Bobby Bonilla

Why the Cardinals signed Bobby Bonilla in 2001

Bobby Bonilla may have twice finished in the top three of the National League MVP voting, but to many Cardinals fans, his greatest legacy may lie in the six games he missed at the beginning of the 2001 season.

On January 5, 2001, Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty signed Bonilla Bonilla to a one-year, $900,000 contract.[1] In the switch-hitting Bonilla, who turned 38 the following month, the Cardinals hoped to have found a pinch-hitting bench bat that could start against left-handed pitching.

In signing Bonilla and third baseman Shane Andrews and bringing back former Cardinals John Mabry and Bernard Gilkey all on the same day, Jocketty believed he had assembled a flexible bench for manager Tony La Russa.

“With the earlier addition of (Quinton) McCracken, we’ve achieved what we were trying to do,” Jocketty said. “We wanted to improve our speed off the bench with McCracken and we wanted to improve our power off the bench. With Bonilla and Andrews and potentially Gilkey and Mabry, we’ve done that. We’ve continued to improve our versatility that Tony likes with two switch-hitters in Bonilla and McCracken.”[2]

The Cardinals represented Bonilla’s eighth ballclub in 16 seasons. He made his major-league debut for La Russa’s White Sox in 1986, though La Russa was fired that June and Bonilla was traded to the Pirates that July.

In Pittsburgh, Bonilla enjoyed the best years of his career, batting .284 with 114 homers and 500 RBIs over six seasons. He placed second in the National League MVP voting in 1990 and finished third in 1991 before signing a free-agent deal with the Mets.

After he was traded to the Orioles in 1995, Bonilla bounced around the majors, winning a World Series with the 1997 Marlins before going to the Dodgers, returning to the Mets, and playing for the Braves in 2000. In Atlanta, he hit .255 with a .372 average in 43 at-bats against southpaws.

Bonilla’s .311 average against left-handed pitching in the previous five seasons had La Russa considering Bonilla as a pinch-hit option against right-handers (he hit .320 as a pinch hitter for the Braves in 2000) and a possible No. 5 hitter against lefties, where he could provide protection for cleanup hitter Mark McGwire.

“I think Ray (Lankford) can do a good job against right-handers, but we’re looking for somebody against left-handers to hit behind McGwire who’s respected. Bobby Bonilla is respected. A lot of people are afraid of him. Now, for this to happen, he’s got to stay healthy.”[3]

Leg injuries had limited Bonilla to 100 games in 1998 and just 60 games in 1999, when he hit just .160 for the Mets.

“Last year was the first time I said yes to the role,” Bonilla said. “Last year was the first year I accepted the role. In New York, that wasn’t my role. I don’t know what New York was all about. Put an asterisk next to that year. I know what my role is here, and I’ll have the best box seat in the house watching Big Mac.”[4]

Bonilla admitted that his lack of speed meant the Cardinals would often insert a pinch runner when he reached base.

“They’ll probably get my butt out of there as fast as they can,” he said.[5]

Members of the St. Louis media, however, were not laughing. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Jeff Gordon noted that both Bonilla and Andrews had poor defensive reputations, writing, that they “may be great guys to have on the Cardinals bench, but what happens when the team puts them in the field?”[6]

Gordon also took a shot at Bonilla’s conditioning in February, writing, “Will Bobby Bonilla report in tip-top shape to the Cardinals or will the club have to weigh him with a livestock scale?”[7]

Fellow Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz facetiously asked, “After a 21 percent increase in ticket prices, the best that the Cardinals can do for their fans is sign retreads Bobby Bonilla, John Mabry, Shane Andrews, and Bernard Gilkey? What, was Geronimo Pena unavailable?”[8]

Bonilla responded with a strong performance in spring training, hitting .389 with four home runs. La Russa was so impressed with Bonilla’s performance that he considered starting him in left field against Rockies lefthander Mike Hampton on opening day.

On March 24, however, Bonilla suffered a hamstring injury that limited his ability to run. With the regular season looming, Bonilla was placed on the disabled list.

“This is my first time doing something like this,” he said. “The only other time I hurt the hamstring was late in the season in 1997. I played through the postseason with it, but I didn’t get any treatment after that because I could just rest it all winter. This is different, so I’m having to listen to the trainers.”[9]

With Bonilla off the roster, rookie Albert Pujols was inserted into the Cardinals’ opening day lineup. Though Pujols went just 1-for-9 in his debut series at Colorado, he launched his first career home run on April 6. Pujols went on to hit .329 with 37 homers and 130 RBIs on his way to the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

On April 9, Bonilla returned from the disabled list just in time to play in the Cardinals’ home opener. After enjoying the St. Louis opening day festivities, Bonilla led off the ninth inning with a double and was replaced by pinch-runner J.D. Drew. Though Drew was erased from the base paths on a forceout, the Cardinals won the game a few at-bats later on a wild pitch.

On April 17, Bonilla made the only pitching performance of his career. With the Cardinals trailing 15-4 in the ninth inning, La Russa asked Bonilla to take the mound. Bonilla allowed a leadoff home run to Erubiel Durazo and an RBI single to Danny Bautista, but got Craig Counsell to ground into a double play to end the inning.

In June, Bonilla enjoyed perhaps the highlight of his Cardinals tenure when he hit a grand slam off White Sox left-hander Kelly Wunsch.

“I wasn’t trying to clear the bases, trust me,” said Bonilla, who had only been trying to lift a sacrifice fly to the outfield.[10]

On July 18, Bonilla singled against the Astros’ Roy Oswalt for the 2,000th hit of his career.

“It’s a pretty neat thing,” he said.[11]

Bonilla finished the season with a .213 batting average, five homers, and 21 RBIs in 174 at-bats. In February 2002, his agent, Dan Horwits, announced that Bonilla had retired.

“The further and further he got into the offseason, he just didn’t want to commit to a bench role,” Horwits said. “He just wanted to go on with his life.”[12]

“He’s been an everyday player. I don’t know if a limited role was that much fun for him,” La Russa said. “Because of his legs, that’s realistically the role he should really have. But when you’ve been an everyday player for so long, that’s a tough adjustment.”[13]

Bonilla finished his 16-year major-league career with a .279 career batting average. He totaled 2,010 hits, 287 homers, and 1,173 RBIs across 2,113 games.

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[1] Rick Hummel, “Bonilla, Mabry, Gilkey, Andrews agree to terms,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 6, 2001.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Bonilla, Mabry, Gilkey, Andrews agree to terms,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 6, 2001.

[3] Rick Hummel, “Bonilla might play roles at multiple positions,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 14, 2001.

[4] Rick Hummel, “Bonilla might play roles at multiple positions,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 14, 2001.

[5] Rick Hummel, “Bonilla might play roles at multiple positions,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 14, 2001.

[6] Jeff Gordon, “Tipsheet,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 8, 2001.

[7] Jeff Gordon, “Tipsheet,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 19, 2001.

[8] Bernie Miklasz, “Despite his behavior, it’s hard to root against Vermeil,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 13, 2001.

[9] Mike Eisenbath, “Bonilla’s status complicates late roster moves,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 30, 2001.

[10] Vahe Gregorian, “Cards go deep to get themselves out of hole,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 16, 2001.

[11] Rick Hummel, “Jocketty denies reports about offer for Astacio,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 19, 2001.

[12] Joe Strauss, “Pujols, Garcia shine in intrasquad action,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 27, 2002.

[13] Joe Strauss, “Pujols, Garcia shine in intrasquad action,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 27, 2002.