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Mike Gallego fielded with reliable consistency, but he had trouble hitting and staying healthy during his time with the Cardinals.

Twenty-five years ago, on Jan. 11, 1996, the Cardinals signed Gallego, a free agent, for one year at $300,000.

The deal reunited Gallego with Tony La Russa, the manager who was in his first season with the Cardinals. Gallego played for La Russa with the Athletics and they were part of three American League championship teams.

Like Gallego, La Russa had been an infielder who fielded better than he hit. Gallego became such a La Russa favorite that Cardinals coach Rene Lachemann dubbed him “Michael La Russa,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Versatile and valuable

Gallego was born and raised in the Los Angeles area and played college baseball at UCLA. The Athletics selected him in the second round of the 1981 amateur draft. He played multiple infield spots, but considered second base to be his natural position.

While in the minors in 1983, Gallego learned he had testicular cancer. He had surgery and returned to the lineup two months later.

Gallego reached the majors with the Athletics in 1985. In 1990, he was their Opening Day second baseman. When Walt Weiss got hurt in the playoffs, Gallego was the shortstop in the World Series against the Reds.

“Most guys think about getting the game-winning hit,” Gallego said. “For me, I’ve always gotten a bigger thrill out of a great defensive play.” Video

Granted free agency in October 1991, Gallego signed with the Yankees. He had a stellar season in 1993, hitting .283 with 20 doubles as a utility player.

A free agent after the strike-shortened 1994 season, Gallego rejoined La Russa and the Athletics. He was the Opening Day second baseman in 1995, but severely injured his left heel in May and spent nearly three months on the disabled list.

Familiar face

After the 1995 season, the Cardinals pursued a pair of free agents, Craig Biggio and Tony Phillips, for the second base job, but Biggio stayed with the Astros and Phillips went to the White Sox.

That left injury-prone Geronimo Pena as the incumbent at second base.

The Cardinals wanted an experienced backup to Pena. Gallego, 35, was sought by the Rangers, but went with the Cardinals, in large part, because of La Russa.

“I love him a lot,” La Russa told the Post-Dispatch.

General manager Walt Jocketty said, “He has a flair about him, whether he’s diving or turning the double play.”

The Cardinals’ plans went awry at spring training. Pena suffered a stress fracture of the right knee and ended up in the minors.

Gallego injured his right hamstring when he dived for a ball. He returned later in spring training, but tore the same hamstring running the bases.

Another potential option, Jose Oquendo, no longer was effective. He was released and chose to retire. That left David Bell, entering his second season in the majors, as the Cardinals’ second baseman.

Wanting more, the Cardinals signed Luis Alicea, waived by the Red Sox, to play second. Alicea had been with the Cardinals for five seasons before being traded.

Getting a chance

Gallego went to Scottsdale, Ariz., for two months to heal his hamstring. In the last week of May, he showed up in St. Louis to field grounders and take swings. The Cardinals sent him to their farm club in St. Petersburg, Fla., to test his leg in minor-league games.

“Gallego has a lot to show me,” La Russa said. “It’s going to be tricky. The club has a good feeling and you don’t like to mess with the chemistry.”

Alicea made the decision easier for La Russa. On July 11, in a game against the Cubs, Alicea made his 19th error of the season and committed a baserunning mistake. Boxscore

“I’ve played poorly defensively,” Alicea said. “To win, you’ve got to have good defense. I’ve never played so bad before.”

The next day, Gallego made his Cardinals debut, getting the start at second base versus the Cubs. Boxscore

“There is an opportunity for Gallego to earn a lot of playing time,” La Russa said. “If we keep him healthy, you’ll see some second base play.”

Wizard at second

Gallego was as good as gold with his glove. After Gallego made two diving stops on July 17 against the Reds, La Russa told the Post-Dispatch, “I’m 100 percent sincere when I say this but he plays second base like Ozzie Smith plays short.” Boxscore

Gallego said, “Being compared to Ozzie Smith obviously is a great compliment, but I could never put myself in his league.”

Gallego made no errors in his first 163 fielding chances for the Cardinals. The problem was his hitting. He batted .189 in July and .208 in August. Alicea returned to the starting lineup in late August and was the primary second baseman in September when the Cardinals clinched a division title.

