Clowns to the left of me
Jokers to the right
Here I am
Stuck in the middle with you
Just to remind you of where we've been on this journey, I recently set out to flag, tag and mark the sole resident of the Sixth Circle of Met Hell. I had to take an elevator DOWN to the 1979th floor of M. Donald Grant's personal favorite lodging, the Windsor Hotel in Montreal. Then I had to steer my way further DOWN the Hallway to Hell. Led by my .000-batting guide, Sergio Ferrer, I discovered the object of my quest waiting behind Door No. 3.
I dug deep and found Richie Hebner.
With Hebner identified and safely ensconced in his own resentful juices, mission accomplished. Or so I thought. I was looking forward to a nice, relaxing flight back to New York when I found myself squeezed into the middle seat between two almost identical large men. I looked around the cabin and realized we were the only three passengers in coach, and wondered why Air Canada saw fit to issue boarding passes that covered only one row on one side of the aisle. I knew from personal experience that Air Canada was no bargain, but I didn't remember it being quite this Hellish.
But I wasn't flying Air Canada. I was flying Air Harazin.
I've really got to check my boarding pass more closely.
Air Harazin is a terrible airline. They overpromise on everything and they underdeliver like crazy. What's more, they're supersmarmy about it.
“Hi, I'm Steve, your flight attendant.” I looked up and there was a sandy-haired, smarmy man with a beverage cart. He laid a napkin on my tray table and on top of it, a V8.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but I didn't ask for a V8.”
“Well, it's what you're getting. I know what you want.” Then he tossed me a bag of honey-roasted peanuts. I hate honey-roasted peanuts.
“I didn't want this either.”
Steve the flight attendant walked away without acknowledging a thing I said. They don't usually do the beverage service before takeoff, but with Air Harazin, it's always a bumpy ride, so they're not sticklers for regulations. Either way, I didn't want this beverage or this snack, but it didn't matter. The guy in the window seat grabbed the V8. The guy on the aisle took my peanuts.
It was going to be a long flight.
“Folks,” came the voice from the cockpit, “welcome to Air Harazin. I'm Captain Torborg. We know you had your choice of airlines…ah, who am I kidding? You're here because you came looking for the Seventh Circle of Met Hell, and Air Harazin is the only airline that flies there without having to connect in Pittsburgh. In fact — and this is the kicker — this is the Seventh Circle of Met Hell, Flight 6667. To drill that point home, we're not actually going anywhere for quite a while. We're just going to circle. So buckle up and endure the ride. Your flight attendant Steve will be back through the main cabin in a little bit with your headsets.”
With that, we took off. It was turbulent. Captain Torborg didn't seem like much of a pilot, so I fastened my seat belt tight. Not that there was much of risk of hurtling through the cabin. Wedged as I was between my seatmates, it was going to be tough to get up at all during this flight.
Flight Attendant Steve came back with the headsets. Well, they weren't headsets. They were more like earplugs. The window seat guy said “gimme” and grabbed a pair. He placed a plug in each ear like he had done it before. He was a real pro with the earplugs. The aisle seat guy was fairly non-responsive. I would've liked a pair myself but Steve wouldn't give me one. Just another V8 (Captain Torborg had a thing about prohibiting alcohol) and another bag of honey-roasted peanuts. They too were scarfed by up the guys to my left and right.
“Man,” said Mr. Window Seat. “These are good earplugs. It's like I can't hear nothin' nobody's sayin' about me.”
“Really?” I asked out of reluctant politeness.
He didn't respond. The earplugs were that effective. They plugged up his ears real good, but that didn't stop him from talking on his own terms. Though I stopped being polite, he didn't shut up. Started telling me his life story between sips of my V8s (Steve just kept bringing them).
Let's see, what did I learn? That he was from the Bronx, originally. Said he'd show it to me sometime. That it was always his dream to work in Queens. Then he laughed like a hyena because, he said, he never could say that with a straight face. “Seriously, man, it was always my dream to get a lot of money.” He went on to tell me that he got paid lots of money, that he could be in first-class if this particular plane, the Seventh Circle of Met Hell, had first-class. Told me I was lucky he was talking to me because he was known for not talking to people when he decided they were doing something he didn't like, though all I was doing was sitting between him and his near-doppelganger, listening to him drone on and watching him drink the beverage I didn't want.
“Y'know something else about me? I'm spot-on about taking credit and assigning blame.” I noticed he had removed the Airfone from its cradle and was pushing buttons. “Hey, Jay?” he shouted into it. “It says E-9. That's got to be wrong!” Since he didn't slide a credit card in to make it operable, I didn't think he was actually talking to anybody, but he got a big laugh out of it.
