In the seven years from 1984 through 1990, the Mets had an incredible run of success during which they averaged better than 95 wins per season. Manager Davey Johnson had been dispatched a quarter of the way through the 1990 season, and his replacement, Bud Harrelson, was similarly replaced midway through a 1991 season that saw the Mets go 77-84. Frank Cashen's successful run as General Manager came to an end as he was replaced by Al Harazin following the 1991 season. Harazin's game plan: Resign Frank Viola and add a big bat to protect Howard Johnson and replace the declining Kevin McReynolds.
The prize hitter of that 1991 free agent class was Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder/third-baseman Bobby Bonilla. After flirting with fellow free agents Wally Joyner and Danny Tartabull, the Mets outbid the Phillies and Angels, among other teams, to secure the services of Bonilla for a then record-breaking contract worth $29 million over five years. Despite signing the biggest contract in team sports, many acknowledged that Bonilla wasn't exactly the best hitter in baseball, but figured his personality and intangibles would make up the difference.
Bonilla may not be a colossal talent, but his acquisition registers an enormous impact on the Mets, the shifts that result likely to be felt in everything from the club's public perception to its daily lineup. For Bonilla is both an engaging personality -- his charisma can infect a clubhouse, his unaffected self-confidence can defuse the pressures of performance -- and an intriguing offensive force.
-- New York Times, 12/3/1991
Whatever the perception of Bonilla the player, everyone wanted him and the Mets got him. He finished in the top three of the NL MVP voting in his final two years in Pittsburgh and was an All-Star in his final four seasons with the Pirates. Born in the Bronx, Bonilla took the Mets' money and hunkered down for a spell in Queens.
In addition to Bonilla, the Mets also imported free agent first baseman Eddie Murray and second baseman Willie Randolph, while trading McReynolds and Gregg Jefferies to the Royals for Bret Saberhagen. Harazin had remade the Mets into a potential playoff contender, but in the difficult transition from page to field would the Mets be able to translate that potential into positive results? In a word: No.
Bonilla got off to a fast start with the Mets in 1992, hitting .333/.472/.548 with two homeruns and ten RBI in his first twelve games. Unfortunately, the Mets were 5-7 in those games and quickly found themselves in fifth place in the NL East. Bonilla then went into a prolonged slump, hitting just .172/.300/.194 over the next 27 games. The Mets were a respectable 21-18 at that point, and a few days later they had actually crept to within a game of first place.
One streak replaced another for Bonilla, who went on a tear to the tune of .284/.369/.502 over the next 63 games. Unfortunately, the rest of the team went in the tank and the Mets were 5.5 games back of the Pirates on August 2nd when Bonilla landed on the disabled list with a fractured rib. Prior to the injury, during Bonilla's hot stretch the Mets' other key hitters were conspicuously dormant. Murray hit .243/.296/.391. HoJo hit .230/.341/.315. Daryl Boston hit .200/.250/.411.
Bonilla missed thirteen games on the DL, and the weight of the expectations carried by his unprecedented contract started getting to Bonilla. Teammate Willie Randolph explained Bonilla's situation as clearly as he could.
"I don't think he realized," Randolph said, "that the whole focus could end up on him. Getting off to a slow start at home, what was said -- that bothered him. I don't think he really enjoyed the position he was in. He said he knew what to expect, but, until you're there, you can't really know."
-- New York Times, 8/18/1992
Bonilla returned to action on August 19th after missing 13 games, but really struggled to get his bearings, hitting .207/.284/.457 over the next 26 games before ending his season on September 17 when he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder. During the surgery, the damage to Bonilla's shoulder area turned out to be considerably worse than initially thought. Team physician Dr. David Altchek had to repair a torn bicep and a "tear and detachment of the labrum in the shoulder". Following surgery, some were amazed that Bonilla carried on as long as he did given the extent of the damage in his arm and shoulder (not to mention the cracked rib).
Bonilla made a full recovery that offseason, but he ran into trouble with the New York media during spring training of 1993. Tired of the constant criticism that plagued him during his freshman season with the Mets, Bonilla made it clear to reporters that he wasn't going to sit idly by while they tore him apart.
"No one is going to tell me how to play the game," he said before going 0 for 3. "And the media definitely won't dictate what I can do and can't do."
Asked if one of the things he expected to do was wear earplugs again at Shea Stadium, Bonilla said: "It depends on how I feel, depends on what mood I'm in. Last year the opinions of others might have had an effect on what I chose to do. Not this year. I'm going to do what it takes to win."
