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Bobby Bonilla Day

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

James Sneed, my co-host for this episode, how are you?

JAMES SNEED, HOST:

Kenny Malone, hello.

MALONE: Before we get to, you know, like, the life-changing finance lesson that this episode is really about, I do need to ask you - you are a fan of the baseball team the New York Mets is my understanding.

SNEED: Yeah, for most of my memorable life.

MALONE: You've never seen them win a World Series.

SNEED: I have not.

MALONE: 'Cause they frequently bungle things.

SNEED: This is true.

MALONE: Let me ask you a question.

SNEED: OK.

MALONE: What do the New York Mets and opossums have in common?

SNEED: (Laughter) What?

MALONE: Both play dead at home and get killed on the road.

SNEED: Oh, my God. I knew it was something to do with playing dead, but I didn't want to say it.

MALONE: James, what's the difference between dirt and the New York Mets?

SNEED: This is torture. I know the answers to these, but I don't want to say it.

MALONE: Nothing. They both always get swept.

SNEED: Oh, my God. Did someone send you, like, a fact sheet of, like, ways to stab a Mets fan in the heart?

MALONE: James, what's the difference between a Mets fan and a baby?

SNEED: Probably, babies cry less.

MALONE: The baby will stop whining eventually.

SNEED: Oh, my God. I have not eaten today, Kenny. I'm doing this on an empty stomach.

MALONE: Are you OK? Like, have I told too many Mets jokes?

SNEED: These - honestly, these hurt. But also, I think all Mets fans would say it also hurts to be a Mets fan. And so the jokes hurt, but maybe not as much as actually being a Mets fan.

MALONE: Well, James, the point here was not to torture you. My point was to let the audience know that, in fact, the Mets have not won a World Series in 35 years.

SNEED: This is true.

MALONE: And when you lose that much, you become seen as a group that cannot do anything right. And for the Mets, as you know, James, we are here to talk about the one decision in particular that gets held up as a shining example of the Mets' ineptitude.

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Kenny Malone.

SNEED: And I'm James Sneed. Today on the show, Bobby Bonilla Day.

MALONE: Bobby Bonilla was an All-Star outfielder and third baseman for the New York Mets. And Bobby Bonilla Day is a kind of real holiday about finance and money and is a celebration of the Mets making a terrible mistake and signing a terrible contract.

SNEED: Celebration? If you're a Mets fan, Bobby Bo Day is more of a day of mourning.

MALONE: But if you are PLANET MONEY, the story of this baseball contract contains the single most important financial lesson that we can teach you.

SNEED: It's a lesson that will help you if you're buying a car, if you're paying off loans, or if you're just saving for retirement.

MALONE: Yeah, there is something for everybody in Bobby Bonilla Day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oof. It's a day I'd like to forget about. That...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What's he talking about?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Bobby Bonilla Day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Bobby Bonilla Day? Oh, man. Isn't that coming up?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's coming up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, brother.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's why he's got the microphone here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, yes.

SNEED: Hey. Excuse me. Do you mind if I ask you a couple questions?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: About the Mets?

SNEED: Yeah, about the Mets?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Sure.

MALONE: The other day we went to Citi Field, where the New York Mets play, to talk to some New York Mets fans.

SNEED: All right, I'm going to say three words, and I just want to get your reaction.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All right.

SNEED: Bobby Bonilla Day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Worst deal ever.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Boo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Are we still paying that guy?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: It's just the day that the Mets are the laughingstock of the MLB.

SNEED: If you're lucky enough to not get teased every year about Bobby Bonilla Day, here's some background. Bobby Bonilla was actually a great player. He was a six-time All-Star, World Series champion. He was actually one of the greatest switch-hitting sluggers of all time.

MALONE: Bobby Bonilla Day is July 1 because every July 1, the New York Mets are required to write a check to Bobby Bonilla for $1.2 million, which on the surface, fine, I guess, except that Bobby Bonilla does not play for the Mets anymore. He doesn't play baseball anymore. He has been retired for 20 years.

SNEED: So my Mets are paying a retired player more than some of their actual players that are playing for them right now. And the Mets have to keep writing $1.2 million checks to this retired player until the year 2035, when Bobby Bonilla will be 72 years old.

MALONE: Or, as one Mets fan explained it to his family...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Bobby Bonilla made a contract that paid him, like, a million dollars almost forever. And so the Mets are still paying Bobby Bonilla even though he's old and not playing anymore (laughter).

SNEED: There is this real laugh-or-you'll-cry feeling for a lot of Mets fans about Bobby Bonilla Day.

