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Leyland, Bonilla finally make it to World Series _ together

October 17, 1997

MIAMI (AP) _ The Florida Marlins’ new third baseman walked into the clubhouse with his 3-year-old son, cursing as he interrupted reporters trying to interview another player.

``Y’all get away,″ Bobby Bonilla shouted between profanities. ``There’s a new sheriff in town.″

This was last February, even before the first spring training game. Reporters trembled. Jim Leyland chuckled.

``Bobby’s OK,″ Leyland said. ``He’ll be fine.″

The Marlins’ new manager knew that he and the new sheriff would bring out the best in each other. It was that way in Pittsburgh; it turned out that way in Miami.

Now they’re in the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. For Leyland, Bonilla and the Marlins, it’s a first.

``The World Series,″ Bonilla said, wonder in his voice. ``I can’t believe I’m even saying those words.″

This season’s success has all but erased Bonilla’s reputation as a malcontent. He became a positive force in the clubhouse and on the field, playing through pain and delivering clutch hits. He unified a team of newly assembled millionaires and, to his shock, even received the Florida media’s annual ``Good Guy″ award.

In the Marlins’ pennant-clinching 7-4 victory Tuesday at Atlanta, Bonilla limped off the field in the eighth inning with three RBIs and a sore hamstring, his work done. Seven outs later, in the swarm of celebration, Bonilla and Leyland shared a long hug near home plate.

``I love you,″ Leyland told him. ``We’re going to the World Series.″

Bonilla began to cry.

``It was more of a relief hug than a joyous hug,″ he said.

Bonilla, 34, made it to the World Series in his 12th season, with his fifth team. For Leyland, 52, the wait was even longer: 33 years in professional baseball, including 12 as a major-league manager.

``I think back to a lot of the minor-league guys I knew who got released and never had this chance,″ Leyland said. ``I’m grateful.″

In deference to his other players, Leyland dislikes talking about his special bond with Bonilla. It dates back to 1986, when a rookie switch-hitter and rookie manager were united in Pittsburgh.

``It’s a thrill for Bobby and me to get to the World Series together,″ Leyland said. ``But it’s really no more of a thrill than it is for any other guy on the club.″

Still, Leyland and Bonilla are linked because of history. In 1990, led by Bonilla and Barry Bonds, the Pirates began a three-year reign as NL East champions. Twice they finished one win shy of the World Series, and once they came within an out.

Following the 1991 season, Bonilla opted for free agency and began a tumultuous 3 1/2 years with the New York Mets. He was then traded to the Baltimore Orioles, where he reached the American League championship series last year but feuded with manager Davey Johnson.

Leyland, frustrated by budget cuts and four years of losing in Pittsburgh, joined the Marlins last October. Bonilla, once again a free agent, arrived a month later, eager to be reunited with his former manager.

``We’re kind of on the same page,″ Bonilla said. ``That’s the vibe we have. He’s a very good friend. He’s one I would call in a heartbeat. Last year when I was struggling in Baltimore, he was the first person I called.″

There were struggles this year, too. After owner Wayne Huizenga spent nearly $100 million to bring in Leyland, Bonilla and five other free agents, the Marlins were expected to win.

But it was August before they clicked, winning five of seven games from Atlanta in consecutive weekend series. Only then did the team begin to satisfy the expectations of fans, the media and Leyland.

``It was a double-edged sword this year,″ Bonilla said. ``If we didn’t do what we’ve done, we were set up for a big kill.″

Instead, they’ve been flooded with congratulations. Leyland, who grew up 80 miles from Cleveland, joked that his high school class of 125 now seems like 925 because of the phone calls he received this week. Bonilla’s answering machine has been busy, too, and when he returned from the pennant-clinching game at Atlanta, the first message was from Bonds.

``About time!″ Bonds screamed.

Bonilla and Leyland couldn’t agree more.

End adv weekend editions Oct 18-19

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