "a big superstar in the wrong city."

"He had some unfair criticism here," Leyland said yesterday from New York, where his Pittsburgh Pirates faced the Mets. "It was a little too much at first, but he adjusted.

"He's really a good kid. He's got a heart of gold. I loved him. I can't say enough about him."

Green, the old-school Mets manager, was just as effusive.

"He's been tremendous with me," Green told reporters Friday. "Ever since I got here, everyone thought we were going to have a lot of trouble and we didn't. Bobby came to play."

That's all anyone asks in Baltimore, especially in the post-Glenn Davis era. Bonilla has been on the disabled list only once in 10 major-league seasons. He'll play, and play hard.

Leaving New York?

"It kind of felt like getting out of jail," Danny Tartabull said yesterday after joining Oakland. Bonilla was more diplomatic. "Wonderful, but difficult," is how he described his 3 1/2 seasons with the Mets.

"The big contract is what it was," said Bonilla, who signed a five-year, $29 million deal with the Mets the same winter that Tartabull signed with the Yankees.

"They [reporters] were going to go out of their way to make sure they were the boss. I had to learn to deal with that. Once I did, it was no problem. I was able to let stuff bounce off my chest and not take anything personally, which you've got to do in New York."

He was back to his old, upbeat self this season, and now he's with a contending club for the first time since leaving Pittsburgh. He reached the postseason with the Pirates in 1990 and '91, but never made it to the World Series.

"That's what the ultimate goal is," Bonilla said. "Individual accolades, I'm past that now. I just want to be part of a collective effort to reach the pinnacle in our sport.

"I want to get to the World Series -- not just get there, but win it. That's where all the memories are made. That's where everything you think of as a kid comes true to life."

They cheered him at the airport, cheered him in batting practice, cheered him every time he made an out. Welcome to Baltimore, Bobby Bo. Win a world championship, and the cheering will never stop.

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