In the 1996 regular season, Gallego played 359.2 innings at second base and made three errors. Alicea played 954 innings at second base and committed a league-high 24 errors. Gallego hit .210 for the season. Alicea hit .258.

In Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the Braves, Alicea hyperextended an elbow in a collision with Chipper Jones, La Russa said. Gallego started five of the six remaining games. He made one error and hit .143.

End of the line

After the 1996 postseason, the Cardinals went shopping for an upgrade at second base. They pursued Ryne Sandberg of the Cubs and Jeff King of the Pirates before landing Delino DeShields, a free agent who left the Dodgers.

Alicea, a free agent, signed with the Angels. Gallego was in limbo. The Cardinals didn’t offer him salary arbitration, meaning he was ineligible to play for them until May 1, 1997.

Shortly before the start of spring training, Gallego signed a minor-league contract with the Cardinals and was invited to camp. “My main objective was to prove to them and myself that I could still play,” Gallego said.

When the 1997 regular season began, Gallego stayed in extended spring training, then joined the Louisville farm club. He got called up to the Cardinals in May to fill a utility role.

Gallego fielded well but hit .163.

In July 1997, the Cardinals gave Gallego the chance to return to Louisville, but he declined and was released.

“We had a really good run together,” La Russa said. “We had a lot more good times than tough ones.”

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Hank Aaron, baseball’s all-time leader in RBI, was at his run-producing best against the Cardinals.

Aaron died Jan. 22, 2021, at 86. He was remembered most for hitting 755 home runs and breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time record. Just as impressive, but often overlooked, is that Aaron has more RBI (2,297), more total bases (6,856) and more extra-base hits (1,477) than anyone who played in the majors.

A right-handed batter who played 21 seasons for the Braves and two for the Brewers, Aaron had more career RBI (290) versus the Cardinals than he did against any other foe.

The most RBI Aaron had in a game was six. He did it six times, the last coming against the Cardinals.

Hot hitter

The Cardinals and Braves both were in third place in their divisions entering a game on Aug. 21, 1971, at Atlanta.

Aaron had a troublesome right knee and had been shifted from the outfield to first base to replace Orlando Cepeda, the former Cardinal who was sidelined after having knee surgery.

Though 37, Aaron hit “as if he were 27,” The Sporting News noted. From July 19 to Aug. 15, he had a 22-game hitting streak.

Aaron entered the game against the Cardinals with a batting average for the season of .313. A month earlier, at the All-Star Game, he noticed Willie McCovey was wearing a knee brace. “He said it helped him,” Aaron said, “and his knee is a lot worse than mine.” Aaron started wearing a brace ‘and it has helped a lot,” he told The Sporting News.

Starry night

Steve Carlton was the Cardinals’ starting pitcher in the Saturday night game against the Braves. Carlton was one of six future Hall of Famers who played in that game. The six were Aaron and Tony La Russa for the Braves, and Lou Brock, Joe Torre, Ted Simmons and Carlton for the Cardinals. La Russa and Torre are in the Hall of Fame as managers. The others are in as players.

The Cardinals struck first, scoring three in the fourth. The Braves got a run in the bottom of the inning on Aaron’s RBI-single. They tied the score, 3-3, in the sixth when Aaron hit a Carlton changeup over the wall in left for a two-run home run.

In the seventh, the Braves took charge, scoring five times for an 8-3 lead. The key hit again came from Aaron, who sent a high curve from Carlton over the wall in right for a three-run home run. 

“Anytime you have a night like this against a guy like Carlton you know he’s just making mistakes,” Aaron told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He’s a guy who has great stuff.”

The Braves went on to an 8-5 victory in a game played in one hour, 59 minutes. Boxscore

Real deal

Aaron’s six RBI gave him a career total of 1,935 and moved him ahead of Ty Cobb for fourth all-time. Cobb was thought to have 1,933 RBI then. Cobb’s total since has been adjusted to 1,944, according to baseball-reference.com

The pair of home runs against Carlton put Aaron at 627 for his career. He hit a total of six versus Carlton and his lifetime batting mark against him was .342.

Only the Reds (97) and Dodgers (95) gave up more home runs to Aaron than the Cardinals did (91).

In 354 games versus the Cardinals, Aaron produced 290 RBI and hit .308.