“Y'know what else about me? I can't be stopped. There was this one time some dude gave me the stop sign. I said I don't have to listen to that. I just kept running. Ha! Showed him!” The dude was really amused by this.
At last he took the earplugs out and addressed me directly. “So,” he asked, “what do you think of me?”
Before I could say a word, he got up to go the lavatory. I assumed that was where he was going. I was going to rise to get out into the aisle to let him out, but the guy in the aisle seat wouldn't move and the guy in the window seat didn't care. He just stepped all over me. He cackled his way toward the back of the plane. I heard piano music and more cackling. Turns out Air Harazin had a lounge on board. Who knew?
This left me alone with the sullen character in the aisle seat. Since he didn't say much, I didn't think this was a bad deal. However, he chose this moment to start talking.
“Hey,” he said while poking me in the ribs. “Got any more of those honey-roasted peanuts.”
“Uh, no. You ate 'em all.”
“Man, this airline sucks. When they bringin' out some meat?”
I didn't know so I didn't say anything. Hadn't seen Flight Attendant Steve in a while. I think I heard him in the lounge being slapped by one his female associates.
“That guy, huh?” the aisle seat passenger said. “Some piece of work.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Me, I don't care all that much about anything. I'm happy to show up and get paid and maybe complain if things don't go the way I want them to or get into a fight with the boss or maybe with one of the customers. Otherwise I don't care what happens.” He reached into the pouch on the seat in front of him. “Hey, cards! Wanna play?”
I didn't really want to play cards with this guy, but there was nothing else to do. The only book I had brought with me, The Worst Team Money Could Buy was one I'd read too many times. With the window seat passenger up, however, I just noticed we had those seatback TVs like on JetBlue. Mine was tuned to ESPN Classic. It was showing Game Six of the 1999 National League Championship Series, the most exciting game I ever watched. Forget the cards, I was going to get wrapped up in this.
The picture went blank.
“Nah, don’t watch that,” the aisle seat guy said. “Let's play cards instead. I'd rather do that.”
“Well maybe I wanted to watch it.”
“Nah, I don't care.” He began dealing.
“You don't, do you?”
“Y'know, you look a lot like the guy who got up to go the bathroom or wherever he went.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot.”
“You do?” I had a lousy hand. I don't know what we were playing, but I could tell.
“Sure. Y'know why?”
“'Cause I'm him.”
“I'm him. Me and him, we're the same guy.”
“No wonder you look so much alike.”
“I didn't know we were playing gin.”
“We're not. I just remembered I brought a flask with me.” He had himself a swallow. Didn't offer me any.
It was my turn to shuffle and deal. I mostly shuffled since it was never made clear to me what we were playing.
“How is it you and him are the same person?”
“Well, he's Bobby Bonilla from 1992 to 1995 and I'm Bobby Bonilla from 1999.”
“Oh, I get it! He's Bobby Bo from his first time with the Mets and you're Bobby Bo from his second time with the Mets.”
“You got it.”
I began to deal…five, six, seven cards apiece. I lost track.
“You're not just one person.”
“No, but we're basically two of a kind. Just like I have here. Go fish.”
I didn't know we were playing Go Fish. “Could you please explain how this works?”
“No, how you and him are each Bobby Bonilla?”
“Easy. One of us would be pretty bad, right?”
“You don't want to bet me. I'm getting paid into perpetuity, so eventually I'll win. But yes, the Bobby Bonilla you remember from 1992 to 1995 was a general pain in the ass, wouldn't you say?”
“I mean he was one of the real bad guys. You had a lot of hope for him, coming over as he was from the Pirates as the big free agent catch of 1991.”
“And it was a big deal that he was from New York and grew up rooting for the Mets.”
“I heard him say that on Kiner's Korner once.”
“Sure. But the whole thing backfired.”
Bobby Bonilla '99 had just put me in a very bad place. I was jetting back in my mind to the winter of '91 when one by one Al Harazin was collecting big names. The Mets had had a bad finish to what had looked like another good year. They were 53-38 a little after the All-Star break and there was no reason to believe they wouldn't chase or even catch the Pirates in the second half. The Mets had finished first or second (mostly second) every year since 1984. This was business as usual. But all at once the bottom fell out of 1991. They finished 77-84. Elias said only three other teams to that point had fallen so far so fast.
