An oft-forgotten fact about the Bobby Bonilla era with the New York Mets is that there were actually two Bobby Bonilla eras. The first one began in December 1991, when Bonilla, then 28 and a fourtime All-Star with the Pittsburgh Pirates, signed a five-year, $29 million contract— Major League Baseball’s most lucrative ever up to that point—to move to Queens and anchor the Mets offense.
The Bobby Bo who arrived in New York fresh off back-to-back National League East titles and back-to-back topthree MVP finishes was sunny and smiley and beloved—a big teddy bear, here to rescue the team that he and his surly co-star, Barry Bonds, had been brutally dismantling. Bonilla seemed like the perfect antidote to the PTSD from the Mets’ post-1986 World Series decline. Instead he became the face of what Mets beat writer Bob Klapisch dubbed “the worst team money could buy”: the 1993 Mets, 59-103, a record that doesn’t come close to capturing how disgraceful they were in the flesh. Eighteen months later he was gone in a trade to Baltimore. And good riddance, too. Good riddance all around.
So naturally, three years later, in November 1998, the Mets reacquired Bonilla in a trade with the Florida Marlins. The circumstances behind the holiday that Mets fans have come to know as Bobby Bonilla Day transpired at the end of Bonilla’s second stint in New York. Which is to say, the first Bobby Bonilla era was such a generational failure that the Mets refused to rest until they had topped it.
Even though he was 36 in 1999, and coming off an injury-plagued season, Bonilla returned to New York expecting to start. He did not. In fact he barely played at all, appearing in only 60 games and batting just .160, prompting him to declare that there would be “fireworks in the millennium” if he didn’t start in right field during the 2000 season (assuming the Y2K bug didn’t end the universe at the stroke of midnight, which it didn’t).
This was bound to be a problem, because the Mets had no intention of starting Bonilla in right field in 2000. Either way they were stuck with his $5.9 million contract, which was a ton of money for a reserve outfielder in 2000. In that moment the Mets would have done almost anything to give it to a really good pitcher and not Bobby friggin’ Bonilla.
Dennis Gilbert, Bonilla’s agent at the time, had Mets ownership by the throat. They could either pay Bonilla to poison their clubhouse next season, or they could pay him to go away quietly. Gilbert says the Mets approached him first and that authorship on a contract like that is impossible to untangle. “It wasn’t a five-minute call, put it that way,” he said with a laugh during an interview via FaceTime from one of the gardens on his estate in Malibu, Calif. He’s cagey about who had the original idea for the arrangement, but it was pretty clearly his. Soon after this deal, he went back to the insurance business because, he told me, there’s way more money in it than representing superstar professional athletes. Evidently he is right.
In any case, the idea could only have come from the mind of an insurance salesman: What if we defer the remaining money on Bonilla’s deal for a really long time, like a decade, and until then you don’t pay my client a cent—but then you start cutting him a big check every year for a much longer period of time? Like, say, 25 years. The Mets could spend Bonilla’s $6-ish million however they wanted, and then when he was in his 40s and retired and maybe his bank account could use the fresh influx, he and the Mets would be back in business together.
They haggled a bit on terms, and here’s where they landed: Bonilla leaves for nothing, now, as in, right this minute— GTFO—but starting in 2011, the Mets agree to pay him precisely $1,193,248.20 every July 1 for 25 years, until 2035, when he would be 72 years old. For the rest of his life, basically. That’s a grand total of $29.8 million, which is a lot more than $5.9 million. In exchange for waiting a decade to collect a penny, he was asking for an additional $24 million. It was an easy call for the Wilpon family. Their investment portfolio was booming. Their money guy was killing it. They could free up room in their budget and go get their front-line starter, and all they had to do was bankroll Bonilla’s retirement.
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