Aaron finished the 1971 season with 47 home runs and 118 RBI. It was his 11th and last season of 100 RBI or more. In 11 games against the Cardinals in 1971, Aaron had 16 RBI and hit .439. His on-base percentage against them that season was .521.

As Braves pitcher George Stone said to the Atlanta Constitution, “That guy is unreal.”

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Bernard Gilkey hoped to cap his playing career with a second stint for his hometown team, the Cardinals, but it didn’t work out.

Twenty years ago, on Jan. 5, 2001, the Cardinals signed Gilkey, a free agent, to a minor-league contract for $700,000 and invited him to spring training to try for a spot as a reserve outfielder.

The Cardinals’ top three outfielders, J.D. Drew, Jim Edmonds and Ray Lankford, all batted from the left side. A right-handed batter, Gilkey, 34, was projected as someone who could fill in against left-handed pitching.

Making his mark

Gilkey, a St. Louis native, began his career with the Cardinals and played for them from 1990-95. He had his best season as a Cardinal in 1993, hitting .305, with 40 doubles, and scoring 99 runs.

In January 1996, a month after the Cardinals acquired outfielder Ron Gant, Gilkey was traded to the Mets. He had a career year for the 1996 Mets, hitting .317, with 44 doubles and 30 home runs. He drove in 117 runs and scored 108.

The Mets traded Gilkey to the Diamondbacks in July 1998. Two months later, he had laser eye surgery to fix a retina and improve his vision.

On the outs

In February 1999, the Diamondbacks and Pirates agreed to a trade of Gilkey for Al Martin and Tony Womack.

One issue needed to be resolved for the trade to be completed: the clubs wanted to revise terms about deferred money in Gilkey’s contract. The revision required Gilkey’s approval in order for the trade to go through.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “that deferred money, $5 million paid into an annuity that will pay Gilkey $1 million a year for 25 years, was the rub in this trade.”

The Diamondbacks came up with a new plan for paying the deferred money, but Gilkey rejected it and refused to approve the trade.

Two days later, the Pirates sent Womack to the Diamondbacks for a pair of prospects.

Womack, who played second base for the Pirates, was put in right field by the Diamondbacks and Gilkey was moved to the bench.

A year later, Gilkey seldom played and struggled to hit. In one miserable stretch, he had one hit in 47 at-bats.

“It was just like I wasn’t part of the team,” Gilkey told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “There’s only so much cheering you can do.”

In June 2000, with his batting average for the season at .110, Gilkey was released. A few days later, the Red Sox signed him. Gilkey hit .231 in 36 games for the 2000 Red Sox and became a free agent after the season.

Good opportunity

The Cardinals got a good report on Gilkey from Red Sox assistant general manager Lee Thomas, who was director of player development for the Cardinals in 1984 when Gilkey first signed with them as an amateur.

“I think he’s got enough left where he could be a productive player off the bench,” Thomas told the Post-Dispatch.

Gilkey was one of several free-agent outfielders signed by the Cardinals in January 2001 to compete for spots as reserves. Others included Bobby Bonilla and John Mabry.

Regarding his return to the Cardinals, Gilkey said, “When I got the opportunity, I thought the baseball gods were back on my side.”

Gilkey said he was motivated to keep playing because he wanted to regain respect he thought had been lost. “I’m playing for pride now,” he said.

No vacancy

The Cardinals gave Gilkey a long look at spring training in Florida. The emergence of rookie Albert Pujols provided more competition for the outfield spots on the roster.

Before opening the season in Denver, the Cardinals went to Oakland and Seattle to play exhibition games. Gilkey made the trip, along with Bonilla, Mabry and Pujols. The Cardinals figured to keep two of the four as outfielders on the Opening Day roster. Drew, Edmonds and Lankford had locks on the other outfield spots.

On April 2, the eve of the 2001 season opener, the Cardinals put Mabry and Pujols on the roster, placed Bonilla on the disabled list and released Gilkey. According to the Post-Dispatch, Gilkey batted .196 in spring training exhibition games, but hit the ball better than the average showed.

“Gilkey had a pretty good spring training,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “He just had some guys do better.”

Gilkey said, “It’s just the way the ball bounces. I don’t feel like I was deprived or deceived or anything like that.”

