Lights Are Brighter, and the Heat Hotter

If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,

It’s up to you, New York, New York!

From “New York, New York,” by Fred Ebb and John Kander


Yeah, but what if you don’t make it there?

It’s possible. Just ask Robert Martin Antonio Bonilla. Before coming to New York a year ago, Master Bonilla was a Star with a capital S. He had just batted .302 for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he had driven in 100 runs for the third time in his career. He had driven in 120 runs the year before with 32 home runs.

He was part of the best 1-2 punch in baseball. He and Barry Bonds had terrorized National League pitching with barrages of homers, doubles, runs batted in, and the “B & B” connection was no after-dinner cordial for any pitcher but a major league hangover instead.

But that was all in Pittsburgh. So far as Broadway is concerned, those were only tryouts--out-of-town openings. They don’t count. In the sticks, baby. You have to do it at the Palace, not on the straw-hat circuit.


So, they gave Bobby Bonilla every chance. They gave him a week. With daily options.

Now, Bobby Bonilla is not Babe Ruth, Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. He’s not even Barry Bonds--as Barry Bonds will tell you. The critics hop on you early in New York. You better have the second act ready before you open there.

The Mets gave Bobby Bonilla a $29-million contract. So, the natives were restless before he got there. Guys in the bleachers making $5 an hour are not used to rooting for millionaires. Particularly when the millionaires bat .249. You can get a guy to do that at scale, is New York’s attitude. You don’t import .249 shows. You don’t stay open on Broadway with flops.

New York is not a place that holds in resentment. It’s not your basic laid-back American community. It’s where cops bark at you, cabbies honk at you. The town motto should be, “Can’t you see I’m busy!” It’s a city that never sleeps and doesn’t let you, either.

Bobby Bo walked into this setting like Little Red Riding Hood into grandma’s. About a dozen teams were after him. He chose New York himself. He could have gone to Seattle--and they would have baked cakes for him. New York, which is good at it, set to work making him feel unwelcome. Anybody who has ever asked a native for directions knows the feeling.

Bobby Bo didn’t have that bad a year. It was hardly a $29-million year--or even a $5.8-million year after the contract was broken down. His average was terrible but his home runs, 19, were respectable for 128 games. He drove in 70 runs.

But he hit only .214 at home. He bombed on Broadway.

The papers got into the act. “Bobby Bogus!” screamed the tabloid headlines. “Give the money back!” urged the self-appointed guardians of the baseball treasury.

Part of the problem is, Bobby Bonilla, despite having been born and raised there, is not a New York type. He smiles a lot, frowns very little. He’s about as controversial as a box lunch. He enjoys playing baseball.

For $29 million, you’re supposed to look as if you’re in constant pain. It’s even advisable to play with a snarl. This never came as any great chore to New York guys like Leo Durocher or Frankie Crosetti. Eddie Murray was perfect for New York. Bobby Bonilla was like a tourist.

I sat with Bobby Bonilla the other day in a dugout at Dodger Stadium. Why did he want to go to New York--stick his head in the lion’s mouth? I wanted to know. Why not stay in Pittsburgh where he was a hero? Or go some place where he might be a hero?

“Was I surprised (at his New York reception)? Well, yes,” Bonilla acknowledges. “But, New York is New York. It takes a special type of person to handle it there.

“In Pittsburgh, we did everything right. We played the game right. If you had a game where you didn’t do it, somebody else would. Here, things went wrong right from the start. And New York doesn’t take kindly to things going wrong. “

So, why did he go to New York? Bonilla looks surprised.

“Because I’m from there. Because I wanted to play in front of my father. Family is important.

“Yes, I played there when I was with Pittsburgh. But three times a year isn’t enough. I could have gone elsewhere. It’s easy to stay away. Being an absentee father is easy. But I want my father to get to know his granddaughter. I want my family around. We’re going to have a child, and I want my children brought up around family.”

A few boos are a small price to pay for peace of mind in family life?

Bonilla, who wore ear plugs to games in Shea Stadium last year, smiles. “Anything is a small price to pay for that,” he says. “I’m not a negative person. I’m not suicidal. I enjoy the game too much for that. I wish more guys could come to the ballpark and enjoy the game. “As a kid growing up, I used to look up to the New York guys. I always thought they were the cream of the crop. I went to see Mickey Mantle. I thought this was the place you wanted to be.”

Fan abuse is not restricted to New York. It’s just been brought to its highest refinement there. But at least, New York fans care. Fans in other towns sometimes watch ballgames as if they were Busby Berkeley musicals. The New York fan is like an Italian at the opera. You better get it right.

Bobby Bonilla has been getting it right this year. He is hitting a respectable .255 (.270 right-handed) and has 92 hits for 177 total bases with 21 home runs. He has cheerfully gone back to third base after years in the outfield.

“I’ll play wherever they want me,” he says cheerfully.

“The problem is not me,” he insists. “I had 20 home runs by the All-Star break, but the team was still 30 games behind in the standings. So, it can’t be all me.”

Try telling that to New York. The team is 28 games behind? New York doesn’t take that lying down. That’s got to be someone’s fault. If I were Bobby Bo, I wouldn’t throw those ear plugs away just yet. I mean, what do they think New York is, San Diego?