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Where've you gone, Barry Bonnell?
01/24/2003 3:10 PM ET
TORONTO -- Ever since his baseball career ended, Barry Bonnell has been on a unique career odyssey. The former outfielder has become a Renaissance man of sorts, an individual gifted in several diverse areas of life.

In addition to his daily duties as a husband and a father of five, the 49-year-old Bonnell has been an airline pilot, a Mormon bishop, an importer, and a host of other things.

"I've always been that way," Bonnell said. "I have many varied interests and I've pursued them aggressively. Last year, my wife and I had been working in the garden, and I built the mother of all arbors. This thing is huge. We're growing wisteria on it and things like that. Instead of just putting basic wooden latticework up there, we decided we wanted to put some iron gates up there.

"I went out trying to find those and couldn't find anything we liked, so I decided to build my own. I went and took a blacksmith course, [and] set up a blacksmith shop under my deck. I'm building, hammering things, [working with] hot iron, with neighbors running around wondering what that noise is. That's just me. If I get interested in something, it consumes me."

Even with all that going on, Bonnell still finds time to stay involved with baseball. Along with Roy Thomas, a former teammate with the Seattle Mariners from 1984-86, Bonnell coaches an 18-and-under baseball team in his spare time. That's one of his few connections to his former vocation.

Bonnell played 10 years as a Major Leaguer, his first three with Atlanta (1977-79) and four as a Blue Jay (1980-83) before finishing with three years in Seattle, and he still looks fondly on his years with the Jays. One of his children was born in Toronto, and he said he still holds the city in high regard.

"I really enjoyed Toronto. It was a great town and the fans treated me great," said Bonnell, a resident of Redwood, Wash. "I enjoyed my teammates. I had a couple pretty good years up there and enjoyed myself thoroughly."

Bonnell said he's rarely reminded of his playing days. Sure, it comes up in conversation from time to time, but he isn't a man who dwells on the past.

"It's not that I'm not proud of it, but it's just something that I did," he said. "When I hear people throwing that up as a 'dig me' kind of thing, I don't like it and I don't do that. But I'm not ashamed of it -- if conversation gets around to it, I'm proud to associate myself with it. It was a tremendous accomplishment."

Bonnell is and always has been a man of outstanding moral fiber, so much so that it overshadowed his skill during his playing days. He said that when the media mentioned him, it was generally related to an off-field activity.


"People don't call you 'Preacher' to compliment you. I didn't preach to my teammates; I never got on my soapbox. I kept all that to myself, unless somebody asked me about it."

-- Barry Bonnell

One of those times occurred in Cincinnati, his hometown, during his rookie season. Bonnell, who was splitting time at third base and in the outfield, was a factor in the Rookie of the Year balloting, so a series in his hometown was a big deal for him. When he got there, he saw a bunch of kids from his church who were holding a supportive banner.

"It was a play on the old Harry Truman quote. It said: 'Give 'em Hell, Barry,'" Bonnell said. "I didn't want them using that kind of language. I told them to take it down and they did. They apologized and that was that -- until the national headlines the next day.

"If it was someone that I didn't know, I wouldn't have any say in it. These were kids I knew, and they were supposed to be representing a value system I believed in. It was pretty innocuous, and I could've let it go, but I'm not that way."

Perhaps because of well-meaning incidents like that, he was tagged with the nickname "Preacher." He said nobody actually called him that to his face, but it somehow showed up on the back of a baseball card. At any rate, he views that moniker as an insult, or a backhanded compliment at best.

"People don't call you 'Preacher' to compliment you," he said. "I didn't preach to my teammates; I never got on my soapbox. I kept all that to myself, unless somebody asked me about it. If it attracted attention and people asked questions, I was more than happy to answer them."

One situation, in particular, illustrates that. When Bonnell was still a prospect in Atlanta's organization, one of his teammates was a young Dale Murphy. The two are still friends to this day, and Bonnell even named one of his sons after Murphy, but their bonds were forged during the long minor league road trips.

At the back of the overcrowded school bus that took them from town to town, Bonnell said that he would tape a big fishing flashlight to the seat in front of him and would read scripture late into the night.

"Of course, somebody reading something with a flashlight in the middle of the night attracts some attention," he said. "People would come up and ask me what I was reading, so I'd tell them about it. Every once in a while, we'd get into a discussion about what a Mormon was."

He went on to say that Murphy always seemed interested in the discussions, even though he never participated. Murphy would always be on the fringe, either a seat in front of or behind Bonnell, but he would never involve himself in the exchange of ideas.

"One night, I got on the bus behind him and sat down next to him. I taped my flashlight up and started reading, and sometime in the middle of the night he started asking me questions," Bonnell said. "I told him what was going on, and then the next day he asked me to set up some meetings with some missionaries. The day after the season ended, I baptized him. That was one of my most profound experiences as a professional athlete."

Bonnell batted .318 for the Blue Jays in 1983 and then went on to Seattle. He said that a rare illness -- Valley Fever -- contributed to his early retirement from the game after the 1986 season, at age 33.

In his first season with the Mariners, Bonnell got sick when the team was in Spring Training, and he tried to play through it. Finally, when he could stand it no longer, Bonnell went to the doctor and found out he had pneumonia.

"I couldn't even hold the bat up without my arms shaking," he said. "Finally, I said, 'This is something else.' I went in and they did a chest X-ray and it looked like spider webs in there," he said. "It took me a whole year to recover from that. That was pretty much it for me. I played out my contract and I was a bit player the next two years. I had some opportunities to continue on, but I decided I'd rather be with my family and pursue other interests."

Spencer Fordin, a reporter for MLB.com, can be reached at spencer.fordin@mlb.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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