Still in the game

According to the Post-Dispatch, Gilkey had indicated he might retire if he didn’t get a spot on the Cardinals’ roster, but the Braves contacted him and made a convincing pitch. “They told me there was a very good chance things would work out,” Gilkey said.

On April 12, 2001, Gilkey signed a minor-league contract with the Braves. He went to their Richmond farm team and hit .271 in 13 games.

The Braves called up Gilkey on May 4 when they were in Atlanta for a series against the Cardinals. 

“I thought I had a pretty decent spring training,” Gilkey told the Atlanta Constitution, “but when I went down to Richmond I got a lot of at-bats, so that helped.”

In his Braves debut, Gilkey was sent into the May 4 game against the Cardinals in the ninth inning. Dave Veres struck him out on a split-fingered pitch to end the game. Boxscore

The next night, manager Bobby Cox started Gilkey in left field and batted him seventh in the order. Gilkey responded with two hits, including a two-run home run, against starter Rick Ankiel in a 6-5 victory for the Braves. Boxscore

“Without that home run, we wouldn’t be quite so happy right now,” Cox said.

Gilkey hit .274 in 69 games for the 2001 Braves, who qualified for the playoffs and reached the National League Championship Series before being defeated by the Diamondbacks.

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Nick Punto fielded flawlessly at second base for the Cardinals in the 2011 postseason and helped them become World Series champions.

Ten years ago, on Jan. 21, 2011, the Cardinals signed Punto, a free agent, to fill a utility role as the backup to Skip Schumaker at second, Ryan Theriot at short and David Freese at third.

When the Cardinals surged into a playoff spot in September, Punto was a key contributor. He helped with his glove and bat, and also with his hijinks. Punto got the nickname “Shredder” for playfully tearing off the uniform jerseys of teammates during impromptu victory celebrations.

Versatile player

A switch-hitter, Punto made his major-league debut with the Phillies in 2001. He got traded to the Twins two years later. With the Twins, Punto was the starter at second base in 2005, at third base in 2006 and 2007, and at shortstop in 2008 and 2009. He opened the 2010 season as the Twins’ starting third baseman before being shifted into a utility role.

Granted free agency after the 2010 season, Punto, 33, signed with the Cardinals for one year at $750,000.

Punto replaced Aaron Miles, who became a free agent after the 2010 season. The Cardinals showed little interest in retaining Miles, who went to the Dodgers.

Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak described Punto as a “much better than average defensive player,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

At spring training, Punto had surgery for a hernia and began the season on the disabled list. With Punto shelved, Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene were the Cardinals’ utility infielders.

In and out

Punto healed faster than expected and was activated on April 19. Ten days later, his two-run triple with two outs in the 11th inning lifted the Cardinals to a victory over the Braves. Boxscore

On May 10, another triple by Punto drove in the go-ahead run in a win against the Cubs. Boxscore

A week later, Punto’s season skidded to a halt when he went back on the disabled list because of a right forearm strain that made it painful for him to throw.

Punto was out for six weeks. When he returned to the lineup on June 28, he went 2-for-4 with a RBI and run scored against the Orioles. His leadoff triple in the seventh led to a run. Boxscore

Soon after, Punto began to experience significant pain while throwing. It got so bad that on July 17, after Punto singled against the Reds, manager Tony La Russa didn’t let him go to the field, using catcher Tony Cruz to play second base instead. Boxscore

Cruz became the eighth player the Cardinals used at second base in 2011, joining Allen Craig, Daniel Descalso, Tyler Greene, Pete Kozma, Skip Schumaker, Ryan Theriot and Punto.

Punto told the Post-Dispatch the pain was “definitely affecting” his throws. “I can’t keep putting the team at risk by continuing to play like this,” Punto said.

On July 29, Punto was placed on the disabled list for the third time that season. The injury was diagnosed as a strained oblique muscle.

Welcome back

Punto stayed on the disabled list until September. When he returned, he made an immediate impact.

On Sept. 9, the Cardinals (76-67) opened a three-game series at home against the Braves (84-60). The Braves were the leaders for the wild-card spot in the playoffs, and the Cardinals needed a series sweep to enhance their chances of overtaking them.

In the ninth inning, Albert Pujols delivered a two-run single with two outs, tying the score. In the 10th, Punto, appearing in a Cardinals game for the first time since July 28, drove in the winning run with a sacrifice fly. Boxscore

La Russa told the Post-Dispatch he was confident Punto would come through because he recalled how Punto tripled to beat the Braves in extra innings in April.