MALONE: And what makes all of this look worse is that the Mets will wind up paying Bobby Bonilla a total of about $30 million, but the Mets did not initially owe Bobby Bo $30 million. They owed him about 6 million. Owed 6 million, paid 30 million.

SNEED: It does seem like the Mets-iest thing that the Mets have ever messed up - owing a guy $6 million and paying a guy five times more not to play baseball.

MALONE: But for us, there is an incredibly valuable lesson in all of this once we peel apart how it is exactly the Mets managed to wind up in this situation. And to do that, we're going to go back to the year the Bobby Bonilla deal was struck, the year 2000.

JOSE FERNANDEZ: I was studying economics as an undergrad and still following the Mets, and the Bobby Bonilla event occurred.

MALONE: The event.

SNEED: Jose Fernandez is now the chair of the economics department at the University of Louisville and the president of the American Society of Hispanic Economists. And we found him because he's maybe the only economist brave enough to include hopeless Mets fan in his Twitter bio.

MALONE: It's true. And through our whole interview, Jose and my hopeless Mets co-host here, like, kept reminiscing about old players from rival teams that I guess used to destroy the Mets.

FERNANDEZ: Chipper Jones was one of those players that just...

SNEED: Oh, Chipper Jones was...

MALONE: Yeah, imagine this all interview long.

FERNANDEZ: I mean, he named his daughter Shea.

SNEED: And didn't he name his kid Shea? Oh, my God.

MALONE: All right, all right. That's enough.

FERNANDEZ: (Laughter) Yeah. He named his daughter Shea 'cause he killed us so much.

MALONE: Enough, you two Mets fans. We have to do an economic story today.

Anyway, we are in the year 2000. Jose is an undergrad. And the Mets are actually quite good.

SNEED: Yeah. I mean, during the previous season, the Mets nearly made it to the World Series. You know, we had Henderson. We had Leiter. We had Piazza.

MALONE: Sure. You had those guys that I vaguely remember. But also, notably, you had Bobby Bonilla. And unfortunately, Bobby Bo is at the very end of his career. He's been hurt recently. He's been playing badly. Jose remembers how the Mets' manager and Bobby are not seeing eye to eye.

FERNANDEZ: At that point, he had almost removed himself from the team. It was not a good atmosphere for anyone involved.

SNEED: Things are so bad that the Mets decide to release Bobby Bonilla, but they still owe him what's on his contract - $5.9 million.

MALONE: Now, you can imagine the Mets thinking, we would much rather give that $6 million to, you know, players who are actually going to play for us, who might help us get over the World Series hump.

SNEED: The Mets approach Bobby Bonilla's agent with something that happens sometimes in baseball, something called a deferred money contract.

MALONE: In essence, the Mets are asking, like, would Bobby be open to letting the Mets hang on to his $6 million for a while?

FERNANDEZ: You know, Bobby understood, well, wait; if I'm going to wait and I can't use that money today, you have to pay me something in return for waiting.

SNEED: Bobby and his agent were going to make the Mets pay for the privilege of using his money. Here were the terms. Term one - the Mets wouldn't have to pay Bobby a cent for a decade. That's great for the Mets.

MALONE: But term two - after that time period, the Mets will have to start writing a check to Bobby Bonilla for about $1.2 million every year on July 1. Going to have to write a check in 2011, 2012, 2013, all the way until the year 2035. And this is great news for Bobby because all those checks add up to about $30 million in total.

SNEED: So the deal boiled down to this. Bobby would let the Mets keep his $6 million, do whatever they want with it for a whole decade. But when all was said and done, they'd have to pay him $30 million.

MALONE: The Mets decide to do this deal. And Jose Fernandez, our budding economist when all this is happening, he remembers some of his fellow Mets fans losing their minds, like, wait; what are the Mets about to do?

FERNANDEZ: And they're like, how is that the - how is $30 million versus 6 million? They couldn't wrap their minds around it. I know on paper it seems ridiculous, but I thought this might actually work out for the Mets.

SNEED: Did you talk to anybody about how you felt, and did other Mets fans...

FERNANDEZ: Yeah, they all thought I was crazy. They're like, what?

MALONE: And then you said to them...

FERNANDEZ: Well, I said, there's this little thing called compounding interest rates, and a lot of things can happen over time (laughter) if you invest.

MALONE: Compounding interest. Now, some of you may already know the magical properties of compound interest, but if you do not, please let this be the single takeaway from this episode - the power of compound interest.

SNEED: To show us how this fits into the Bobby Bo story, Jose sent us a spreadsheet.

MALONE: Do you want me to open this up and look at it with you?

FERNANDEZ: Sure. I have it open.

MALONE: OK. This is our PLANET MONEY love language, Jose - when a source sends us a spreadsheet.

FERNANDEZ: (Laughter).

