Bonser’s rookie rise is etched in Twins history
MINNEAPOLIS — The hours are quickly counting down to first pitch in Game 2 of the 2006 American League Division Series, and a goofy-looking 24-year-old rookie emerges from the Twins’ clubhouse and jogs out to the bullpen for his pregame warmup.
Several months earlier, this big right-hander had been in the news far more often for how he got to the Twins than for anything he did in the club’s uniform. But that October day, he was far from an unknown; riding the hot streak of his life, the stage was set for him to shine as the Twins’ No. 2 starter in a division champion’s playoff rotation.
(Nice guess, but we’re not talking about Randy Dobnak this time.)
Boof Bonser looks around at the crowd of 55,710 trickling into the blue plastic seats of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. He takes in the scene as he walks across the turf.
“Uh oh,” he thinks to himself. “That’s a lot of people. Oh, boy. This is real now.”
Fast-forward seven and a half years later, in 2014, and Bonser still holds an important role on a league-championship-winning team. It’s just that now, he’s almost 8,000 miles away, in a sushi restaurant in Tainan City, Taiwan. He’s sitting with pitcher Nelson Figueroa as Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions teammate Hong-Chih Kuo attempts to introduce his foreign compatriots to “real sushi,” which Bonser soon learns to his horror is a plate of squid so fresh that the tentacles are still squirming.
“That was the first time I kind of was like, ‘OK, this is one of those things that’s still moving,'” Bonser remembers. “And he just thought it was hilarious.”
How is it that this 2006 playoff starter is now at the mercy of an undead cephalopod in a country where he has no earthly idea how to string together the words for, “No, I’m good, man. I’m not eating that.”?
He just couldn’t give up on the Major League dream. Not after that first taste. When he needed surgery, he watched baseball until he could get back onto the field. When he couldn’t surface back in the Majors, he lived the tough Minor League lifestyle from coast to coast into his 30s, leaving a newborn daughter at home — still hoping. When no more teams came calling, he flew to Taiwan to keep playing.
Even now, as a 38-year-old pipe-fitter in submarines that he helps to build for the U.S. government in Connecticut, it’s obvious that the fire still hasn’t fully gone out.
“It was that taste,” Bonser says with vigor. “It was the taste of being in the big leagues that I didn’t want to give up. I wanted to get back there again and stay there. Unfortunately, it never happened for me.”
How could any Twins fan ever forget how the Boof Bonser journey began in Minnesota? He was part of that trade, of course — the franchise-altering swap in 2003 that sent A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants in exchange for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Bonser.
Bonser’s only goal at the start of the ’06 season had been to make it to the big leagues — and stay there. Injuries to Liriano and Brad Radke opened the door for far more, and Bonser seized the opportunity with a strong September run that netted him AL Rookie of the Month honors and earned him the nod in the 2006 ALDS rotation behind Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana.
Bonser allowed two runs in six strong innings before the bullpen lost control in a 5-2 defeat to the A’s. The Twins dropped the series in a three-game sweep.
But still, there stood a young Bonser, at the top of the baseball world. His strong postseason appearance had the former first-round Draft selection in line to open ’07 as the No. 2 starter in the rotation behind Santana.
“It’s just one of those where you’ve got your final goal is to get to the big leagues, and then the next thing you know, it’s kind of the cherry on top that you’re pitching in the playoffs,” Bonser remembers. “You can’t write it up. That’s kind of how it happens.”
That “cherry on top” quickly gave way to the harsh reality of a 5.10 ERA in 2007 and an even worse 5.93 mark in ’08, when he lost his starting job and was relegated to the bullpen. Making matters worse, he was hit with the tough news of needing shoulder surgery that cost him the entire 2009 season and, later, his spot in the Twins’ organization.
He got a shot with the Red Sox and again with the A’s in 2010, but that quickly gave way to another surgery and the dreaded purgatory of Minor League contracts and releases that took him all over the country — Buffalo, Fresno, Columbus. Making matters worse for Bonser, his first daughter was born at the onset of all the Minor League chaos.