Punto’s teammates celebrated by shredding Punto’s jersey. Punto said the idea of shredding a jersey after a big win came from his wife, Natalie, when he was with the Twins.

“We clinched to get into the playoffs and we were celebrating and she ripped my shirt,” Punto recalled. “I kind of liked it. So I ripped everybody else’s shirts.”

The win propelled the Cardinals to the coveted series sweep of the Braves. A few days later, Punto hit a game-winning double against the Pirates. Video

The Cardinals went on to win 18 of 26 games in September and edged the Braves for the wild-card spot.

Punto hit .308 in September and had an on-base percentage of .424 for the month. He finished the regular season with a .278 batting mark in 63 games and an on-base percentage of .388. He hit .359 with runners in scoring position.

Making the plays

Punto played a prominent role in the Cardinals’ postseason. He started at second base in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Phillies and made terrific fielding plays to help gain a 1-0 victory for the Cardinals. “La Russa’s decision to start Punto paid off,” Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz noted. Boxscore

In the National League Championship Series versus the Brewers, Punto made four starts at second base and the Cardinals won all four games. He also started in five games at second in the World Series against the Rangers. He had five walks and three hits in 19 plate appearances for a World Series on-base percentage of .421.

“His penchant for doing the right things at bat and not the wrong things in the field have been notable,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

Punto played 85.2 innings in the 2011 postseason and committed no errors.

La Russa described him as “a very heady player” and “an extremely valuable defensive player.”

Punto became a free agent after the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series title. The Cardinals expressed interest in bringing back Punto, but he went with the Red Sox, who gave him a two-year contract worth $3 million.

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Catcher Pat Borders experienced a wide range of highs and lows in his short stay with the Cardinals.

Twenty-five years ago, on Jan. 14, 1996, Borders, a free agent, signed a minor-league contract with the Cardinals and was invited to spring training.

Borders, 32, earned a roster spot, made the Opening Day starting lineup and represented the Cardinals as their catcher on the National League all-star ballot.

By June, he no longer was on the team.

Center stage

A standout high school player in Lake Wales, Fla., Borders was chosen by the Blue Jays in the sixth round of the 1982 amateur baseball draft.

He played third base and first base his first four seasons in the minors before converting to catcher in 1986.

Borders made his debut in the majors in 1988, and he was the Blue Jays’ starting catcher when they won consecutive World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston liked Borders for his durability and skill at blocking pitches in the dirt.

In 1992, the Blue Jays played 12 postseason games _ six against manager Tony La Russa’s Athletics in the American League Championship Series and six versus the Braves in the World Series _ and Borders produced hits in all of them.

Borders was named most valuable player of the 1992 World Series. He hit .450. With nine hits and two walks in 22 plate appearances, his on-base percentage was .500.

Bad timing

Granted free agency after the strike-shortened 1994 season, Borders found few takers. Team owners claimed they lost $700 million in the strike and weren’t in the mood to spend.

In April 1995, Borders, who was paid $2.5 million by the Blue Jays in 1994, signed with the Royals for $310,000.

“It’s a big reduction,” Borders told the Toronto Sun, “but then again I remember the days when I had a job making $5 an hour. Besides, I’m doing something I love.”

Brent Mayne did most of the catching for the 1995 Royals. Borders was traded to the Astros in August. Borders said the trade “came as a complete shock,” but the Kansas City Star reported he “had too many defensive deficiencies.”

Opportunity knocks

A free agent after the 1995 season, Borders appealed to the Cardinals, who were seeking a backup to catcher Tom Pagnozzi. In 1995, Pagnozzi hit .215 and was limited to 62 games because of multiple injuries. It was the third consecutive year Pagnozzi spent time on the disabled list. The Cardinals hoped Borders would join Danny Sheaffer in giving them depth at catcher.

Borders signed a one-year deal for $350,000. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Pagnozzi is a Gold Glove catcher. I don’t think anyone would be ashamed of being a backup to him.”

He also was looking forward to playing for manager Tony La Russa, who left the Athletics for the Cardinals after the 1995 season.

