Bonilla: O's service with a smile He kept his grin in tough 1st half, but now bat beaming, too


Bobby Bonilla had never spoken to Orioles owner Peter Angelos before the last road trip, when Angelos and his wife, Georgia, flew to the West Coast with the team. Odd, considering how much Angelos has affected Bonilla's career over the past 14 months.

Bonilla stopped in the aisle as he passed Angelos, and with his huge Bobby Bo grin, he mentioned to the owner that if the Orioles should happen to get in the playoffs, he intends to wear a gaudy pair of shoes to fulfill an endorsement obligation. The shoes, with a gaudy design, have fallen prey to Angelos' regular-season dress code.

Angelos laughed aloud, which was what Bonilla wanted to do: make the owner happy. He's been doing that since coming to the Orioles in a trade in July 1995, and Angelos has returned the favor in a big way.

Orioles general manager Pat Gillick proposed several trades that would've sent Bonilla elsewhere -- to San Francisco, Cleveland, Cincinnati -- and Angelos vetoed them all.

Since the night of the July 31 trade deadline, Bonilla has produced hits and runs almost daily, shouldering an offensive load during a time when Roberto Alomar, Cal Ripken and B. J. Surhoff have fallen off.

Bonilla has hit .310 with 14 homers and 46 RBIs over the past 42 games, and batted .432 with runners in scoring position (16 hits in 37 at-bats). His three-run triple with two outs in the sixth inning Wednesday tied a game the Orioles eventually won in 10 innings, 7-6.

Bonilla says the trade for Eddie Murray, which allowed Bonilla to abandon the designated hitter role he dislikes so much and move to right field, helped him relax -- as did Angelos' decision to keep him with the Orioles.

"What crossed my mind is, The Big Guy wants me here," Bonilla said, referring to Angelos. "That was very nice. That was very refreshing, because I had gone through so much up to that point, to the trading deadline.

"From almost the beginning part of May to the trading deadline, I had heard so much that I didn't know where I was going to be."

Orioles manager Davey Johnson went to Bonilla at the end of spring training and told Bonilla he wanted him to start the year as the designated hitter. Bonilla told Johnson then he didn't want to do it, but he'd go along.

But Bonilla's average sunk to .196 on April 29, and he twice told reporters angrily he wanted to return to the outfield. Shortly thereafter, as Bonilla switched back and forth from the outfield to DH -- Johnson and Bonilla's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy -- Gillick began exploring the idea of trading Bonilla.

The first trade proposal Bonilla heard about was a deal with St. Louis, for catcher Tom Pagnozzi. Then Bonilla gathered through the rumor mill that San Diego was interested, and San Francisco; he's represented by the same agent as Barry Bonds, who was pushing the Giants to add his old friend, Bobby Bo.

Bonilla was so sure he was going to be traded that he sent his cars to his home in New York.

The Orioles traded for Murray on July 21, and Bonilla was relieved that, if he stayed, he would be playing right field. The happiest man in baseball, he called himself that day.

"When we got Eddie here," Bonilla says now, "I felt a lot better, because I knew I wasn't going to DH. . . . Before that, I didn't know what to think. I just couldn't get on the same page as everybody else, trying to convey my feelings that I wanted to play [in the field].

"We had so many problems in the first half, it was incredible. . . . We went through a lot -- everybody. It's a lot more fun to play now, because everything is settled. Getting Eddie over here settled a lot of things."

But the Orioles were fading in the standings, and Bonilla was getting booed more frequently at Camden Yards. "I had been hearing some stuff -- the basic stuff [booing]," Bonilla said. "I had people come up and say, 'Hey, I'm sorry people in Baltimore are booing you.'

"Booing me? They're doing the wave for me, compared to New York," said the former Met. "I never thought about it, but when people brought it to my attention, I said yeah, you're right. But I didn't understand why. My whole feeling all along was, maybe the game is changing so much that they're getting on me for wanting to play."

So Bonilla, who will be a free agent after this season, remained convinced he was going to be traded. He would've been, if not for Angelos.

"He's such a positive person," Angelos said of Bonilla. "He has the capability of lifting up the whole team. He's a special person, with that big smile of his."

Bonilla said: "I'm relieved he enjoys the way I play. It's kind of neat, because he's the man paying the bill. It's nice to know he was in my corner. You just hope those types of decisions don't cause problems elsewhere between Pat [Gillick] and the baseball people [and Angelos]. You just hope they're receptive to what The Man wants to do."

The difference in Bonilla at the plate, from April to now, is immense, according to Johnson.

"Bobby early on, he was more worried about his situation," Johnson said. "He was doing things at the plate -- it didn't matter if he was DH-ing or not -- he was lunging, falling in. He was going to have a hard time, even if he was out there every day.

"But the bottom line was, he was in the lineup every day. Shoot, I said all along when the leaves turn brown, he'll have his 100 RBI and 25-30 home runs, and that's what's happening."

Bonilla is hitting .294 overall, with 26 homers and 108 RBIs.

Through all the turmoil, did Bonilla ever feel unwanted by the team?

"No," Bonilla said, "because I was wanted in here, in the clubhouse, with our guys, and that was another reason why I was able to continue to grind.

"I had tremendous support from everyone in here. They understood what I was going through. Cal, Billy Ripken, [Chris] Hoiles, Raffy [Palmeiro], Robby [Alomar] -- everybody. They just said, 'Continue to grind. Keep grinding.' "

Booming Bonilla

Stats for the five players with the most RBIs in the American League since Aug. 1 (through Wednesday's games):

Player, team ......... BA .. HR .. RBI

Bonilla, Orioles ... .311 .. 14 .. 40

Thome, Indians ..... .378 .. 12 .. 39

Gonzalez, Rangers .. .315 .. 12 .. 38

Palmeiro, Orioles .. .307 ... 8 .. 37

Rodrig'z, Mariners.. .413 .. 11 .. 34

Pub Date: 9/13/96

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