It was all for naught. He never did make it all the way back after a scoreless inning in relief for the A’s in Seattle on Oct. 3, 2010. All these years later, he still doesn’t know where it all went wrong. But at least he can laugh about it now — and he has no regrets about how much time he sank into the journey.
“Believe me, I wish I knew,” he said with a chuckle. “I’d hopefully still be pitching in the big leagues. I don’t know. You know what I mean? I really don’t. I don’t think it was anything by me. Every night I went out there, I battled. I didn’t change anything. I still tried to go at everybody the same and just gave it my all every single night. I’m not sure.”
The call that never came
A drenched Taiwanese reporter holds a pair of microphones in front of Figueroa and 7-Eleven Lions teammate Luis Vizcaíno as Bonser washes shaving cream off his face with a can of light beer in the background. Bonser just won a Chinese Professional Baseball League championship, so he needs to look good for the camera, right?
Bonser waits his turn as he watches the reporter interview Figueroa through an interpreter that is quite literally half Bonser’s size. He takes the opportunity to pour a can of beer on the interpreter before he watches with amazement as a chain forms to translate Vizcaíno’s Spanish into Figueroa’s English into the interpreter’s Mandarin.
“It’s like, ‘Is this really happening?'” he says with a laugh. “But hey, you know what? They’re doing their thing trying to get the story. So, hey, however it has to happen, it gets done.”
Halfway across the world from his wife and two daughters — who only see him in online video chats — it’s clear that he’s still able to have fun with the game he loves, and he finally did win that league championship. When no more American teams called, he got a call from the club in Taiwan and didn’t hesitate to book his ticket.
Once in Asia, Bonser survived off KFC and McDonald’s at first and didn’t even remember the name of the city he played in. He only knew that it was a 45-minute train ride from Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. He could never get any grasp on the language and learned that not only do the Taiwanese sometimes eat sushi that is still moving, but they also — gasp — use the entire chicken to make soup — head, neck and all. Good life experiences.
“There’s a clubhouse guy there, he said he made really good chicken soup,” Bonser said. “So the next day, I come in and there’s a big pot of chicken soup. I open it up, and guess what, there was a big pot of chicken soup. It was the whole chicken in there. All it was plucked. Everything was in the soup. I was like, ‘Yeah. Hey, I appreciate it, but no thanks, man. I’m good.’ I mean, every part of the bird was in this soup! Just no feathers!”
Bonser played there as a setup man in ’13 and ’14 before resuming his career in the United States in a short stint with the independent Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League. That’s where it all came to an end. Nobody else called for his services, and he was begrudgingly forced into retirement.
After all those years and inglorious miles traveled, some guys get worn out and disillusioned with the game and with the journey. Bonser never did — through the bitter end. If somebody had called, he would have answered. And Bonser, then 33, would have gone.
“It was really rough,” Bonser said. “You’re seeing the guys you played with, and it’s like, ‘Oh, hey. I feel like I could still play.’ But obviously, it’s not going to happen. It was a rough time because I felt like I could still play. But obviously, with my age and my injuries against me, that was pretty rough. At the end of the day, there was nobody calling.
“It wasn’t like you could just be like, ‘Hey, I’m here for Spring Training!’ I can’t do that stuff, so…” He trails off.
Bonser knows his playing days are long gone. After he accepted his retirement from baseball and went through a month-long training course, he’s quite happy with his life in Connecticut. He tried his hand at a local softball league, but realized he couldn’t keep up with the kids a decade younger than him running around the field. He still watches the Twins on television and remembers fondly the days when he couldn’t tell whether Twins fans were calling his name or booing at him.
He hopes to work his way back into the game as a coach. He currently coaches his daughter’s softball team, and he’s thrilled that he can now be there to watch the two kids grow up (they were six and four when he finally hung up the cleats).
But still, the Major League dream and the fire linger. And still, he waits for that call that never came.
“If I started coaching, it would probably be like my playing career,” Bonser said. “I’d like to coach all the way up to the big leagues, if I could.
“I’d love to be wearing a uniform again, that’s for sure.”