#CardCorner: 1988 Fleer Bobby Bonilla
In between, the slugging kid from the South Bronx hit all the highs and lows that baseball could offer.
Born Feb. 23, 1963, Bonilla – whose parents moved to the Bronx from Puerto Rico before he was born – grew up about a mile away from Yankee Stadium and turned to sports as a way to seek a better life. Bonilla starred on the diamond in high school but went unselected when he became eligible for the MLB Draft in 1981.
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But his high school coach, Joe Levine, had other ideas when Bonilla enrolled in college with plans to study computer science. Levine arranged for Bonilla to join an all-star squad that would play ball in Europe that summer and helped Bonilla pay the costs associated with travel.
“I’m not where I am today if it wasn’t for him,” Bonilla told the Los Angeles Times in 1988.
Syd Thrift, who had helped found the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy in the 1970s but was then working in real estate, coordinated the trip to Europe. Based on Thrift’s recommendation, the Pirates signed Bonilla on July 11, 1981, and sent him to their rookie ball affiliate in the Gulf Coast League.
Bonilla spent two nondescript seasons in rookie ball, but began to emerge as a prospect in 1983 when he scored 88 runs to go with 11 homers, 59 RBI and 28 stolen bases for the Class A Alexandria Dukes of the Carolina League.
He was promoted to Double-A in 1984, posting similar numbers with 74 runs scored, 11 homers, 71 RBI and 15 steals in the pitcher-friendly Eastern League. The Pirates invited Bonilla to their Spring Training camp in Bradenton, Fla., in 1985 – but the opportunity turned into injury when Bonilla broke a bone in his right leg after colliding with teammate Bip Roberts during a “B” game against the Kansas City Royals.
The setback limited Bonilla to 39 games at Class A Prince William (where the Alexandria franchise had moved) in 1985. Following the season, the Pirates decided not to include Bonilla on their 40-man roster – and the White Sox grabbed him in the Rule 5 Draft.
“That was an awful gamble I had nothing to do with,” said Thrift, who had become the Pirates general manager about a month before the 1985 Rule 5 Draft.
But Thrift would soon correct the team’s mistake. Bonilla got regular playing time with the White Sox at first base and left field, needing to stay on Chicago’s roster or be offered back to the Pirates. After hitting .269 with two homers and 26 RBI in 75 games, Bonilla went back to Pittsburgh when Thrift offered Jose DeLeon – a talented and often hard-luck pitcher – in a one-for-one deal that was consummated on July 26, 1986.
“I’m the type who pinches himself every day,” Bonilla told the L.A. Times in 1988. “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 talking about houses burning and people starving, and I’m supposed to be trembling playing the first place Mets…or Dodgers?
“I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum