Media aside, Bonilla gets his field day

April 18, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

Bobby Bonilla returned to the field last night, and neither the devil nor his media serpents made Davey Johnson do it.

No, Bonilla was in right field because Johnson had to put him there eventually, knowing the 11-year veteran wasn't happy as a DH.

But we'll take credit, if the manager deems us worthy.

Bonilla walked and scored in the second inning, then hit a two-out, two-run double in the fifth.

Let's all kiss and make up.

Is everybody happy now?

Johnson didn't need to read the papers to figure out he had a problem at DH. Bonilla would have been restless even in a world without media, and the manager knows it.

It was hysterical, hearing a manager who spent nearly seven years in the middle of the New York tabloid wars accuse the vicious Baltimore media of trying to stoke another former Met.

Johnson knows the game. Bonilla knows the game.

So it was that Johnson found himself rushing to the defense of a player who could have made his manager's life a lot easier simply by uttering the words, "No comment."

Instead, Bonilla kept the heat on, repeatedly stating his dissatisfaction even as the Orioles sailed off like the good ship lollipop.

Johnson said he kept Bonilla at DH Tuesday night because he didn't want the media dictating his lineup, as if the entire city were clamoring for a change.

His message might have been directed at Bonilla as much as anyone. Rest assured, Johnson doesn't want his players dictating his lineup, either.

This wasn't a media campaign.

It was Bobby Bonilla's.

The trick Johnson faces the rest of the season is working Bonilla into his outfield rotation while compromising his defense as little as possible.

It's not going to be easy. It was never going to be easy. But if the idea is to win a World Series, Johnson must figure out the best way to get it done.

Bonilla pressed when used solely as a DH, batting .244, drawing only two walks, and entering last night's game with only one hit in his last 12 at-bats with men in scoring position.

"He's going to have to play in the outfield. He's going to have play in the infield," Johnson said before last night's game. "This is new to me, new to Bobby, new to all of us. I'm feeling my way with this thing, as is Bobby."

Johnson still plans to rotate his DH, using the position to give struggling, injured or tired players a mental break. Last night, he tried Tony Tarasco. Today, it could be Chris Hoiles, who is batting only .125.

"I may be DHing a really good fielder," Johnson said. "I have no idea. I'll either get an 'A' for innovation, or an 'F' for not knowing what is going on."

The bottom line is, Bonilla is too important to the lineup to risk losing emotionally. If his anxiety causes him to stop hitting, then the idea of him as a DH is counter-productive, even if it appears best for the team.

Say this for Bonilla -- he addressed the issue honestly and calmly, not once causing a disturbance. He has accepted position changes throughout his career. Only when he became a DH did he draw the line.

Perhaps his dissatisfaction stemmed from a simple desire to play the field, the way he always had in the National League. And perhaps Bonilla feared that his value as a free agent would drop if he was viewed strictly as a DH.

That idea is ridiculous -- if Bonilla hits .300 with 30 homers, teams in both leagues would line up to sign him. But such considerations are inescapable in today's game, where players often act as individual corporations who just happen to be affiliated with certain teams.

Granted, no employee likes it when his role is diminished, not in baseball, not in the real world. But from the start, Johnson said his plan was only temporary. Bonilla should have expressed his concerns to Johnson privately -- particularly after the Orioles got off to their roaring start.

Bonilla didn't try to adjust with an open mind; he opposed the move before the season started, and after 11 games raised the issue of leaving Baltimore, knowing he could force Johnson's hand.

Yes, even under a strong manager, the inmates run the asylum, but this is not exactly a new development, and it doesn't necessarily make Bonilla a bad guy.

His sin is that he wants to play more, not less. He was the only Oriole taking extra batting practice at 3: 30 p.m. yesterday. And last week, before any of this flared up, reliever Jesse Orosco described him as the team leader.

"Before every game, Bobby starts screaming in the clubhouse, 'Let's go, you know what we've got to do, we're here to win,' " Orosco said. "He gets the guys fired up. You need that.

"We have some other guys -- Alomar, Raffy, Cal -- they're on more of an even keel. You know they're not going to jump on a table in the clubhouse and start airing guys out. But every team has somebody like that."

The Orioles have Bobby Bonilla.

Here, there and everywhere.

Pub Date: 4/18/96

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