There is one place that every MLB player dreams of once they get the call to the majors.
Yes, to fulfill a dream with a long career that one day ends with a bust, plaque and memorabilia for generations upon generations to view in awe.
That is something that former player Bobby Bonilla strived for during his 14 year career. After his first 10 seasons, anyone could have made an argument that the kid from the Bronx would end up with the immortals of baseball.
But, as the Steroid Era took control of the game, Bonilla couldn’t keep up with the performance the New York Mets expected of him when he signed a five-year, $29 million contract in 1991 which, at the time, made him the highest paid player in baseball. So in 1999, with one year left on his current deal, the Mets had a major decision to make. Buy out his final year of his deal at $5.9 million or let him play out another miserable year in a town that he hated as much as the fans and organization hated him?
Easy decision, right?
And with that, let me introduce you to a man by the name of Bernie Madoff. Yes, that Madoff and the mastermind that took pretty much every rich man to the cleaners; including Mets owner Fred Wilpon (Well, sort of… We will get to that later). Somehow, someway, Bonilla’s agent Jeff Borris sold a deferred contract option with interest to Wilpon and then Mets General Manager Steve Phillips. At the time Wilpon was making double-digit returns on his investments with Madoff and, after consulting with him, figured he would make somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 million off of this deferred deal that was on the table with Bonilla.
So in short, here is the deal Wilpon thought he was getting. Delay $5.9 million for 11 years with interest, pay Bonilla $1.192 million over 25 years for a total of $25.9 million and you still make $50 million on the deal.
Sounds logical, right? (Well, if you agree then please contact this writer as soon as you can. There is an investment you need to consider)
Fast forward to 2010. Wilpon is named in a lawsuit when it was revealed that he and his family actually made $300 million in the Ponzi Scheme instead of losing $700 million as they first reported and that Madoff was in control of all the Mets’ finances. In the proceedings, it was revealed that it was common practice for Madoff to defer payments like the one Bonilla’s agent presented to Wilpon so that the team could profit from the interest. That profit would be enough to fund the creation of SportsNet New York and Citi Field. Wilpon’s final moves included a $40 million loan from Bank of America, a $25 million bailout from MLB, selling 49% ownership to David Einhorn and settling his Ponzi class-action lawsuit with Irving Picard for $162 million.
Oh yeah, and paying Bonilla $1.192 million for the next 25 years.
There is an old quote that says “Do not play with the pigs or you will both end up getting filthy.”
For Wilpon and the Mets this was 100% the case. But in a time where more than half of all professional athletes are reported to be bankrupt two to four years after retirement, Bonilla is sitting pretty knowing that his family and future is forever set in stone thanks to one simple signature on one average day in 1999.
Well played, Bonilla. Well played indeed.
M Shannon Smallwood is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the US Basketball Writers Association.
Follow him @woodysmalls.