AN ACT OF PIRACY : Getting Bonilla Back Was a Steal

Times Staff Writer

He survived the asphalt jungle that is the South Bronx but was not selected in the baseball draft as a high school graduate.

He ultimately attracted attention on the unlikely diamonds of northern Europe, signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates as--choose one--an outfielder, a first baseman or a catcher, then broke a leg in the minor leagues and was picked up by the Chicago White Sox when the Pirates failed to protect him on their 40-man roster.

He went back to the Pirates in a trade for pitcher Jose DeLeon, the White Sox thinking they were getting a steal but now knowing they were fleeced.


At 25, in only his second full season, Bobby Bonilla will be the National League’s starting third baseman in Tuesday’s All-Star game.

He is a key man in the Pirates’ revival, a switch-hitting power hitter with Triple Crown potential if he can find enough pitchers willing to pitch to him.

That they are pitching around him with frustrating frequency, though, hasn’t dampened his joyful disposition.

“I’m the type who pinches himself every day,” Bonilla said, thinking back to where he came from and the strange odyssey by which he got to where he is.

“I mean, people talk about the pressure of playing in the big leagues, but where’s the pressure compared to growing up in a ghetto and looking for ways to get out?

“I’m talkin’ about houses burning and people starving, and I’m supposed to be tremblin’ playing the first-place Mets or . . . Dodgers? I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had. Sports has always been my release. I’d turn on the news as a kid and couldn’t wait for Warner Wolf. How many murders can you put up with in a day?


“I mean, all of that has helped me keep my perspective, has helped me keep a good fresh outlook on America’s No. 1 game.”

Or as Manager Jim Leyland said: “I’ve seen Bobby concerned at times, but I’ve never seen him down. I’ve never seen him pout or panic. You can’t tell if he went 0 for 4 or 4 for 4. He always comes to the park in good spirits.”

If Bonilla truly pinches himself, what about the Pirates?

Pittsburgh’s 6-foot 3-inch, 230-pound third baseman is fourth in the league with 17 homers, third in runs batted in with 57, 10th in batting at .298, seventh in on-base percentage, fourth in slugging percentage and fourth in total bases at 165.

A year ago, adjusting to third base while playing his first full season in the majors, Bonilla batted .300, hit 17 homers and drove in 77 runs. The Pirates changed his hand position on the bat, improving his power potential. Bonilla’s 1988 pace projects to 34 homers and 114 RBIs.

“I’ve made some healthy strides but I don’t think I’m done yet,” Bonilla said of his progress.

Added Leyland: “I said last year that within a couple years he’d be one of the premier players in the league. He’s beat the clock on that. He’s a quality player who’s getting better all the time. A year ago, he played on talent alone. Now he’s doing it on talent and know-how. His potential is unlimited.”

Roberto Martin Antonio Bonilla is of Puerto Rican ancestry. His father, Roberto Sr., is an electrician. His mother, Regina, a psychologist. They were divorced when Bobby was 8 and he lived with his mother, twin sisters Socorro and Milagros, and brother Javier. His father lived only five minutes away and remained an influential figure in his life.

“He was always there if I needed him,” Bonilla said. “He’d take me with him on his jobs to show me how hard he would have to work and he would say, ‘Is this what you want to do?’ I mean, one bolt of that electricity would knock you off the ladder. I’d say, ‘No dad. I’ll work at my baseball a little harder.’

“I had a strong drive to get out of the South Bronx. I could live there, but I wasn’t going to be stuck there. I had my sports. It kept me away from the drugs, the gangs. You didn’t have to look far to find trouble.”

He grew up in the Jackson Projects, about a mile from Yankee Stadium, an area known as the 40th Precinct by the police, whose reports show an average of 40 homicides a year, 25 to 30 robberies a month. It is an area so treacherous that Bonilla said he is reluctant to take his wife, Millie, whom he dated at Lehman High and married in 1986, when he returns.

But while others prowled the streets, Bonilla’s turf included the playgrounds at St. Mary’s or Catona Park. He played softball, stickball, spongeball. He learned to switch-hit by imitating his two favorite players, left-handed batting Chris Chambliss of the Yankees and right-handed Tommie Agee of the Mets.

At Lehman High, in his final two years, driven by Coach Joe Levine to improve his intensity and get to school on time, Bonilla played every position and estimated that he hit .500. But he wasn’t selected in the June draft of 1981.

“I wasn’t surprised and I wasn’t disappointed,” he said. “I don’t ever remember many kids from the inner city being drafted. I didn’t figure it was the end of my chances. My plan was to go to a college where I could be a walk-on (a non-scholarship player) and study computers.”

He enrolled briefly at New York Technical College, but Levine arranged for him to accompany an all-star team to Europe and began a “Bobby Fund” to help him pay for it. Bonilla said he still gets speechless when he tries to express appreciation for the interest that his high school coach took in him, comparing Levine to a second father.

“I’m not where I am today if it wasn’t for him,” Bonilla said.

The trip took Bonilla to Denmark, Sweden and Finland. Syd Thrift, a former scouting director of the Kansas City A’s who is now general manager of the Pirates but was involved primarily in real estate at the time of the trip, served as coordinator and instructor.

“It was the season of the midnight sun,” Thrift recalled. “We all slept in one big room. There were no shades on the windows and the sun never set. It was the most bizarre thing you ever saw.”

The conditions, Thrift said, didn’t blind him to Bonilla’s potential. He said Bonilla’s character was as impressive as his ability. And when the trip ended, Thrift called Branch Rickey Jr., then minor league director of the Pirates, telling him that he had the name of a legitimate prospect but would reveal it only if the Pirates agreed to sign him without question.

