The Importance Of Paying Bobby Bonilla Until 2035

It was the dumbest financial move in baseball history. And it’s in good company.

The 2000s had dawned and Y2K’s colossal failure to take down the world’s infrastructure meant that civilization was still intact. So the New York Mets made their move. The team opened for business as usual on Monday morning, Jan. 3, and proceeded to make the first Major League Baseball transaction of the new decade. They released outfielder Bobby Bonilla, who had labored throughout a second go-around with his hometown team, and sent him off with a parting gift. Bonilla had one year remaining on his contract; the Mets owed him $5.9 million. Bonilla and his agent, sensing perhaps that the Mets were open to a more creative buyout, offered up several proposals, one being a theretofore unprecedented deal that deferred that remaining payment for 11 years — albeit with interest. The Mets agreed to, starting in 2011, pay Bonilla 25 annual installments of $1,193,248.20, a hefty markup ($23.9 million) over the original sum. Team ownership needed the roster spot to make other moves and were confident in their long-term financial prospects thanks to a can’t-miss investment genius named Bernie Madoff.

That, of course, didn’t work out, and by the time came for the checks to start getting sent two summers back, the team’s financials were in ruin. Bobby Bonilla has been retired for 12 years, but he now re-emerges every spring as a representation of everything that was myopic about the Mets back then and is laughable about them now.

Back then, though, the move was celebrated, and there’s now more than $100 million of this so-called “dead money” in MLB, Bonilla’s slice comprising just a sliver. Bonilla-related laffs — he’s good for a lot of tweets and splashy headlines, and his random clubhouse visit on Photo Day only amplified the matter — tend to obscure the details of the matter, a bizarre version of a not uncommon phenomenon, under a lot of LOLMets. (That said, it is certainly one of the great LOLMets instances, even in a very crowded field.)

It’s clear that the Mets, if nothing else, were guilty of the most inept kind of negotiating. They held very little leverage, feeling that the team was on the precipice of greatness and that they needed Bonilla’s roster spot for the proverbial guy who’d push them over the top — which meant that not only did they need to can him, but that they needed to come up with enough money to pay a good player to take his place. Bonilla meanwhile was promising to raise all sorts of hell if the team didn’t placate him.

Here’s Jon Heyman, then with The Sporting News, talking about the deal (Jan. 17, 2000):

The Mets released him on January 3, the first workday of the new millennium and a few weeks after he guaranteed ”fireworks in the millennium” if he didn’t play regularly in 2000. Bonilla has been unable to back up his inappropriately loud talk with his play, but a contract that guaranteed him $ 5.9 million for 2000 served as a major threat to the Mets, who tired of his act. Bonilla was holding all the cards, so to speak.

The best the Mets could do was get him to defer his pay — with interest — for 11 years. Under terms of the agreement, Bonilla will be paid nearly $ 1.2 million every year from 2011 to 2035. The total will come to approximately $29.8 million, or about $ 835,000 more than the club gave Bonilla in December 1991 when they made him the game’s richest player.

The Mets were all too happy to be rid of Bonilla at whatever conceivable cost. The fans were happy, and Bobby Bonilla was really happy. The Mets were only swindled in the sense that the reason that they were so comfortable about their long-term prospects is that they were investing in a Ponzi scheme. But at the time, the idea that this was a worthwhile move — to free up the short-term cash and flexibility that could help win a World Series — was prevalent.

In fact, by freeing up that nearly $6 million, the Mets were able to make moves like trading for Mike Hampton, then a prime No. 2 pitcher who, as any Cardinals fan might tell you, almost singlehandedly won the 2000 National League Championship Series. That likely never happens if Bonilla is still in Queens. At least the Mets got a pennant for their troubles, which is more than can be said for Baltimore, which is paying Bonilla $500,000 a year through 2015 in a similar buyout negotiated years before the Mets did theirs. (In that instance, however, the big winner is Bonilla’s ex-wife, who gets half of each Oriole check.) Alas, that the team unabashedly blared “Who Let The Dogs Out?” after the final out of the NLCS likely sealed whatever karmic fate awaited them against the eventual-champion Yankees.

Regardless, Bobby Bonilla will receive $26.25 million from the Mets over the next 22 years, after this summer’s payment is transacted. Similarly, the Yankees will, most likely, be paying Alex Rodriguez nearly $115 million over the next five years. And there’s new worry that Rodriguez’s contractual commitment will present a major hindrance to re-signing second baseman Robinson Cano, who is entering his walk year.

But the Yankees’ world championships turn such tabloid fodder into longterm Teflon, letting criticism wilt in the shine of so many World Series trophies. The Mets, whose identity is instead rooted in self-deprecation, have far fewer successes to flash. Their $19.3 million in “dead money” this season will be a 162-game source of embarrassment, although only three teams in Major League Baseball — the Braves, Cubs, and Pirates — can boast that they’re paying no dead money this season. In fact, an analysis of current 2013 payrolls indicate that, collectively, the other 27 teams are paying around $119.5 million this season to players that no longer compete for them. The Mets, thanks to the balloon payment owed to the dearly departed Jason Bay, account for 16 percent of that total, but several other high-profile teams are in less-than-pleasant circumstances. The Dodgers, for example, come in second to the Mets at $15.98 million (on top of the $216 million in active contracts they’re already paying, some of which are going to guys who might as well be 50 years old) and the Yankees, on top of A-Rod, are paying $10 million to exes A.J. Burnett and Rafael Soriano.

The Mets have always been an easy punchline. This Bonilla contract? It’s a hilarious, ongoing footnote in this 50-plus-year sketch comedy show in Flushing. It will continue to be so for another 22 years to come. The jokes will continue as surely as the $1,193,248.20 checks will arrive in Bonilla’s bank account every July 1, though this is (we can pray) the last time he’ll be recognized as the Mets’ highest-paid outfielder. But at some point, there will be a new Bonilla. Sports franchises aren’t going to stop pulling risky moves because they think they’ve got a chance to win a championship. Occasionally, they actually even work. That’s how this whole insanely comic world of sports keeps perpetuating itself. Some days you eat Bobby Bonilla’s contract in order to make it to the World Series, and some days, Bobby Bonilla’s contract eats you.

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