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Pirate on the Plank
Bruce Newman
October 14, 1991
Even as he tries to push Pittsburgh to postseason glory, free-agent-to-be Bobby Bonilla reckons that at season's end he may have to jump ship
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October 14, 1991

Pirate On The Plank

Even as he tries to push Pittsburgh to postseason glory, free-agent-to-be Bobby Bonilla reckons that at season's end he may have to jump ship

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When the fire came and burned down the building at University Avenue and 175th Street, it was the rats that got out first. In the South Bronx, it is always the rats that get out first. When the fire went out and the rats came back, the building was simply shoved over and made into a vacant lot, which in the South Bronx is called urban renewal. With his parents and siblings, the young Bobby Bonilla had lived on the top floor of the five-story walkup at University Avenue and 175th Street for four years. But when the fire came, he was already long gone. "Whenever it got bad where I lived," Bonilla says, "we would just move."

That Bonilla may soon be on the move again cannot be especially reassuring to followers of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who this week can watch Bonilla attempt to leave his mark on the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series and soon thereafter may watch him leave altogether. And because any neighborhood Bonilla leaves is, almost by definition, a neighborhood that is worse off than it was before, the Pirates could suddenly have a distinctly South Bronx look about them. Even as Three Rivers Stadium fills with World Series hopes, there are fears that next year it will feel something like an abandoned building.

The Pirates, who play in one of the smallest markets in baseball, are likely to lose rightfielder Bonilla to free agency in the off-season; and leftfielder Barry Bonds—last year's National League MVP and a good bet to win the award again for 1991—will be eligible for free agency next year and is already talking about wanting to play in San Diego near his off-season home. Catcher Mike LaValliere is eligible for free agency, and shortstop Jay Bell, second baseman Jose Lind and 20-game winner John Smiley can go to salary arbitration in the off-season. "The way baseball is now," said Carl Barger, the Pirates' president before he fled in August for the same job with the expansion Florida Marlins, "you almost can't afford to win."

And so the carefully constructed, masterfully managed Pirates, division winners for the second year in a row and owners of baseball's best regular-season record, find themselves in a curious situation: They'd better cash in with a world championship right now, because next year they won't be able to pay the price of success. And the Pirate who has become the very symbol of this conundrum is Bonilla. Even while he does his best to help Pittsburgh fend off the Braves, he says that the likelihood of his remaining with the Pirates has been reduced to "about 2 percent."

Having so spoken, Bonilla then picks up a bat whose feel in his hands is as comforting as worry beads. When he was growing up, Bonilla actually slept with his bat in the bed that he shared with his younger brother, Javier. "If something was on my mind, I would wake up in the middle of the night and pick up the bat and take some swings," he says. Javier had to learn to wake up and remain motionless until his eyes had scanned the bedroom looking for the bat. "It was a nightmare," Javier says. "He almost hit me a couple of times." Whenever Bonilla stopped by to visit his girlfriend, Millie Quinones, her mother, Wilfreda, would remove a cherished glass centerpiece from its place on her dining room table, her eyes rolling to the heavens each time she snatched the thing out of the are of his batting stroke.

Atlanta pitchers displayed little in the way of glass arms as the Braves surged to their unlikely division title (page 87), but they will no doubt treat Bonilla's bat with care in these playoffs, fully aware that he spent the regular season using it to destroy National League pitching. He finished among the top five hitters in eight offensive categories, and he finished seventh in RBIs with 100, a nice round figure from a nice round figure. Bonilla legged out 44 doubles this year to lead the league, despite a body that puts most people in mind of the Michelin Man.

On the eve of the playoffs, Bonilla was impervious to the pressures on the Pirates and the pressures of his own uncertain circumstances. "You talk about pressure in baseball? There is no pressure in baseball," he says. "Pressure is growing up in the South Bronx. We're talking about houses burning and people starving, and I'm supposed to be trembling because we're playing the Braves?"

Leaving home one day at the age of 12 to play basketball with friends, Bonilla encountered a local huntsman out for a morning's target practice with his fowling piece. "I walked out the door at 7 a.m. and there went a guy chasing somebody down the street with a .22," Bonilla recalls. "We were all ducking under cars to stay out of the line of fire."

Even trips to the corner grocery could turn into unwanted adventure. "I always looked out the peephole before I went outside, and one day I saw people in the hallway," he says. "When I opened the door a crack, I could see they were shooting heroin. When you see people injecting themselves with a needle, you know something is wrong. I was just 10 years old, but that made me realize that was not where I wanted my life to lead. But it's very hard to get out of."

Bonilla's father, Roberto, worked as an electrician, and often he took his son with him on jobs. "My father would go up into these old buildings where the wires all look the same, so you couldn't tell negative from positive," says Bobby. "Sometimes he'd get knocked off the ladder by the shocks, but he always got right back up there. Every time some kid tells me I'm his idol, I say, 'No, no, your parents should be your idols.' When I was growing up, my idol was right there—my father."

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