Signed for $29 million over five years, Bonilla was going to change all that. He was going to drive in runs and lead the team. Indeed, he drove in far fewer than he had as a Bucco and led the team down a hole. His misdeeds and personality traits are legendary. There would have been no Worst Team Money Could Buy without him. From the media boycott he led in his first spring training to the earplugs he wore to drown out the fans' vocalizing their opinion of him to his calling the press box to change his error to somebody else's hit during a game to his threatening one of the authors of the aforementioned book with a tour of the city's northernmost borough to his disregard for third base coach Mike Cubbage — figures the only time he ran hard was when he was running through a stop sign in plenty of time to be thrown out at home — Bobby Bo was emblematic of his Met era the way Keith Hernandez was emblematic of his. That was a problem.
Yet the Bobby Bonilla of 1992 to 1995 also had some big moments. Not a lot, but just enough to allow one to occasionally look past his wretched behavior. He did hit two homers on his first night, the second winning the '92 Opener in St. Louis, though that was actually kind of mean since all it did was tease us. He did show up Rob Dibble but good on a Sunday night that August with a walkoff blast that made Dibble look like a far worse person than Bonilla. A year later, he was the '93 Mets' lone All-Star. That's sort of like being voted Humanitarian of the Decade by Jeffrey Dahmer, but he had raised his game: 34 homers, 87 ribbies. He managed to maintain that level of performance in strike-shortened '94 and made the All-Stars again in '95. Bobby Bonilla was doing so well (.984 OPS through 80 games) that he was desired by teams who were in a playoff hunt. The Mets, no longer viewing themselves as one of those clubs, sent him to Baltimore for Alex Ochoa and Damon Buford.
Bobby Bonilla seemed to have redeemed himself by the time of his trade. He seemed kind of, sort of all right. He hosted a charity bowling tournament. Heck, his status as the outstanding offensive contributor of 1993 through 1995 was enough to snag him a spot as the No. 78 Greatest Met of the First Forty Years.
“Doesn't sound like that Bobby Bonilla should be buried all the way down in the Seventh Circle of Met Hell, does it?” the guy on the aisle asked.
“No,” I agreed. “He was a jerk to extreme proportions in 1992 and intermittently thereafter, but I was able to look past that by the time he left.”
“Yet here we are on this flight.”
“Yes, here we are.”
“And you know why that is?”
“I've just figured it out.”
Bobby Bonilla's mixed Met legacy was shaded clear to the dark side by the second Bobby Bonilla — the older, larger, exponentially more sour version of himself. Bobby Bonilla from 1992 to 1995 has his ups and downs. Bobby Bonilla from 1999 wiped away all ambiguity. The prodigal Bon was a horrendous mistake forged by two Steve Phillips actions. One involved his pants and the failure to keep certain items within. Because he was out on sexual harassment leave in the fall of 1998, Met GM duties fell briefly to an otherwise retired Frank Cashen. It left The Bowtie enough time to make one trade.
And who did he trade? Mel Rojas, the rotting fruit of Phillips' first make-a-splash trade from right after he took over for the fired Joe McIlvane. The Mets braintrust, which presumably included Phillips in some horned-out capacity, decided merely paying off Mel Rojas wasn't self-defeating enough. Instead of releasing him and eating his contract, they swapped him to the Dodgers for a decreasingly effective Bobby Bonilla.
Bobby Bo had kept us his 1995 rampage and gave the Orioles two good months. He drove in 116 for them a year later when they won the A.L. Wild Card. After that, he signed with the Marlins, and though he wasn't the most positive influence on team chemistry, he collected 96 RBI and hit a very important homer in Game Seven of the '97 World Series. After Florida won the World Series, they broke up their team and tucked Bonilla into the care package of pricey stars they sent to L.A. in May '98 for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile. Bonilla was on the DL three times that year and suffered a dramatic falloff in skill and output.
That's when we got him back.
“See, man,” Aisle Bonilla said defensively. “I was hurt.”
“Sorry that you were, but that doesn't mean the Mets should have traded for you. In fact, it would suggest they had even greater reason to avoid you.”
“Where's the meat at?”
Bobby Bonilla '99 wasn't solicitous of my opinion since it was not sympathetic to him. Besides, it had been five minutes since he finished the last bag of peanuts. Similarly, Bobby Bonilla came back to the Mets with a hungry look in his eye, but it wasn't the lean kind. He had not devoted himself to training but was handed the right field job anyway. This was typical of Met thinking during that period. We have a great catcher and real solid infield…no need to dependably populate the outfield from left to right.
