Editor's note: This story originally ran on July 1, 2016.
It's July 1, and we should be thinking about our Fourth of July holiday plans. But as baseball fans, we can't. Why? Because today is all about Bobby Bonilla.
A man who last played 5,381 days ago owns this day. Not just this July 1, but every July 1 through 2035. It's the day when the New York Mets pay him $1,193,248.20.
So with the water cooler and Twitter buzzing about the Bonilla deal, here's your primer.
How did the deal present itself?
Deferred-money deals have been going on for a long time, but the Mets did more of them than most. The first deferred-money deal we know about is Darryl Strawberry's 1985 contract, in which the Mets deferred 40 percent of his 1990 $1.8 million team option ($700,000) at a 5.1 percent interest rate. The deal, which pays out $1.64 million from 2004 to 2033, was obtained through a life insurance company.
Bonilla's agent, Dennis Gilbert, was an insurance agent at the same time he developed into a superagent (Gilbert's clients included Bonilla, Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco and Danny Tartabull), so he was more uniquely prepared to understand annuity-type payouts than other agents.
How does the deal actually work?
The Mets owed Bonilla $5.9 million for the 2000 season and no longer wanted him. So the club negotiated with Gilbert to attach an 8 percent annual interest rate to that money. With the clock starting in 2000, that adds up to $29.8 million. The first installment of the payout came on July 1, 2011, and the Mets will pay their sixth installment on Friday.
Why did the Mets do the deal?
The Mets have never really talked about the deal, but it is well known that their owners, the Wilpons, had many accounts with investor Bernie Madoff. Madoff was returning 12 to 15 percent a year in what we now know were fictional returns. So deferring deals wasn't a problem because the payout would occur years later and the interest rate would be lower than the money they were (fictionally) getting back from Madoff. To see the deal as the Mets would have seen it, let's say the Wilpons put $5.9 million into a Madoff account in 2000 and got a conservative (by Madoff standards) 10 percent annual return. By 2011, when they would have to pay Bonilla for the first time, they would have already grown their pot to $16.83 million. Even with paying off Bonilla every year, they would wind up with a $49 million profit on the deal. Of course, the Madoff returns weren't real, which complicates this hindsight.
The other way to think of it is that the Mets didn't have to pay Bonilla his $5.9 million in 2000 and could use it on other free agents. Sure enough, the Mets acquired Mike Hampton from the Astros right before they dumped Bonilla. Hampton's cost was conveniently $5.75 million, and his 15-10 record was good enough to help get the Mets to the World Series that year for the first time since 1986.
It seems like everyone thinks Bonilla got a great deal by turning $5.9 million into $29.8 million -- did he?
The deal is great from a gross money perspective. If you take out the 2000 season -- where the deferred money comes from -- Bonilla's career earnings are $46.45 million, so the $29.8 million looms large. Also understand that because he didn't have to earn the money in 2000 and collects years later instead, he isn't paying New York income tax (he lives in Florida, a state with no income tax), nor the so-called "jock taxes" for earning money on the road in states that do have income tax.
But you also have to account for what Bonilla could have done with the money if he did get that $5.9 million in 2000. We did the math by using a conservative strategy of putting that $5.9 million into the market in January 2000, when this deal was struck. We put 60 percent of the money in stocks and 40 percent in bonds and rebalanced the portfolio to those percentages at the start of each year following our gains in each area. Going back historically, we learn that Bonilla would have aggregated $16.5 million by December 2015. Through the deal the Mets gave him, he collected only $5.9 million by December 2015.
Looking at it that way, it doesn't look like Bonilla got the steal of the century. But what happens if you assume that Bonilla needs to live off that money starting in the year the deferred money pays out? You put that $5.9 million into the stock and bond market with the same percentages and you withdraw six times. (His first withdrawal would come in 2010 to prepare for 2011.) If you do that, you're left with $7.35 million to reinvest starting in 2016, having taken out $1.19 million six times. This is where you start to stall. You have to make that $7.35 million work for you to get 19 more payments, and you're staring at a market where bonds are generating only 2 percent yields and the stock market isn't so hot. It's nearly impossible to think that you can do that. So in that scenario, Bonilla is better from a financial-planning perspective having accepted the deal from the Mets.
So why do the Mets get made fun of for making this deal?
This is a complex question. It starts with the fact that Bonilla was a disappointment for the team. In his second stint with the Mets, he was on the disabled list frequently, and when he was playing, he wasn't any good.
It's also funny that, as a 53-year-old this year, he is still on the Mets' payroll. But I believe that much of why so many people make a big deal about this is because of how cheap the Mets' pitching staff is. So much of why Bobby Bonilla trends on Twitter every July 1 has to do with the fact that he still makes more than most of the team's great young pitchers -- Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz all make less than $610,000 per year.
There's also the Madoff part, which leaves the Mets open to ridicule. Of course many Mets fans who make fun of the deal don't follow it through completely. Hampton was with the Mets for one year, but when he went to the Rockies in 2001, the Mets got the 38th pick in the draft, which they used to pick ... David Wright!
What other fun deferred money deals are out there?
Aside from paying Bonilla through 2035, the Mets are paying Bret Saberhagen, who was also represented by Gilbert, $250,000 per year through 2029. The Diamondbacks will be paying Bernard Gilkey, who retired in 2001, his last payment next year. Why? Gilkey signed a four-year contract with the Mets from 1997 to 2000. The deal deferred $2.5 million from his 1999 salary and $2.5 million from his 2000 salary, which turned into a $9 million annuity. But the Diamondbacks took on that contract in August 1998.
And now get ready for the real kicker. Gilbert recently sat down with ESPN for a new digital series for FiveThirtyEight, "Contracts," debuting later this summer. He said that Bonilla actually has another deferred deal with the Mets that makes another $12.5 million. It was part of his first deal with the team that ran from 1992 to 1996. The $29 million deal made Bonilla the highest-salaried player in baseball at the time. Part of the deal was to defer some money, which resulted in Bonilla getting $500,000 a year from 2004 through 2023. The Mets shipped Bonilla to the Orioles for the last season and a half of that deal, so they split the fare with Baltimore.