Home / Columns and Features / Bryce Harper’s huge contract reminds us of Bonilla’s heist

Bryce Harper’s huge contract reminds us of Bonilla’s heist

scottteaser-215x160Joe DiMaggio was asked back in the early 1990s how much money he would command if he were still in his baseball prime.

“I’d walk into (New York Yankees owner) George Steinbrenner’s office, shake his hand, and say, ‘Howdy, partner,’” quipped Joltin’ Joe.

It’s difficult to imagine just how much money baseball’s first $100,000-per-season player would be worth in today’s market, particularly in light of the prodigious contract Bryce Harper just signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. The 26-year-old outfielder with a National League Most Valuable Player Award and six All-Star Game appearances already on his resume will earn $330 million over the next 13 seasons. It’s the biggest overall contract in baseball and American team sports history. And, in a sport where records—and banks—are meant to be broken, this one isn’t expected to last long.

Mike Trout, the finest player in baseball and maybe any sport, is eligible for free agency after the 2020 season, and that courtship is expected to be hundreds of millions times more intense than anything you’ve seen on the Bachelor or Bachelorette. His current employer, the Los Angeles Angels, already is talking about making him an offer he can’t refuse. Owner Arte Moreno reportedly is ready to give Trout, who will be just 29 years old at the end of his current contract, a 10-year deal for $350 million. As absurd as this sounds—and admittedly everything sounds absurd when discussing the true value of sports contracts—the Angels are low-balling him.

Trout might want to heed the late DiMaggio’s truth-in-jest remark and counter by walking into Moreno’s office, shaking his hand, and saying, “Howdy, partner.”

Time will tell whether the Phillies made a good, great or horrible deal signing Harper: a career .279 hitter who’s been known to rub people the wrong way, but who has a seemingly limitless upside and a sweet, lefthanded swing tailor-made for Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park. Before the ink dried on his mega-deal, he already was providing returns on the investment, with the Phillies selling an additional 220,000 single-game tickets within 72 hours of the blockbuster announcement.

Harper might not be among the top 10 or 15 players in baseball, but his diamond potential, along with his marketability, are reasons the Phillies forked over an armored car stuffed with cash. Trout, Mookie Betts and Aaron Judge are superior talents, but there’s an edge and intensity to Harper that has made him more appealing to fans and national sponsors.

And that’s a plus for baseball, which, unlike its National Football League and National Basketball Association brethren, hasn’t figured out how to promote its stars, even during this bountiful era when there might be more gifted young players than at any point in the sport’s history. Should Harper thrive in the nation’s fifth largest market and showcase his talents at World Series time that might give the game a much-needed boost.

Harper’s heist got me to thinking about my favorite long-term sports contract: the deferred deal the New York Mets gave Bobby Bonilla nearly two decades ago. It’s clearly a gift that keeps on giving. To put things in perspective, Harper’s contract will expire in 2031. Bonilla, who hasn’t played since 2001, will receive his last check for $1.19 million on July 1, 2035. Yes, Bonilla’s annual salary is peanuts compared to Harper’s, but it’s doubtful “Bobby Bo’s” longevity record will ever be surpassed by another player. The deal has become the stuff of legend, with Bonilla’s name flooding Twitter every July 1 in celebration of what’s sarcastically become known as “Bobby Bonilla Day.”

He is able to laugh his way to the bank each summer thanks to a contract concocted by his former agent, Dennis Gilbert, and Mets owner Fred Wilpon. Interestingly, Bernie Madoff also played a role in the deal. Yes, that Bernie Madoff, the convicted Ponzi schemer whose name appropriately is pronounced “Made-off,” as in he made off with a lot of people’s money before being sent to prison.

After four All-Star seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bonilla tested the free agent market in 1992, and the Mets happily made him baseball’s highest-paid player. The Bronx-born rightfielder had some solid years in New York, particularly in 1993 when he clubbed 34 homers, but he wasn’t the same player he had been in Pittsburgh, and the Mets decided to part ways in 1995. Crazily, they reacquired Bonilla four years later, but it wound up being money poorly spent. Often injured, he played just 60 games that season, batting .160 with four homers. He also became a toxic influence in the clubhouse. The final straw came when it was reported that Bonilla and some teammates spent the final innings of the last game of the 1999 National League Championship Series playing cards in the clubhouse.

The Mets thought they were rolling in dough because of Madoff’s reported double-digit returns on their investments. So, instead of paying off the $5.9 million they owed Bonilla, they agreed to Gilbert’s idea of deferred annual payments, starting in 2011. Even though it meant the Mets would wind up paying Bonilla a lot more money over time, they liked the deal because it immediately freed up cash they used to sign free agent pitcher Mike Hampton, who helped them reach the 2000 World Series. Hampton bolted to Colorado after just one season, but the Mets received a compensatory pick from the Rockies that they used to draft one of their all-time greats, David Wright. In 2008, Madoff was convicted of fraud, and the Mets, like numerous other hoodwinked businesses and individuals, fell into deep financial trouble—trouble that continues to haunt them to this day.

Bonilla, meanwhile, remains on the team’s payroll. He will be 72 years old by the time he receives his last paycheck.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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