MALONE: In this spreadsheet is mathematical absolution, James. It is proof that you and Mets fans have nothing to be ashamed about on Bobby Bonilla Day.

SNEED: It is salve on our soul.

FERNANDEZ: So what I'm doing here is I am putting the initial amount that was owed, which is the $5.9 million. And that's the number I want to compare everything to.

MALONE: OK.

FERNANDEZ: The contract was...

SNEED: Jose is essentially going to run a bunch of compound interest calculations. And the idea of compound interest is that money snowballs when it's earning interest. It snowballs more than seems possible.

MALONE: Yeah, because the money you start with earns interest, so now you have more money. You have what you started with, plus the interest. And then this bigger pile of money - well, that earns even more interest. And now your even bigger pile earns even more interest, and so on, and so on. And if you let this happen for a long time, a small investment magically turns into a quite large amount of money.

And here's an investing example to show you how this plays out. Now, historically, the stock market averages about 10% returns each year. Caveats apply. Past performance is not indicative of future performance. It's not adjusted for inflation, et cetera, et cetera. But over the long run, the stock market has returned about 10% per year.

SNEED: Hypothetically, if you throw $1,000 into the stock market and reinvest your earnings every year, then in seven years, your $1,000 would grow into about $2,000.

MALONE: And then if you do this for another seven years, that money will roughly double again, and then again in seven years. And after just 30 years of compound gains, $1,000 snowballs into $17,000.

SNEED: This is why the most common piece of financial advice you will ever get is, if you have a dollar today, invest it as soon as possible. This is true for your retirement, for your kids' college. If you can save a dollar today, it will likely snowball into lots more money if you let the earnings compound.

FERNANDEZ: You start to look at everything from a long-run horizon - right? - start to think about not only, how am I spending this dollar today, but what could've I used that dollar on in the future?

MALONE: OK. So back in the year 2000, when the Mets are asking to keep Bobby Bonilla's money, they are asking to keep way more than just $6 million. They get to keep the snowballing potential of that money. The Mets, and not Bobby, would get all of these years that the money could be earning and compounding and snowballing.

SNEED: Yeah. And the Mets have options. Maybe they just invest Bobby's money in the stock market. Maybe they invest it in new players. And if they, you know, make it to the World Series, that brings in money. Maybe they'll invest in stadium upgrades, and that brings in a bunch of money.

MALONE: Yeah. The bottom line is that the Mets should be able to find a way to grow Bobby Bonilla's money. And then when they actually have to finally pay him in the future, they will have more money. Like, they should be able to reimburse him for all that time that he did not get to grow the money.

SNEED: The only question was, at what rate do they assume the money will grow? And the Mets and Bobby, they settle on this totally reasonable rate of 8% a year.

MALONE: And what our Mets-loving economist Jose's spreadsheet shows us is that $6 million with 8% annual compound interest, it grows into exactly the amount of money the Mets are paying Bobby Bonilla. In other words, $6 million in the year 2000 is worth the exact same as the roughly $30 million they are paying him in the future.

FERNANDEZ: So for the Mets, it's kind of like a wash whether I pay that money now or later. Even though it does sound nominally as a lot more money on paper in the year 2000, it was a good deal for the Mets.

MALONE: As long as they invested the money well.

FERNANDEZ: As long as they invested the money well.

MALONE: If.

FERNANDEZ: Which is a big if.

MALONE: It's a big if.

(LAUGHTER)

SNEED: We wanted to talk to the Mets about this and ask them, like, what'd you do with that Bobby Bo money? But they declined to talk to us for this story. So the best that we can give you is kind of this choose-your-own-adventure ending here.

MALONE: Yeah, because the facts are these. On one hand, it is true that right when Bobby Bonilla made this deal with the Mets, the Mets signed an amazing new player...

SNEED: Mike Hampton.

MALONE: ...Mike Hampton, who immediately helped the Mets make the World Series. And Mike Hampton's salary - just about $6 million.

SNEED: So the happy ending is keeping the Bobby Bo money allowed the Mets to get a player who helped them get to a World Series.

MALONE: But the sad ending, as reported by The New York Times, is that the Mets owners may have taken that Bobby Bonilla money and invested it with Bernie Madoff, who at the time was running the largest Ponzi scheme in history.

SNEED: That is a pretty Mets ending.

MALONE: Oh, James, it is the most Mets ending.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

SNEED: After the break...

BOBBY BONILLA: Yellow?

MALONE: Is this Bobby Bonilla?

BONILLA: Speaking.

MALONE: What Bobby Bonilla Day is like when you are Bobby Bonilla.

Do you want us to call you Bobby, Bo, Mr. Bonilla?

