Bobby Bonilla Was A Better Met Than You Remember
If you ask people about Bobby Bonilla‘s time with the Mets, there is nothing but negativity associated with his tenure. There is the annual consternation over his deferred payments. His last ever act as a member of the team was playing cards in the clubhouse with Rickey Henderson as Kenny Rogers walked Andruw Jones. He wore earplugs to drown out the booing, and generally speaking, he was cantankerous.
Truth be told, Bonilla was not well suited to playing in New York either when he was a 29 year old or when he was a 36 year old. However, sometimes we over-focus on negatives like this to overlook the positives.
Bonilla signing with the Mets was supposed to usher in a new era of Mets baseball. A team who never truly forayed into free agency made the highly coveted Bonilla the highest paid player in the game. Bonilla, who grew up a Mets fan, was coming home to play for his favorite team. At least on the first day he wore a Mets uniform, it seemed like this marriage was going to go great.
On Opening Day, Bonilla hit two homers against the hated Cardinals helping the Mets win 4-2. It was exactly what fans expected from him and that team. However, things quickly unraveled for that Mets team who would be dubbed The Worst Team Money Could Buy. From there things went bad, and they went bad quickly.
Bonilla slumped mightly in May while the Mets. Even when he picked it back up in June, a Mets team who was well in contention fell completely apart. With Bonilla having an awful May and his being the highest paid player in the game, he faced the brunt of the criticism. Unlike Carlos Beltran who went from maligned in 2005 to superstar in 2006, Bonilla never quite recovered.
Part of the reason is the Mets were plain bad. To that end, it’s not his fault the Mets plan was ill conceived. Howard Johnson was not an outfielder. Other players like Eddie Murray and Willie Randolph were over 35. Bret Saberhagen and John Franco were injured. Anthony Young was in the middle of his MLB record losing streak. The bigger issue is Bonilla handled it poorly, and then he was terrible at the end of the year hitting just .196 over the final two months of the season.
While stats like this weren’t used regularly in 1992, the 1.2 WAR was the worst he had since his rookie year. The 121 wRC+ was his worst since his second year in the league. Bonilla and that 1992 Mets team was a huge disappointment, and Bonilla’s image never quite recovered.
What gets lost in the criticism is Bonilla did rebound. From 1993 – 1995, he averaged a 3.1 WAR, and he was a 138 OPS+ hitter. He hit .296/.371/.537 while averaging 27 homers and 84 RBI over that stretch. He would make two All-Star teams, and Bonilla proved to be a bit of a team player willingly moving to third base for stretches when Johnson was injured.
Bonilla’s true breakout season with the Mets came in 1995. He was mashing the ball hitting .325/.385/.599 (151 OPS+) when he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles. Really, this is what the Mets envisioned they were going to get with him. It just took a longer period of adjustment for him to get there.
Overall, in the first stint of his Mets career, Bonilla hit .277/.361/.505 with a 130 wRC+ amassing a 9.7 WAR. That was not that bad, and to a certain extent, on the field, you could say he lived up to the contract. No, he did not live up to expectations, but to be fair, he was never surrounded with the talent to help him do that.
When you look at his entire Mets career, he ranks as the fifth best Mets RF by WAR. The four players ahead of him played more games with the Mets. Among players with at least 500 games played, he is the Mets second best hitting right fielder, and he is tied for sixth as the best Mets hitter of all-time.
At least on the field, that is not a player worth as much derision as he receives. No, on the field he was good but not great Mets player. On the field, he did nothing to deserve scorn.
Off the field is a whole other matter. His adversarial nature with the press did nothing to help him. Mets fans are never going to forgive him playing poker while they were crushed by the ending of Game 6. No one is saying you should.
Rather, the suggestion here is Bonilla be remembered for being the good player he actually was. If you want, you can also opt to remember him a little more warmly as his accepting the buyout led to the Mets having the money to obtain Mike Hampton in a trade. That helped the Mets get a pennant, and when Hampton left for Colorado, the Mets used that compensatory pick to draft David Wright.
All told, the Mets were far better off having Bonilla as a part of the Mets organization as you may have realized.