All-Star outfielder Bobby Bonilla was once the highest paid player in baseball when the Mets signed him to a five-year, $29 million contract all the way back in 1991.
Now, nearly 14 years since he last played, Bonilla is the highest paid ex-player on any team’s payroll.
That’s because every July 1st from 2011 to 2035—when Bonilla will be 72—the Mets make a $1,193,248.20 deposit to his account as part of a wisely negotiated buyout (by Bonilla) of the final year of his contract. Only it wasn’t from his original mammoth contract that he got this buyout.
When the Mets originally signed Bonilla to play outfield 24 years ago, he was coming off back-to-back finishes in the top three of the MVP voting while a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
After failing to duplicate his success in New York, the Mets traded him to Baltimore in 1995. After a year and a half with the Orioles, Bonilla signed a four-year $23 million deal with Florida. Although the Marlins won a World Series title in their first year with Bonilla (1997), they soon embarked on a fire sale and traded away all their expensive players.
So in May of ’98, Bonilla went to the Dodgers in the Mike Piazza deal. But after underperforming in Los Angeles, the Dodgers dealt him to the Mets that offseason for underwhelming—but expensive—reliever Mel Rojas in a let’s-swap-expensive-headaches kind of trade.
Bonilla’s final season in New York (1999) was easily his worst, though. The 36-year-old hit just .160 in 60 games, while rumors of a feud between him and manager Bobby Valentine persisted. The final straw was when Bonilla was caught playing cards in the clubhouse with teammate Rickey Henderson as the Mets lost the deciding game—Game 6—of the NLCS to Atlanta.
With one year and $5.9 million still left on his contract, the Mets were motivated to move both him and his salary that offseason. But with no takers on the market, they negotiated one of the more unique buyouts ever. The deferred deal was made with an 8 percent interest rate and the payments didn’t start until 2011. Overall, Bonilla would pocket $29.8 million over 25 years, from the $5.9 buyout.
The deal wasn’t so awful to the Mets, though, as it looks now.
Besides wanting to rid themselves of an underperforming player, New York needed the money that season to add to an already talented roster. The Mets, who would go on to win the pennant that season (2000), added starting pitcher Mike Hampton, first baseman Todd Zeile, and outfielder Derek Bell—three players who made $15 million between them and played vital roles in the team’s success.
Maybe the deal worked for both sides after all.