They’ve shared a game of catch many times before and never thought too deeply about the significance of tossing a baseball back and forth to one another. But that will all change when they step onto the Frontier Field diamond for the ceremonial first pitch before the Rochester Red Wings home opener on April 11. The meaning of that evening’s exchange won’t be lost on them. It will speak volumes about how baseball has connected a grandfather, a daughter and a granddaughter.
The pitch will be delivered by Alayna Berry, a 16-year-old Spencerport High School varsity softball player who, two months ago, became the first female featured on Big League Chew shredded bubble gum packages. Her throw will be caught by her grandfather, Bobby Bonner, a Wings Hall-of-Famer who shared top billing on Cal Ripken Jr.’s rookie baseball card and played all 33 innings in the longest game in baseball history 38 years ago. Somewhere, off to the side, the pitch and catch will be viewed—likely through teary eyes—by Krissy Berry, Bonner’s daughter and Alayna’s mom.
“I’m really excited for Alayna and for my dad,’’ Krissy was saying recently. “He’s such a great grandfather to all his grandkids, but he seems to have an extra special bond with Alayna. This is going to be such a cool moment for them to share.”
A scrapbook moment, to be sure.
Alayna fondly remembers how the man she calls “Pappy” stood by her as a toddler when she expressed displeasure with her first name.
“I told my mom I wanted to change my name to Molly and she said, ‘Absolutely not!’ ’’ she recalled, chuckling. “I told Pappy, and he said he was cool with the name change. Eventually, I came to like the name Alayna, but Pappy continued to call me Molly. Still does.”
Bonner, who is a pastor and Christian missionary now living in Missouri, witnessed Alayna’s kind soul at a young age.
“She’s always had a tender heart,’’ he said. “I remember one birthday when she decided she didn’t want any presents for herself. Instead, she wanted a bunch of Care Bears so she could give them to children in a Rochester hospital. I couldn’t have been more proud.”
Although she hails from an athletic family—her mom also played softball—Alayna was a late-comer to sports.
“I was the girliest of girls when I was younger,’’ she said. “But after playing with my brothers, I decided to give sports a try and discovered that I could be pretty good at them, too.’’
As her sports interest grew, she became more intrigued with her grandfather’s legacy. Bonner had been a coveted Baltimore Orioles’ prospect—so much so, that the 1982 Topps baseball card he shared with Ripken and Jeff Schneider listed him, not Cal, as the team’s shortstop of the future. Though he was a superb defensive player, Bonner never hit well enough to convince crusty Orioles manager Earl Weaver that he deserved to be Baltimore’s everyday shortstop. Instead, Weaver switched Ripken from third to short, and that move worked out marvelously, as Cal established himself as a Baseball Hall of Famer and the game’s all-time Iron Man, with a streak of 2,632 consecutive games played.
Bonner, meanwhile, would appear in only 61 major league games, finishing with a paltry .194 batting average. His best baseball would be played in Rochester, where he spent parts of six seasons with the Wings, batting .242 with nine homers, 135 runs batted in and 33 stolen bases in 441 games. His slick fielding and gritty play helped him become a fan favorite in the Flower City.
“I loved my time there,’’ he said. “The weather could be cold, but the people were always warm.’’
He liked it so much that he and his family settled there after his playing career ended in 1984. The devout Christian immersed himself into his work as a pastor at First Bible Baptist Church in Greece and as the varsity baseball coach at Northstar Christian Academy. Five years later, after going deep into the hole at Silver Stadium a final time, he decided to go deep into the jungle. Answering the call to become a missionary, Bonner moved his family to Kafulafuta, Zambia. He spent 19 years there, converting thousands to Christianity, and building a hospital to help Zambians deal with the AIDS epidemic.
Death was a huge part of life there, and Bonner wound up being on its doorstep several times himself. He contracted malaria 19 times, and he had a kidney removed while nearly succumbing to Black Water Fever. Eight years ago, he almost died when two blood clots “exploded” in his heart. As he details in his book, “From the Diamond to the Bush,” he came close to being trampled by stampeding elephants, eaten alive by crocodiles during a baptism ceremony in a river, and shot to death by a bandit, who placed the barrel of an AK-47 rifle against his jaw.
“It’s been quite the journey,’’ he said, laughing. “And I’d do it all over again because I believe this is what God called me to do.”
Despite the damage to his heart, the 62-year-old hopes to go on another African mission next year. But long before he returns there for a 13th time, there will be next week’s trip to Rochester, where Bonner will revel spending time with family and friends. Baseball continues to be a tie that binds. And it includes another of his daughters, Amanda Macfarland, who just so happens to be the illustrator who designed the Big Chew drawing of her niece, Alayna. Several Spencerport teachers good-naturedly call Alayna, “Big Chew.” And the Spencerport athletic trainer asked her to autograph a package of the bubble gum.
A first baseman who also does some pitching, Alayna hasn’t decided if she’s going to deliver the ceremonial pitch underhand or overhand. Bonner said he’s good either way, “as long as she doesn’t throw it too hard.” Underhand. Overhand. Sidearm. Doesn’t matter. The pitch will symbolize the connection the two share with the game, and, more importantly, with each other.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.