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Bonilla Chooses the Mets : Baseball: He becomes highest paid in the majors with a $29-million deal over five years. Angels were a close second.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bobby Bonilla followed his heart and found the richest contract in baseball history.

Bonilla became the game’s highest-paid player late Monday night, when he agreed with the Mets on a five-year contract that is guaranteed to pay him $29 million. Bonilla, who grew up in the Bronx, had been wooed by the Angels, Phillies, White Sox, Cubs and Pirates, but chose to return to New York, considering it his mission to disprove players’ complaints that New York City is a place to avoid.

“I have a real soft spot in my heart for New York. I grew up there and I had the opportunity to get out of the South Bronx,” said Bonilla, who has averaged 96 runs batted in for the Pirates the last five seasons. “It’s almost a storybook, so to speak, to be given this opportunity at this level . . . It’s a special place. I realize that very few people who do get the opportunity want to go there, but it’s very exciting to me. It bothers me to hear that people don’t want to play here . . .

"(Angel owners) Jackie and Gene Autry were extremely nice to me. It was a very difficult decision, but I’m sort of an East Coast guy and I like the change of seasons.”

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Bonilla’s agent, Dennis Gilbert, said, “The Angels ended up coming in a very close second. It was right there.” Gilbert said it was close enough for him to book Bonilla on an 8:35 a.m. flight to Los Angeles today to appear at a press conference.

Bonilla’s signing bonus and guaranteed salary total $27.5 million, surpassing the record set by Jose Canseco when he signed a five-year, $23.5-million deal with the Oakland Athletics. The agreement also includes a guarantee of $1.5 million in commercial endorsements and the Mets’ promise to make up the difference should Bonilla not receive that much in endorsement offers.

The agreement’s average annual value of $5.8 million eclipses the $5.38 million average annual value of the contract extension given to two-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens by the Red Sox.

Bonilla’s agreement consists of a signing bonus of $1.5 million and salaries of $5.5 million in 1992, $5.6 million in 1993, $5.7 million in 1994, $4.7 million in 1995 and $4.5 million in 1996. Bonilla also will receive a bonus of $100,000 if he finishes among the top three in most valuable player balloting, $250,000 if that occurs twice during the contract, $1 million if he does it three times and $2 million should it occur four times. He will also receive $200,000 from the Mets if he is traded.

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“I’m still not thrilled about doing five years,” Met General Manager Al Harazin said, “but to get a player we coveted we had to bite the bullet on the fifth year.”

The signing completed what Harazin called “a staggering parlay” of adding Eddie Murray and Bonilla to a team that finished a disappointing fifth in the NL East. It was not clear Monday where Bonilla would play or where he would hit in the Mets’ batting order, which already is stacked with switch-hitters Gregg Jefferies and Howard Johnson. Bonilla most often played right field last season but he has also played left field, first base and third base.

“I’ll hit ninth if we win,” said Bonilla, who jokingly volunteered to go to the Instructional League to learn another position if the Mets would give him meal money. “I’ve come to win. I’ve come to bring my enthusiasm. I know what it’s all about. I know what it takes to win. Jim Leyland (the Pirates’ manager) and his crew have fallen short the last two seasons and I know what it’s like.”

Bonilla said he believes the Mets can win the division title. “I felt with the pitching staff always up there in the stats, the name of the game is pitching and defense. That’s what it takes to win,” Bonilla said.

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Although Gilbert said Bonilla had received offers that were more lucrative, the Angels’ offer was not among them, according to Angel Senior Vice President Dan O’Brien. He also said the Angels did not alter their proposal, which, according to sources close to the negotiations, was $27.5 million for five years.

However, the Angels’ offer would have guaranteed the first three years--a total of $18.3 million--and given him an option to return for the final two years.

“Of course we’re all disappointed,” O’Brien said. “We lost him to his home town. That’s not the worst thing that could happen.”

O’Brien also said the Angels would meet to determine their next actions. “Our existing priority, and I don’t think that’s changed, is to re-sign Wally (Joyner), (Dick) Schofield and (Kirk) McCaskill,” O’Brien said.

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Bonilla’s signing is sure to spur increased action in the free-agent market, since most agents and players were waiting to see the standard set by Bonilla in order to scale their own demands. Among those sure to benefit by the raised ceiling are outfielder Danny Tartabull--likely to be the Angels’ next quarry--and Joyner, with whom the Angels have had bumpy negotiations.

Joyner has been discussing a four-year deal for $15 million to $16 million, but that price could rise given the Angels’ willingness to sign Bonilla for five years at an average annual value of more than $5 million.

“Apparently the money’s been available all along,” said Michael Watkins, one of Joyner’s agents. “We have to see what other clubs are interested. It’s a new market every day. Eddie Murray got a big contract (a two-year, $7.8 million deal with the Mets) and now Bonilla gets a big contract. It all trickles down . . .

“In a lot of areas, Wally is very comparable to Bobby. He doesn’t have Bobby’s raw power, but he’s comparable in batting average and other areas. Is Bobby worth $15 million more than Wally over the life of a contract? We’ll see.”

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Bonilla’s decision climaxed a frantic day of bidding and counter-bidding that eliminated all contenders but the Mets, Phillies and Angels by late afternoon.

Refusal to include a lockout clause also eliminated the Phillies. A knowledgeable Philadelphia source said Gilbert called the Phillies early Monday and said Bonilla wanted to play there, and then presented a list of conditions. Among them was an increase in the Phillies’ five-year, $25 million offer, a lockout clause and a no-trade provision. The source said the Phillies raised their offer to $26 million but wouldn’t meet the conditions.

Gilbert then called the Mets, who had already raised their initial offer of $24.5 million to $27 million. The sides began intense negotiations at about 1:30 p.m. PST and did not reach an agreement until about 8:30 p.m. Harazin said the final $1.5 million in salary was added Monday during those late talks.

Bonilla was happy with his good fortune, but not dazed. “My wife’s father can now cheer me and the team at the same time,” Bonilla said. “He used to cheer for me but not the Pirates when we came to New York. He’s a big Met fan and he’s really looking forward to it.”

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