BONILLA: No, that's - guys, guys, the only time you have to get my name right is when you're giving me a check.

(LAUGHTER)

MALONE: Bobby Bonilla is now living in Bradenton, Fla., spending time with his family, playing tennis, playing golf.

SNEED: He works for the baseball players union. He seems pretty happy.

MALONE: So we are curious. Back in 2000, what were you thinking?

BONILLA: Well, I just - I don't know. I had a - I just always wanted to be able to make sure I had money 'cause I didn't grow up with cash.

MALONE: Sure.

BONILLA: So, you know, one of the fears that a lot of athletes have is losing everything.

MALONE: Yeah.

BONILLA: And it's a very valid fear, and it's something that keeps all athletes up at night. And I just had a real fear. So I said, you know, let me find a way to put some more money away.

SNEED: Bobby said he thought of this deal like his pension, his nest egg, he says. He was happy to trade that, you know, big payday in 2000 for a steady stream of $1.2 million checks in his retirement.

MALONE: Do you actually get a check in the mail? Is it, like, direct deposit? How does this work every July 1?

BONILLA: Well, no. You know, they send a check.

MALONE: Yeah.

BONILLA: And, you know, I just go to the bank and deposit it. I do get smiles when the tellers deposit it. They go, oh, OK.

(LAUGHTER)

BONILLA: Oh, all right.

SNEED: On the actual days there, like, do you go get a drink? Do you play some golf? Do you celebrate it?

BONILLA: Yeah, I - well, once I'm done answering every single text message that I get.

(LAUGHTER)

BONILLA: Which can - on that particular day, takes all day. They forget my birthday, which is fine.

SNEED: Yeah.

BONILLA: No one forgets July 1.

SNEED: No, no. They wouldn't.

BONILLA: No one. But it's in a good thing - if it helps, you know, athletes really see the advantage of putting away money and not thinking that you have to have everything all at once, I think, is a good thing.

MALONE: The New York Mets are now under new ownership, and the new owner is this hedge fund manager named Steve Cohen, who recently floated the idea of embracing Bobby Bonilla Day, as in, like, actually flying Bobby Bonilla to Citi Field every July 1 and personally presenting him with the check.

SNEED: Hopefully it's a really big cardboard check.

MALONE: Yeah, big - like, what are you doing if not?

SNEED: What are you doing? We were delighted to learn that Steve Cohen has, in fact, personally pitched this idea to Bobby Bonilla.

BONILLA: Yes, he did reach out to me.

MALONE: Oh, OK.

BONILLA: And I said, all right. Now let me think about that.

MALONE: So you haven't committed to it, but you're also...

BONILLA: I have not as of yet, no.

MALONE: But it's not off the table.

BONILLA: No - well, it wasn't. I said I'll think about it. I mean, I said - you - this - I was thinking to myself, this could be interesting.

MALONE: Listen; if Bobby decides to do this, it does seem like the fans at Citi Field are ready to embrace it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Bobby Bonilla Day, baby. Let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Why are you even asking about that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: He took advantage of the Mets. God bless him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: And God bless his money. I'm happy for that [expletive].

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN STEIN'S "IF YOU'RE HAPPY AND YOU KNOW IT")

SNEED: If you were going to celebrate it, like, what would your idea be?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: If I got a bobblehead, I'd be going out in the city, I'd be really having a great time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: Free stuff, I guess.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Free hot dog for all fans.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: Free? You got to pay extra (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: I'm here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: I would take it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: We like bobbleheads.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: I would definitely take that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: That's why we're here tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: Yeah.

MALONE: Thing about Bobby Bonilla Day is that it is the greatest American holiday because it brings the world together around baseball and money and making fun of the Mets - a little unfairly make fun of the Mets.

SNEED: It is unfair.

MALONE: But most importantly, Bobby Bonilla Day is our only holiday that celebrates the magical power of compound interest.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Happy Bobby Bonilla Day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: Awesome.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS ROLF EDBERGER'S "BRASSY FUNKER")

MALONE: We would love to do more sports stories about specific and weird case studies that, like - I don't know - teach us something - a lesson of some sort. Send us your ideas. You can reach us at planetmoney@npr.org. We're also @planetmoney on all of social media.

SNEED: This episode was produced by Brittany Cronin, engineered by Gilly Moon, edited by Amanda Aronczyk. Supervising producer for PLANET MONEY is Alex Goldmark.

MALONE: Special thanks this week to another hopeless Mets fan, Nick Madine (ph), for helping me with my math homework. I'm Kenny Malone.

SNEED: I'm James Sneed.

MALONE: This is NPR.

SNEED: Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS ROLF EDBERGER'S "BRASSY FUNKER")

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