Save That Ball, Boys—The Way Bobby Bonilla's Going, It'll Be Valuable

updated 07/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The other day Bobby Bonilla almost got mad. When an umpire called a third strike on him, the strapping young third baseman for the upstart Pittsburgh Pirates did something astounding—by his standards, if not those of most major leaguers: He objected, even raising his voice. The next day he did something even more unusual—for most major leaguers, if not for him. He apologized.

"I told him I was sorry I showed him up," Bonilla says. "I saw the replay. The pitch was right down the middle."

Perhaps not since Ernie ("It's a great day for a ballgame.") Banks retired from the Chicago Cubs 17 years ago has baseball seen a man with a sunnier disposition swing a meaner bat. "It sure is nice to come to the ballpark every day and see a smiling face," says Pirate catcher Mike LaValliere. "It's a good thing Bobby's that way, because he's so strong it's scary. I'd hate to see him lose his temper." So far, having a long fuse on a 6'3", 230-lb. frame has worked splendidly for Bonilla. After hitting .300 with 15 home runs last year, his second full season in the majors, Bonilla started this year on a tear and was named National League Player of the Month in both April and May. His name frequently appears among the leaders in most offensive categories in the NL, but Bonilla doesn't think stats when he steps into the box. "All I really want," says the 25-year-old switch-hitter, "is to concentrate on driving in runs."

"Right now, he's the best all-around third baseman in the league," says the Phillies' Mike Schmidt, a third baseman of Hall of Fame caliber. Bonilla and Schmidt were the top contenders to start at third for the NL's All-Star team this week.

Bonilla was an outfielder when he came to Pittsburgh. Pirate manager Jim Leyland says that once he saw the youngster's "great throwing arm, great hands and great quickness, we put him over there at third, threw him to the wolves, and he's done a great job." In fact, Bonilla seems to be a Teflon ballplayer, shedding pressure automatically. "This isn't pressure," he says. "Pressure is growing up in the South Bronx."

Roberto Martin Antonio Bonilla was raised in a four-bedroom apartment in the South Bronx with his twin sisters, Milagros and Socorro, now 24, and his brother, Javier, 17. His father, Roberto, an electrician, and mother, Regina, a psychologist, who had migrated from their native Puerto Rico, divorced when Bobby was 8. Despite the breakup, "my father was determined to see us as much as he could," Bonilla says, "and Mom is a real laid-back kind of person. So I think they both instilled positive values in me." His own primary value was to make the big leagues. "I played sports 24 hours a day," he says. "In a place like the South Bronx, you have to dream or else you'll get caught up in the mess."

Bonilla made it to the majors by a little-used route. After graduating from high school he was completely overlooked by scouts and joined an all-star team that toured Scandinavia. There he was discovered by the Pirates' current general mananger, Syd Thrift, who conducted clinics on the tour and was impressed by the 18-year-old's maturity. But after five years down on the farm, Bonilla suffered a severe ankle break in an outfield collision and saw his dream threatened. Instead, the accident redoubled his commitment to the game. "That's when I realized how easy it is to take things for granted," he says. "An injury stops you and makes you say, 'Hey, you'd better wake up.' "

While rehabilitating his leg by playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, Bonilla decided to make another commitment—to his high school sweetheart, Millie Quinones. "I called her and said, 'Hey, get down here so we can get married,' " Bonilla says. "I gave her $22 to buy a dress and shoes. We sorta eloped." Now he and Millie, 24, are expecting their first child. Born-again Christians, they share a luxury apartment in Pittsburgh's scenic Mount Washington area but live modestly despite Bonilla's $230,000 salary (which, thanks to the Pirates' general penuriousness, is well below the $450,000 major league average). The couple talked about splurging on a $53,000 BMW, but, says Millie, "Robert didn't think he deserved it. So I went out one day and brought one home." Explains Bobby: "It was tough for me to buy because I've never had much money in my life."

He does now, and he also has his dream, in diamonds. He has a tough time accepting that, too. Already the word "great" is being applied to him, and he always flinches at it. "You know when I'll think I'm great?" Bonilla demands. "When my suit is hanging in Cooperstown. Right now, I'm just another one of the guys."

—By Eric Levin, with Mary Huzinec in Pittsburgh

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