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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Bobby Bonilla Day is the gift that keeps on giving

Bobby Bonilla of the Mets during a game

Bobby Bonilla of the Mets during a game against the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium circa 1999 in Los Angeles. Credit: AP/Four Seam Images

On the eve of Bobby Bonilla Day, I asked the man himself if there had been any talk with new Mets owner Steve Cohen about prematurely ending this unofficial July 1 holiday. On this date, every year since 2011, Bonilla receives a check for $1,193,248.20 from the Mets, a deferral payment set up by Cohen’s predecessor, Fred Wilpon.

While Bonilla has spoken with Cohen since his purchase of the franchise, the subject of a buyout hasn’t come up.

"Nooo, no, no," Bonilla said during a telephone interview.

So Bobby Bonilla Day will continue, as scheduled, through 2035?

"Well, Dave, don’t sound so disappointed," he replied.

It’s more like amazement, that July 1 has mushroomed into a national phenomenon, something that dominates social media, stretching beyond baseball and into the financial realm. Bonilla and his agent, Dennis Gilbert, turned the final year of his Mets’ contract, worth $5.9 million, into a $29.8 million annuity upon the Mets granting his release before the 2000 season.

For the past decade, Bobby Bonilla Day has been a source of embarrassment for the Mets, making them an easy punchline, especially for a franchise that became hamstrung by money problems in the wake of the Bernie Madoff swindle. But the arrival of Cohen has put a different spin on the matter, as the new owner — an avid Mets’ fan who grew up in Great Neck — not only had nothing do with the Bonilla deal, but is sitting on a $14 billion fortune.

In other words, Cohen can afford to joke about it, too. Shortly after taking over the team, Cohen tweeted about declaring July 1 a holiday at Citi Field, where he could hand Bonilla, now 58, an oversized check and drive a lap around the ballpark.

"Could be fun," Cohen said in the tweet.

But there are no plans for to happen — or at least not in the foreseeable future.

"Steve did give me a call about that," said Bonilla, who retired in 2001. "He reached out to me and I started out by saying, 'Listen, congratulations on your purchase of the New York Mets. I think you’re the right guy for the organization. I’m happy you bought it, and let’s work on bringing the Mets’ fans the winner they deserve in New York.'

"And at the end of that, I said why don’t we both just think about that a little bit and I’ll get back to you. I’m sure it’s something that’s a possibility. But right now he’s got a lot on his plate trying to bring a winner to New York and I think it’s going to happen. He’s got the energy for it."

In the meantime, Bonilla did agree to being part of related event that the Mets worked out with one of their sponsors, Airbnb, which is offering fans a chance to book an overnight stay at a Citi Field suite on July 28 (airbnb.com/mets). The package also includes use of the team’s gym and shower facilities during the stay.

Unlike Bonilla, you don’t get the $1.2-million check. Beyond the money, the former Mets outfielder doesn’t do anything special on his namesake day, but his phone does blow up.

"I have to say that I probably get more calls on that day than I do my birthday," Bonilla said. "People will forget my birthday, but they never forget July 1. So that’s kind of amusing to me. I just run with it, to be honest with you."

Bonilla had a rough go during his two different stints in Queens. But he grew up in the Bronx, and after signing that first 1991 contract with the Mets, a five-year, $29-million deal that was the richest in baseball to that point, Bonilla famously told reporters, "You won’t be able to wipe the smile off my face."

Everything pretty much went downhill from there. Looking back, Bonilla said it wasn’t great timing, coming in after the Doc-and-Darryl Era, but he does have good memories playing at Shea with his dad a regular only a few rows away. After Bonilla was traded during that contract, the Mets actually brought him back in a swap for Mel Rojas in 1998, and the $5.9-million left from that release is what he’s still being paid (at 8% interest, too).

"Dennis was the architect that put all that together," Bonilla said. "He’s the real superstar of that."

People forget that just about every team pays off players with deferred money, often stretched out over long periods of time. The Wilpons did it with Bonilla largely because they were getting double-digit returns on their Madoff investments at that point. Also, the Mets traded for Mike Hampton that same offseason, and cutting Bonilla made room for his $5.75-million salary. Take it a step further, and the draft-pick compensation for Hampton led to David Wright landing in Flushing.

So it wasn’t all terrible for the Mets. And what will Bonilla be doing on this particular Bobby Bonilla Day? Watching his 15-year-old-son, Roman, compete in a golf tournament in North Carolina. He hopes to play in college, so these Mets’ deferrals are coming in handy.

"It’s paid for a lot of college education," Bonilla said. "Higher learning."

Where they’ll be teaching the economics of Bobby Bonilla Day to the next generations, long after 2035.

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