Why would a sports team pay $1.19 million to a 58-year-old who hadn’t played in Major League Baseball for two decades—and continue to do so through 2035? Good question.
The story of “Bobby Bonilla Day,” celebrated today and every July 1 for the next 14 years, provides an interesting look at the nexus of money and sport. It also shows the hapless modern history of the New York Mets, complete with an appearance of one of America’s most infamous swindlers.
Player in the Twilight of His Career
Bonilla, a Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent, enjoyed a long and fairly noteworthy career in the big leagues. A six-time All-Star, Bonilla, along with then-teammates Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke, helped propel the Pittsburgh Pirates to two straight division titles in 1990 and 1991.
Following the 1991 season, Bonilla became a free agent and left for the Mets. He spent four years with the team, followed by stints with the Baltimore Orioles, Florida Marlins (where he won a World Series in 1997), and Los Angeles Dodgers, until he returned to the Mets in 1999.
By this time, Bonilla had turned 36, and age plus persistent questions about his attitude and temperament had taken their toll. During the 1999 season, he played in 60 games, and obtained only 19 hits the entire year, batting an anemic .160. To top it off, during the 1999 National League Championship Series, Bonilla and a teammate reportedly played cards in the team’s clubhouse while the rest of the Mets were on the field fighting for their playoff lives, as part of “a show of defiance against manager Bobby Valentine.”
The Mets wanted to get rid of their aging, insolent player, so released Bonilla prior to the 2000 season. But they still owed him the $5.9 million left on his contract.
A Great Deal—And a Ponzi Scheme
Rather than buy out their released player’s contract with up-front cash, the Mets agreed to a deal proposed by Bonilla and his agent, Dennis Gilbert. In lieu of the $5.9 million payment in 2000, the Mets agreed to pay Bonilla
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