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Bonifay burned by bad decisions



Published: Tue, June 12, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Thanks to Cleveland Indians general manager John Hart, Pirates GM Cam Bonifay was able to hold onto his job as long as he did.

The deal that saved Bonifay, who was fired Monday after the Pirates' dismal 19-41 start, from an earlier dismissal came in November 1998, when he wisely shipped left-handed reliever Ricardo Rincon to the Indians for outfielder Brian Giles.

Dealing Giles made sense for a World Series contender playing before sellout crowds every home game.

Criticism: Hart took a lot of heat for that deal -- not so much for trading Giles (who wasn't going to see much action playing behind Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez and David Justice) but for getting so little in return. (Even the most diehard Indians fan would agree that Rincon's appearance in a game doesn't generate much reassurance.)

An everyday player in Pittsburgh, Giles has blossomed into an All-Star, batting .315 and hitting 74 homers in 1999 and 2000.

Hart also was there to help out when Bonifay overpaid for free-agent outfielder Wil Cordero following the 1999 season.

When no one else was interested in Cordero, Bonifay overpaid the controversial outfielder by at least $8 million when he signed him to a three-year, $9 million pact.

Last summer, when the Indians needed some pop off the bench, the Indians traded Enrique Wilson and Alex Ramirez to the Bucs to get Cordero back in a Tribe uniform.

Those deals helped cover up some of Bonifay's recent blunders that have turned the Pirates into one of baseball's worst teams.

More examples: His second-worst mistake came two-and-a-half years ago when he signed Twins shortstop Pat Meares to a four-year, $16 million contract.

For six years, Meares was a mediocre shortstop in Minnesota. His best season came in 1997 when he batted .276. Why would a cash-strapped ballclub give so much of its annual $32 million payroll to an unimpressive middle infielder when the highly-touted Abraham Nunez was coming up through the minor league system?

The biggest mistake came last winter when Bonifay signed free-agent outfielder Derek Bell to a two-year, $9 million contract.

Last year, Bell batted a very mediocre .266 for the Mets, was injured in New York's opening playoff game against the Giants and didn't play in the National League Championship Series or World Series.

After last year's dismal 69-93 season, one could argue the Pirates needed help just about everywhere. But when Giles (35 homers, 123 RBIs), Adrian Brown (.315 batting average) and John Vander Wal (.299, 94 RBIs) had all earned starting positions in the outfield, why spend so much on Bell?

Bonifay, who became GM in June 1993 when Ted Simmons stepped down because of an illness, leaves with a legacy of nine losing seasons.

The first four weren't his fault. After the Bucs won their third-straight NL East pennant in 1992, the team fell apart when they couldn't afford to keep free-agents such as Barry Bonds from leaving for greener pastures.

Much of Bonifay's early tenure was spent finding ways to shed payroll as attendance declined at Three Rivers Stadium and out-of-town buyers circled the franchise like sharks.

Limited spending: When Kevin McClatchy bought the team in 1996, the emphasis was on tight payrolls until PNC Park could be built.

Despite that restriction, the Pirates were contenders for the NL Central title in 1997, which earned Bonifay the honor of being named The Sporting News' Executive of the Year.

Fans didn't seem to mind how pathetic the Pirates were in 1998, 1999 and 2000 because a new ballpark was on the way and the club's winning ways would return once it opened.

PNC Park is here, but the Bucs are years away from contending. Bonifay's dismissal is the right move.

XTom Williams covers Major League Baseball for The Vindicator. Write him at williams@vindy.com.




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