“I didn’t want anyone saying they’d seen him and didn’t like him,” Thrift said. “I didn’t want Bobby being put on trial.”

Pete Gebrian, the Pirates’ area scout, was sent to sign Bonilla. Thrift’s description of Bonilla’s size, speed and strength was satisfactory. But spongeball and Sweden had not prepared Bonilla for the minor leagues.

“I was a baby in a lot of ways,” Bonilla said. “I had to learn how to cope while wanting to be home. I earned $650 a month and spent $200 calling Millie. She picked up a lot of slack. She kept my head straight.”

Bonilla spent two consecutive years in a rookie league, hitting .217 and .228. He hit .256 with 11 homers in Class A and .264 with 11 homers in double-A. He got a spring trial with the Pirates in 1985, broke a leg in a collision with Bip Roberts as they chased a foul pop-up and recovered in time to play only 39 games during another summer in Class A, where he met Barry Bonds, now the Pirates’ center fielder and his closest friend.

The 1985 season ended with the Pittsburgh organization in transition. Thrift was hired a month earlier, but the sweeping youth movement had yet to start. The roster was frozen already, and Bonilla wasn’t on it, the Pirates thinking no one would take a chance on a player coming off a broken leg.

It was a mistake. Bonilla went to the Puerto Rican winter league, hit well and with power, and was drafted by the White Sox for $50,000.

“That was an awful gamble that I had nothing to do with,” Thrift said. “How many switch-hitters are there who have power and can run?”

Bonilla opened the 1986 season with the White Sox, playing first base for the injured Greg Walker and later platooning in left field. Manager Tony LaRussa also encouraged him to take ground balls at third base, but LaRussa was fired before the All-Star break, and General Manager Hawk Harrelson soon traded Bonilla to the eager Thrift for DeLeon, who had succumbed to the Pirates’ long summers and fallen into a hard-luck rut.

“Every time he went out to pitch, it was like he was returning to the scene of the accident,” Thrift said. “I had told the world that I would get him out of that environment as soon as I could, and I had promised myself that I would get Bonilla back if the opportunity presented itself. I’m sure Hawk was surprised that I didn’t ask for more. I’m sure he felt that he had made a steal, and I can’t blame him for that.”

Now, in Chicago, the trade is being compared to the lamentable exchange in which the Cubs sent Lou Brock, the future stolen base king, to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Ernie Broglio.

Bonilla was hitting .269 with 2 homers when the deal was completed on July 23, 1986. He had demonstrated none of his current power, but he looked back and said, “It takes awhile to learn how to hit up here. There are things I’m still learning.”

Some of them deal with playing third base. Leyland, who consulted LaRussa before initiating the move late in the ’86 season, said of Bonilla:

“I knew he had great hands and a great arm. He’s a good runner, but not a great runner, and we play on turf, so we need speed in the outfield. You’ve got to be a little creative. Sometimes you strike it rich.”

Said Bonilla: “I’m a long way from being the type of third baseman I want to be. Sometimes I sparkle. Sometimes they must say to themselves, ‘Let’s get him back in the outfield.’ ”

Said infield coach Tommy Sandt: “Last year, he looked like an outfielder playing the infield. Now he looks like an infielder playing where he should be.”

Bonilla is still best in the batter’s box. He has hit seven homers into the upper deck at Three Rivers Stadium. Willie Stargell is the only other player to have reached that level.

Bonilla is also the only Pirate to have ever homered from both sides of the plate in the same game, connecting last year off Fernando Valenzuela and Ken Howell of the Dodgers before doing it again recently off the Philadelphia Phillies’ Kevin Gross and Jeff Calhoun.

Bonilla has become something of a tape-measure legend, but he listed Will Clark, Eric Davis and Andres Galarraga among the National League hitters with “real clout” and said, “Those are guys capable of hitting 40 homers year. I’m more in the 20-to-25 range. I’m more of a line-drive hitter who will hit it a long way only if I get it airborne.

“I mean, home runs are nice, but I concentrate on driving in runs. I think driving in 100 or more runs is what I’m all about.”

The last month has become a test of Bonilla’s patience and discipline. He was batting .342 May 31, but is hitting .298 as the Pirates open a three-game series at Dodger Stadium tonight. He has 2 hits in his last 21 at-bats and 4 homers since June 1, a 33-game span in which he has drawn 16 walks, 6 intentional.

He is seeing bad pitches, if he sees any pitches at all.

“Frustrated? No,” Bonilla said.

“If you’re going to drive in runs, discipline is important. You can’t press, you can’t start changing your strike zone or you’ll start swinging at bad pitches. I’ll take the walks. I mean, if they don’t want you driving in runs, then you’ve got to let the guy behind you try and you’ve got to do it with a smile. One guy isn’t going to win a pennant, neither are nine. You can’t do it without all 24.”

A few walks, a little frustration here or there, obviously aren’t going to remove that smile or cost Bonilla his perspective. Neither, he says, will success. He said he takes pride in seeing his name among the league’s offensive leaders but knows it means nothing until all 162 games have been played, at which point “it becomes important in the sense that you can tell yourself, ‘Hey, if I did it once, I know I can do it again.’ ”

How far has he come? The All-Star vote in which he unseated Mike Schmidt as the National League third baseman is a good measure. No one voted for him in the draft of ’81. No one but Bobby Bonilla displayed the conviction then that he would play anywhere except the South Bronx.