Every July 1, for 25 years (2011 through 2035) the New York Mets pay Bobby Bonilla $1,193,248.20 – and for that reason I am a Bonilla fan.
I was never a fan of Bobby Bonilla the baseball player. First off, he was a slugger. I preferred guys like Rod Carew, Pete Rose, and Felix Millan, contact hitters who could bunt and hit behind the runner, play solid defense, and be a good presence in the clubhouse.
But I sure am a fan of Bobby Bonilla the financial wizard who selected an income annuity instead of a cash payout.
From 1986 through 2001 he earned his living as an outfielder. Six times he was an all-star. From 1992 through 1994 he was the highest paid player in the league. He became the highest paid player in all of team sports when he signed on with the New York Mets. That was a five-year, $29 million contract inked in December 1991.
The Mets traded Bonilla away in July 1995 but welcomed him back in 1999.
In 1999 he played in just 60 games and hit a mere .160 – insufficient numbers for someone earning big bucks. The Mets released Bonilla after their 1999 playoff loss to the Braves. During that loss, Bonilla reportedly was in the clubhouse playing cards.
But the Mets still owed Bonilla $5.9 million for the 2000 season, per his guaranteed contract. The Mets could have paid Bonilla the $5.9 million and wished him farewell. Or, Bonilla could have insisted on payment and claimed the money.
Instead the Mets and Bonilla came up with a most unusual payment method – a variation of the income annuity.
The Mets would set the money aside, earmarked for Bonilla, but he wouldn't receive a penny of it until July 1, 2011, at which time Bonilla would be age 48 and annual payments would begin. From 2000 through the end of the payment period – July 1, 2035 – the Mets guaranteed Bonilla 8% annual interest on the money.
Thanks to the magic of compounding interest, the interest rate itself, and the passage of time, by the time Bonilla collects the last payment – in 2035 at age 72 – that $5.9 million he didn't insist on grabbing will have grown to $29.8 million.
Many people would have taken the $5.9 million and started spending left and right. Whether it's a sports contract or winning a lottery, people tend to take the money and run. And a few years later they're often scrambling to get by.
Many lottery winners blow their money within a year and are left with nothing. Many entertainers and athletes rake in big bucks but spend it in an equally big way. Those with shortened careers – the singer whose songs no longer are hits, the athlete who gets injured – end up broke.
Why did the Mets agree to such a deal? Principal owner, president and CEO Fred Wilpon and his COO and son (and my former classmate) Jeff Wilpon thought they could make at least 10% a year by investing the money on their own. So the idea of paying Bonilla in deferred annual payments made sense to them.
The Wilpons invested the money in a fund that "guaranteed" a double-digit return, so paying Bonilla 8% interest would still leave them with a nice profit. Over the life of the deal, which covered 35 years (10 years of Bonilla's waiting and then 25 years of payouts), and with 10% (minimum) interest expected, the Mets owners would have profited – even after paying Bonilla his annual increments – by about $48 million. So they turned the money over to their friendly investment guru, a chap named Bernie Madoff. That money disappeared.
Bonilla once gave these words of wisdom in an interview: "I'd love to see more guys get with the right financial adviser and put money away. A lot of guys have money thrown their way and they don't know how to handle it. They lose their money or have their money taken away. There's a lot of horror stories out there from athletes to movie stars to musical entertainers. They have people who take advantage of them. I was lucky having Dennis, with people who truly looked out for me. I'd like to see more guys put it away, have that safety net."
Bonilla's agent at the time was a chap named Dennis Gilbert, who once said that what matters most "is not how much you make, or how much you have, it's how much you keep." The goal is to be set for life.
More words of wisdom.
Bobby Bonilla hit a lot of home runs, which I don't care about.
But he made a sound, disciplined, financial decision when he could have taken the money and run.