“From what I understand from other players, La Russa prepares his pitchers and catchers to be as mentally ready as anybody in the game,” Borders said.

Borders impressed La Russa with his play at Cardinals spring training in 1996. In late March, Pagnozzi injured his left wrist and went on the disabled list. Borders was selected by La Russa to start at catcher in the season opener against the Mets at New York.

According to the Post-Dispatch, La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan “were impressed with his game-calling this spring.”

In and out

Borders, batting seventh, had two hits and scored a run in the Cardinals’ 1996 season opener. Boxscore

He did most of the catching for the Cardinals in the first month of the season, playing in 17 of their first 25 games and batting .351 for April. “I’m catching a lot more than I did last year,” Borders said. “This is wonderful.”

When the ballots came out for fan voting for the all-star team, Borders was the Cardinals catcher listed by Major League Baseball.

Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz noted, “He’s a bulldog behind the plate. He’s hitting, too. It’s going to be difficult, any time soon, for Tom Pagnozzi to take the catcher’s equipment away from Borders.”

May was a different story. Pagnozzi, who played six games in April, played in 23 games in May and hit .325.

“How do I say this? We just needed some consistency back there,” Pagnozzi said. “We needed a little bit of leadership back there, some direction.”

La Russa said Borders and Sheaffer “did a real good job,” but Pagnozzi “deserved the playing time. He does a good job handling pitchers and shows imagination in his pitch selection.”

On May 10, Borders entered a game against the Dodgers in the 11th inning and played first base for the first time in the majors. In the 12th, a hard grounder by Eric Karros went off Borders’ glove for an error and Raul Mondesi scored from second with the winning run. Boxscore

“It was a play I should have made,” Borders said. “It cost us the game.”

From May 7 to June 9, Borders got a total of seven at-bats.

“He’s a major-league catcher,” La Russa said. “I’m hoping an opportunity opens up for him.”

On June 15, 1996, the Cardinals traded Borders to the Angels for pitcher Ben VanRyn. 

In 26 games for the Cardinals, Borders hit .319.

He went on to play a total of 17 seasons in the majors.

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Bobby Bonilla began and ended his major-league career with Tony La Russa as his manager.

Twenty years ago, on Jan. 5, 2001, La Russa was the Cardinals’ manager when they signed Bonilla, a free agent, to fill a role as a utility player and pinch-hitter.

Bonilla, who turned 38 a month after joining the Cardinals, was winding down an accomplished playing career. He debuted in the majors with the 1986 White Sox, when La Russa was their manager.

From Class A to majors

Bonilla, born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., was 18 when he signed with the Pirates in July 1981 and entered their farm system.

At spring training with the Pirates in 1985, Bonilla suffered a severe ankle injury in a collision with teammate Bip Roberts while pursuing a pop fly. He was limited to playing 39 games at the Class A level in 1985. The White Sox selected him in the Rule 5 draft after the season.

A switch-hitter who played the outfield, first and third, Bonilla impressed La Russa with his talent and work ethic at White Sox spring training in 1986.

“He gives us a lot of flexibility,” La Russa told the Chicago Tribune. “He has a feel for the game. He can do a lot of creative stuff to win the game. It’s hard to find a player like that.”

Bonilla, 23, sealed a spot on the White Sox’s 1986 Opening Day roster after hitting a home run against the Twins’ Bert Blyleven late in spring training.

He took over at first base after starter Greg Walker fractured a wrist in mid-April. Bonilla’s first home run in the big leagues came against the Indians’ 47-year-old Phil Niekro. Boxscore

When Walker returned to the lineup, La Russa played Bonilla in left field. In June, La Russa was fired by general manager Ken “Hawk” Harrelson. A month later, Harrelson traded Bonilla to the Pirates.

Winning combination

Playing for Pirates manager Jim Leyland, a former coach on La Russa’s White Sox staff, Bonilla thrived. Bonilla led the National League in extra-base hits (78) in 1990 and in doubles (44) in 1991.

Bonilla went on to play for the Mets and Orioles before joining the Marlins. He was reunited with Leyland, who had become the Marlins’ manager. With Bonilla playing third base and contributing 96 RBI, Leyland led the 1997 Marlins to a World Series championship.

After that, Bonilla played for the Dodgers, the Mets again, and the Braves. After the Cardinals swept the Braves in the 2000 National League Division Series, Bonilla was released.

