Profiles in Hustle: Bobby Bonilla

The former Mets slugger will be paid by the team well into old age for a season he didn’t even play for them. 

I remember an early spring day of my youth in Queens, when my father took me to a Mets game. This was the mid-nineties and the Mets were epically mediocre. Their star player, Bobby Bonilla, was a disaster at the plate and at third base that season, booting multiple balls that game and throwing the ball away. Mercifully, the skies opened up at some point during the game, and my father and I left early. TheNew York Times quoted Bonilla as saying after the 3-0 loss: “I screwed up. That’s all there is to it.” A footnote in Mets history, right? Money gone down the drain, but at least it’s far in the past. Except that last season, the Mets paid Bobby Bonilla $1.2 million dollars. Yes, fifteen years after his final game, the Mets are still paying Bobby Bonilla and will do so until 2035. 

Back in 1995, Bonilla was in the third year of a 5-year, $29 million contract, which, back then, was quite a lot for a baseball deal. The next season, he was ignominiously traded off to the Orioles. But the Mets weren’t done with Bonilla. In 1999, they reacquired the slugger, only to see his performance fall far short of expectations once again. Heading into the 2000 season, the Mets still owed Bonilla $5.9 million. They definitely didn’t want to pay him that money and made that clear to Bonilla. So he offered the Mets a deal – the Mets could defer payment to Bonilla for ten years, then pay him $1.2 million a year starting in 2011 and ending in 2035, ending with a $29.8 million payout.

The Mets would be insane to take Bonilla up on the offer. Except they had a great financial mind at their disposal – a trusted friend named Bernie Madoff. Madoff, now in prison for the largest Ponzi scheme in history, advised the Mets to take the offer – by 2011, the payout to Bonilla would be pennies to how much they would have earned by then following Madoff’s advice. So they accepted, and Bonilla got one of the greatest deals in history. Bonilla will still be getting paid millions well into his seventies, for a season he didn’t even play for the Mets. And for that Mr. Bonilla, we salute you.

Photos by Ken Levine/Allsport/Getty Images