He couldn't play the outfield anymore. He couldn't hit either (.160 in 60 games). Worst of all, he couldn't be remotely pleasant about it. Snapped at Bobby Valentine and nearly got into a fight. Snapped at a fan in early July and nearly got into a fight. Was shuttled to the Disabled List and the world's longest pre-Heredia rehab stint only to mysteriously re-emerge in October as one of 25 men on the post-season roster. There was some hope beyond hope that his experience and his power (4 HRs in '99, each of them against Cincinnati, though not in the one-game playoff so you don't get the wrong idea) and his paycheck would come alive. He went 1-for-4, though nobody remembers that. What everybody remembers is Bobby Bonilla played hearts with Rickey Henderson while the Mets fought furiously for the pennant in the final game of the 1999 National League Championship Series. Henderson took a good bit of heat for abandoning the bench. Bonilla didn't. Nobody expected anything out of him.
OK, so the second coming of Bobby Bonilla was surly and hateful and massively unproductive, but it didn't really kill the Mets, right? They made the playoffs, right? What was really so bad about his being around again?
Consider this: Bobby Bonilla had a year remaining on his contract, the one he signed with the Marlins, after '99. He was owed $5.9 million. Thankfully, the Mets learned a lesson from their decision to trade Mel Rojas and didn't feel the need to exchange Bonilla for the late Cap Anson. Instead, they were willing to swallow hard and release him. Check that…they swallowed nothing. They still haven't. But come 2011, the Mets will be paying Bobby Bonilla — a dozen years removed from cards in the clubhouse while Kenny Rogers melted down — $1.19 million a year every year through 2035.
That's to gag from, but it's not a gag. That's for real. The Mets will be issuing checks payable to Bobby Bonilla that will total, with interest, $29.75 million over a 25-year span that will end when Bobby Bo is Bobby Blow (as in Bobby Blowing out 72 candles on his enormous birthday cake). That's slightly more than he signed for in December 1991. But this will be for doing absolutely nothing but being a bad citizen in 1999, being untradeable in 2000 (when he was free to sign for veritable pennies with anybody and was picked up by the Braves…for whom he batted 95 points higher than he did with the '99 Mets) and being the Bobby Bonilla the Mets thought they were getting for 1992 just long enough circa 1995-96 to rate the contract that the Mets accepted so they wouldn't have to pay Mel Rojas.
Follow that? Maybe not, but you get the general idea. Maybe $1.19 million doesn't sound like a lot in terms of what baseball players are paid these days and in future days. But there is a distinct chance that a Wilpon or another owner down the road will not be able to afford some useful player's salary request because there's $1.19 million in the annual budget that has to go the care and feeding and feeding some more of Bobby Bonilla, who did nothing to earn it but sure had a smart agent.
“You have no shame,” I told the one Bobby Bonilla who remained in my row.
He shrugged, got up and looked for meat.
We circled some more, but the two Bobby Bonillas had abandoned my row. Everybody else was living it up in the lounge — Bobby Bonilla 1992-1995 cackling, Bobby Bonilla 1999 chewing, Flight Attendant Steve Phillips dispensing checks and grabbing cheeks, Captain Jeff Torborg finding every turbulent pocket, Air Harazin Flight 6667 being every bit as miserable as I would've guessed. At least Bobby Bo the Second left me his cards. I played solitaire, not very well, until we landed at LaGuardia.
The instant I heard the door creak open, I raced out of there with nary a buh-bye. Left the deck and my copy of Worst Team behind. I didn't want to think about what I'd just experienced or what percentage of what I spent on every knish at our new park from 2011 on would go to the Bobby Bos. I couldn't look that far ahead. I just wanted to see a Bonillaless, Phillipsless, Torborgless, Harazinless Shea. I ran through the terminal, past the cabs and onto the shoulder of the Grand Central. There it was, my beautiful Shea Stadium. Even though it was winter, it was wonderful.
The only thing left to do was to go home. From the Seventh Circle of Met Hell to the 7. Perfect. Fortunately, I'd remembered to bring my Metrocard. I wandered over to the Willets Point entrance and swiped. And swiped. And swiped again. No dice. I walked across the street and gave it another several tries. It wouldn't work. I was left standing forlorn on a brutally cold Roosevelt Avenue afternoon. No way home.
Then a really ostentatious SUV limo pulled up. It was the Bobby Bonillas.
“Hey, dude from the plane! The subways went on strike while were in the air! Need a ride?”
“Gee, that's awfully nice of you…”
Before I could answer in full, their limo sped off. The Hell with them, too.