Bobby Bonilla drew interest from Phillies after 1991 season
By Matt Rappa
‘Bobby Bonilla Day’ would have never existed had the slugger signed with the Phillies and not the Mets following the 1991 season
Today is July 1, meaning the crazy year of 2020 is halfway complete. But, for the Philadelphia Phillies’ division rival New York Mets, the date more so affects their wallet each year over anything else.
Bobby Bonilla has not played in Major League Baseball since October 2001. Yet, he is still making $1.2 million a year through 2035, when he will be 72 years of age. Dubbed “Bobby Bonilla Day,” the Mets pay Bonilla this hefty paycheck each July 1.
Bonilla, 57, began earning these annual payments in 2011. After his second stint with the Mets in 1999, the organization wanted to part ways with him, however, he had nearly $6 million left on his contract.
After negotiating with Bonilla’s agent Dennis Gilbert, the Mets agreed to buy out the remaining salary through annual deferred payments of nearly $1.2 million for 25 years, with an 8% interest, starting July 1, 2011.
The reason the Mets did not just pay out Bonilla in full was that their owner Fred Wilpon, at the time, was invested in a Bernie Madoff account. ESPN writes that the account promised Wilpon “double-digit returns over the course of the deal,” and that they were “poised to make a significant profit if the Madoff account delivered.”
Of course, it never did, as Wilpon was a victim of Madoff’s infamous Ponzi scheme. And, Bonilla still benefits, regardless, earning nearly $30 million in total.
Throughout his career, Bonilla played for the Chicago White Sox (1986), Pittsburgh Pirates (1986-91), Mets (1992-95, 1999), Baltimore Orioles (1995-96), Florida Marlins (1997-98), Los Angeles Dodgers (1998), Atlanta Braves (2000), and St. Louis Cardinals (2001).
After his successful stint with the Pirates, Bonilla entered free agency following the 1991 season in which he notched a career-best .302 batting average and .391 on-base percentage. The Pirates finished first in the East with 98 wins, while the 78-win Phillies came in third behind their Pennsylvania state rival and the 84-win St. Louis Cardinals.
At the time, it had been five years since the Phillies last had a winning season; and, the organization and gone through as many different managers in the process: John Felske, Lee Elia, John Vukovich, Nick Leyva, and Jim Fregosi.
“If there seems to be a sense of urgency now, that’s as it should be,” writes Frank Dolson in The Philadelphia Inquirer’s November 1991 article. “These things go in cycles. From 1975 through 1984, no Phillies team finished under .500. Since then, only one Phillies team has finished over .500. It is time to start a new cycle.”
Seeking to turn the franchise around, the Phillies entered the Bonilla sweepstakes. And, according to Dolson, they had “at least a 50-50 chance of earning the privilege of paying the most attractive of [1991’s] free agents $5 million or so a year for the next five years.”
Dolson continues: “Of course, such privileges do not come easy. The Mets and the Angels, among others, also are lining up to do fiscal battle for Bonilla.”
As it turned out, the Mets ultimately landed Bonilla; he played there until 1995, and returned in 1999, before the Mets negotiated the deferred deal that still reaches headlines in 2020.
The Phillies did not necessarily feel down they did not ink the slugger, as they would reach the World Series just two seasons later under Fregosi.
Due to a shortened 2020 season, players are earning only a percentage of their would-be full salaries; Bonilla will earn more this year than the following 12 current Phillies, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Corey Seidman: Rhys Hoskins, Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, Adam Haseley, Roman Quinn, Adam Morgan, Tommy Hunter, Jose Alvarez, Andrew Knapp, Seranthony Dominguez, Ranger Suarez, and Nick Williams.
The 16-year veteran slugger in Bonilla earned six All-Star appearances, three Silver Slugger awards, and a 1997 World Series championship with the Marlins; in total, he hit 287 home runs, 1,173 RBI, and slashed .279/.358/.472.