-- New York Times, 3/12/1993
Bonilla got off to a slow start in 1993, hitting just .213/.304/.389 through his first 29 games. The rest of the team was with him all the way, though, as they got off to an 11-18 start, good for last place in the NL East and already 11.5 games back of the Phillies. Something clicked after that, though, and Bonilla hit .279/.365/.558 through his final 110 games of the season before a shoulder injury -- the left one this time -- caused him to miss the team's final 23 games. The Mets went 12-11 in those games, finishing the season 38 games behind Philadelphia.
That offseason, the Mets entertained offers for Bonilla from the Orioles, but decided to hang onto their enigmatic slugger when Baltimore declined to offer anything better than a package involving outfielder Mike Devereaux and first baseman David Segui. The Mets wound up trading for Segui anyway, parting with two minor leaguers to fill the hole at first base left by the departed Murray.
The Mets were awful again in 1994, but Bonilla had little to do with that, hitting .290/.374/.504 before everyone's season was derailed by the players' strike that canceled the last seven weeks of the season as well as the playoffs and the World Series. The strike lasted into the 1995 season, wiping out the Mets' first 18 games before play resumed on April 26. The time off must have done Bonilla some good, because he got off to a blazing start, hitting .349/.412/.642 through his first 30 games. He was hitting .325/.385/.599 on July 28, 1995, when he was finally shipped to Baltimore for Damon Buford and Alex Ochoa. Interestingly, the Orioles were initially reluctant to include Ochoa, preferring to package reliever Armando Benitez with Buford instead. But Mets general manager Joe McIlvaine held fast to his demands for Ochoa, and after watching their AL East rival Yankees deal for David Cone and Ruben Sierra, the Orioles pulled the trigger.
News of Bonilla's departure was met with mixed emotions.
Bonilla, who was brought in under a different regime, had a tumultuous three and a half years with the Mets. But he was also easily the Mets' best and most consistent player. And when news of the trade was flashed over the Shea Stadium scoreboard, the cheers and boos were evenly divided through the crowd of 17,354.
-- New York Times, 7/29/1995
Bonilla was mostly great with the Orioles and eventually the Marlins over the subsequent few seasons, and eventually found his way back to the Mets in the 1998 offseason when he was acquired from the Dodgers in exchange for Mel Rojas. He wasn't much of a hitter during that second tour of duty in New York, hitting .160/.277/.303 in 141 plate appearances. He almost didn't even make it through the season, as general manager Steve Phillips considered releasing Bonilla in order to diffuse the growing animosity between his outfielder and manager Bobby Valentine.
The Mets wound up hanging onto Bonilla, and they made the playoffs for the first time since 1988. Bonilla didn't see much playing time, however, going 0-for-1 with a walk in the LDS against the Diamondbacks and 1-for-3 in the NLCS against the Braves. The Mets lost the NLCS in six games and Bonilla was released the following offseason, drawing Phillips' ire by playing cards in the clubhouse with Rickey Henderson during the waning innings of that sixth game with the Braves. Bonilla spent 2000 with the Braves and 2001 with the Cardinals before hanging 'em up for good.
There were a lot of reasons for the failures of those early nineties Mets teams, but Bobby Bonilla wasn't one of them. He wasn't the perennial MVP candidate the Mets hoped they were getting when they opened the vault to bring him to Shea, but they really should have known that all along. His numbers weren't those of a terrific hitter. A very good hitter, sure, but his production at the plate paled in comparison to those of his former Pittsburgh teammate Barry Bonds. The Mets thought they were getting more than just a ballplayer in Bonilla, and perhaps that's where the biggest evaluative failure lies. Bonilla was being paid like an outstanding hitter even though everyone knew -- even at the time -- that he was merely a very good hitter whose personality was supposed to bridge the gap between goodness and greatness. When it didn't, the backlash was aimed at Bonilla instead of the more appropriate target, Al Harazin.
Bonilla is best remembered for his massive contract (that the Mets continue to bear the financial burden of), and is most often thought of unfavorably as a result. The reality is that the Mets shoved that money in front of Bonilla and he took it, and all he could manage in return was to be the best hitter the Mets had in each of the four years he served with them from 1992 through his deadline trade to the Orioles midway through the 1995 season. Bobby Bonilla wasn't a great player, but he was a very good player, even if he couldn't quite live up to the lofty expectations placed on him.