As Marlin, Bonilla is still O so happy Smiling slugger looks back with no remorse

February 18, 1997|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

VIERA, Fla. -- Leaning forward on a stool in front of his locker Sunday, Bobby Bonilla cut open a large box, reached inside and pulled out a pair of size-14 baseball shoes. The swooshes on the side were orange. Orioles orange.

Bonilla stuffed the shoes back in the box. "Wrong color," he said.

His swooshes must be teal now. Florida Marlins teal. "I guess I can't use these," said Bonilla, who left the Orioles as a free agent and signed a four-year, $23.3 million deal with the Marlins. "Hey, why don't you take these with you to Fort Lauderdale and give them to the fellas, the B-Boys? Maybe somebody down there can use them."

Bonilla thought he would be wearing orange swooshes for the rest of his career, after the Orioles traded outfielders Damon Buford and Alex Ochoa to the New York Mets for him in July of 1995. He drove in runs, endeared himself to his new teammates, smiled the Bobby Bo smile. He loved playing at Camden Yards, where he was cheered.

"I'm telling you, I thought I would be there until I retired," Bonilla said. "But so many things happened last year."

Orioles owner Peter Angelos has a soft spot in his heart for Bonilla, and always has. He loved the way Bonilla's smile would seemingly brighten all of Camden Yards. He liked how Bonilla interacted with others; Bonilla's teammates almost universally liked him. "How's old Bobby Bo doing?" Pete Incaviglia asked yesterday. "He's a great guy."

Angelos will never forget, either, an act of generosity shortly after Bonilla joined the team in 1995. On the nights of Sept. 5 and Sept. 6, when Cal Ripken would tie and break Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game streak, the club offered special seats for charity, $5,000 apiece. Bonilla walked into the Orioles' offices and dropped off a check for two seats, $10,000. Bobby Bo was big with Angelos, big in Baltimore, and he loved the town.

"I'm going to remember nothing but good things about playing in Baltimore," Bonilla said. "Great baseball city, great fans, great teammates. The fellas, Brady [Anderson] and Cal and Raffy [Palmeiro]."

In the last days of spring training last year, Orioles manager Davey Johnson asked Bonilla to be the designated hitter. Bonilla said he would go along with it -- for a limited time. The issue created a breach never resolved. Bonilla would've been traded during the season, if Angelos hadn't vetoed several proposed deals. The Orioles, looking for more defense and a more balanced offense, let Bonilla go, and signed shortstop Mike Bordick, shifting Ripken to third and B. J. Surhoff permanently to the outfield.

"They never called," Bonilla said.

The Johnson void

Bonilla and Johnson didn't have a strained relationship. They had no relationship, after the early-season battle.

Johnson, realizing that Bonilla would never be happy or productive in the role, relented in May and moved Bonilla to the outfield. "Then he let me do my thing," said Bonilla, who would finish with a .287 average, 28 homers and 116 RBIs. "I really didn't have to communicate with him after that. I just wish we could've straightened it out a lot earlier."

After that, the two men shared what Bonilla referred to as the don't-ask, don't-tell policy. Bonilla never asked about the designated hitter again, and Johnson never told him to do it on a daily basis. Bonilla batted .221 with two homers in 44 games as the DH, and .318 with 26 homers when he played in the field.

After the Orioles eliminated Cleveland in the AL Division Series, players hugged each other, spraying champagne, and Bonilla waded into the coaches' locker room, hugging hitting instructor Rick Down, first base coach John Stearns. Johnson was next in line.

Bonilla and Johnson shook hands quickly and moved on.

Eventually, Bonilla moved on to Florida, to play for his favorite manager.

Leyland 'perfect for me'

Early last season, Bonilla called Jim Leyland, then managing in Pittsburgh, for some counsel. He wanted Leyland's advice on dealing with the designated hitter issue, and implicitly, he was letting Leyland know how much he'd love to play for him again.

Once Bonilla became a free agent, he talked to the San Francisco Giants, the Chicago Cubs. But the Marlins offered a huge contract and something no other team could -- their new manager, Leyland. Bonilla signed quickly.

"It's perfect for me," Bonilla said. "We go way back together. I like the way he communicates with players. Now, he's not going to volunteer any information, but if you go up and ask him, he'll pretty much tell you the way it is."

Bonilla paused for a moment, gripped a bat in his big hands, and took a half swing. "Absolutely, this is great for me," he said. "I'm happy with it. I thought I would stay [in Baltimore], but you know, sometimes things don't work out the way you expect them to."

Bonilla probably will play third base for the Marlins, though he could move around, play some in the outfield and at first base. "But that's never been an issue with me, as long as I'm playing."

Of course, he means playing in the field. In spite of the respect he gained for those who are regular designated hitters, like Eddie Murray and Harold Baines, Bonilla said repeatedly last year he didn't consider being a designated hitter as really playing.

He will be 37 when his current contract expires, and Bonilla isn't sure if he'll continue his career beyond that time frame.

Would he ever consider going back to the AL as a designated hitter?

"Maybe," he said, and Bobby Bo gives a Bobby Bo smile. "I've got the experience now, and it takes that."

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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