Still wanted

In 2000, Eric Davis had excelled for the Cardinals as a backup outfielder and pinch-hitter who tormented left-handers. Davis hit .390 against left-handers in 2000. After the season, he became a free agent and joined the Giants.

The Cardinals sought someone who could do in 2001 what Davis did for them in 2000.

La Russa, the Cardinals’ manager, and Leyland, who had joined the Cardinals as a scout, advocated for Bonilla. As a utility player for the 2000 Braves, Bonilla hit .372 versus left-handers. He also batted .308 as a pinch-hitter. By comparison, Cardinals pinch-hitters batted .199 in 2000.

Bonilla accepted the Cardinals’ offer of a one-year contract for $900,000.

“Tony giving you a call like that really makes you feel good,” Bonilla said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

La Russa said he was considering platooning Ray Lankford and Bonilla in left field if Bonilla “is on his game.”

“Ray can do a good job against right-handers, but we’re looking for somebody against left-handers, who is respected, to hit behind Mark McGwire,” La Russa said. “Bobby Bonilla is respected. A lot of people are afraid of him. Now, for this to happen, he’s got to stay healthy.”

Astros manager Larry Dierker said his club also tried to sign Bonilla. “I know he’s not a great player any more,” Dierker told the Post-Dispatch, “but when he comes up in a close game, he’s scary.”

Listed at 240 pounds, skeptics cited Bonilla’s defensive limitations and lack of speed as liabilities.

“Will Bobby Bonilla report in tip-top shape to the Cardinals, or will the club have to weigh him with a livestock scale?” asked Jeff Gordon of the Post-Dispatch.

Good impression

Bonilla was one of the Cardinals’ best performers at spring training in 2001.

“He’s been good, very good,” general manager Walt Jocketty said. “He’s probably been the biggest surprise.”

La Russa responded, “If you know Bobby, it’s not a surprise. This guy has played on winning ballclubs. What has been really positive has been his conditioning. He’s put a lot of time into all parts of the game.”

Bonilla hit .389 with four home runs in spring training games. According to the Post-Dispatch, La Russa planned to start Bonilla in left field on Opening Day at Denver against left-hander Mike Hampton.

The plan changed on March 24 when Bonilla was removed from a spring training game because of a hamstring injury.

Instead of Bonilla in left field on Opening Day, it was rookie Albert Pujols. Bonilla began the season on the disabled list.

Ups and downs

On April 4, in the Cardinals’ second game of the season, Bonilla was ejected by plate umpire Greg Bonin for arguing balls and strikes from the bench. Bonilla was ejected before he played a game for the Cardinals. Boxscore

After sitting out the first six games of the season, Bonilla made his Cardinals debut as the right fielder in the home opener against Rockies left-hander Denny Neagle. In the ninth, Bonilla’s leadoff double versus left-handed reliever Gabe White started the rally that led to the winning run. Boxscore

A week later, the Cardinals were trailing, 15-4, at home against the Diamondbacks when La Russa asked Bonilla to pitch the ninth inning. Bonilla, who hadn’t pitched since high school, gave up a home run to the first Diamondbacks batter he faced, Erubiel Durazo. Bonilla completed the inning, allowing two runs on three hits and a walk. He also was called for a balk. Boxscore

“It wasn’t a great situation, or a fun situation,” Bonilla said.

The next night, Bonilla started at first base and had a home run, a double and two RBI against Diamondbacks left-hander Randy Johnson. Bonilla hit .375 in his career against the future Hall of Famer. Boxscore

Another highlight for Bonilla came on June 15 when he hit a grand slam, the ninth of his career, versus White Sox left-hander Kelly Wunsch. Boxscore

A month later, Bonilla got his 2,000th career hit, a single against Roy Oswalt, an Astros right-hander. Boxscore

Bonilla hit .370 in July, but then slumped. He had one hit in his last 16 at-bats. For the season, he hit .213 with five home runs. As a pinch-hitter, he batted .167. His batting average versus left-handers was .232.

Though granted free agency after the season, his playing career was done. He finished with 2,010 hits, including 408 doubles, and 1,173 RBI.

Bonilla reached the postseason with six different clubs: Pirates, Orioles, Marlins, Mets, Braves and Cardinals.

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