For the most part they go completely unnoticed by most baseball fans, yet they are just as important to the success of every professional MLB player as any trainer, coach or even manager. Their pay is a pittance, especially when you consider the insane amounts of money that their clients make, yet they are every bit as dedicated to the game as any one of them. But unless you have ever shown up early for a major league baseball game, you don’t even know they exist. They are the batting practice pitchers and the Dodgers have one of the best and most experienced in the game.
Pete Bonfils is the envy of every true baseball fan. He readily admits that he is as addicted to the Dodgers and to the game itself as much as any other die-hard, blue-blooded Dodger fan. But Pete gets to take his fanaticism and passion where every living Dodger fan only dreams of taking theirs – between the lines at Dodger Stadium as the only left-handed home batting practice pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
I recently met up with Pete at the Ravine for an in-depth interview about his remarkable career with the Dodgers and the Dodger organization, but before I get into the interview, I want to give you a little background about my relationship with Pete Bonfils:
During the exciting 2008 season, which brought with it the debut of Dodger pitching sensation Clayton Kershaw and the arrival of Manny Ramirez and ended with the Dodgers making their first trip to the National League Championship Series in twenty years, noted film producer and director Timothy Marx and his crew began filming a movie about the Dodgers as seen through the eyes of their fans. During the season-long filming, Marx and his crew followed around several loyal Dodger fans including my (then) 12-year-old son (also named Timothy) and me. And though the filming was a lot of fun for us, we really had no idea what the movie was even about until it premiered in April of 2009. Most of the “stars” of the movie were in attendance at this premiere and we were all mesmerized at Marx’s wonderful Bluetopia – The L.A. Dodger Movie. Joining us at the Bluetopia premiere were Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, James Loney, Ned Colletti, Rick Monday, Charlie Steiner and many others who appeared in the movie. As luck would have it, also in attendance and sitting directly behind my son and I was Pete Bonfils, who is featured prominently in the movie throwing BP to Manny Ramirez and also showing off his unbelievable memorabilia collection, which takes up two full rooms of his house. At the reception following the premiere, Pete and I formally introduced ourselves to one another and we have been friends ever since. In Pete’s words “we are bonded for life” because of our wonderful experience with Bluetopia. When you see Pete Bonfils, the first thing that you notice about him is that he is in remarkable shape, but what’s even more remarkable is that he will be celebrating his 60th birthday later this month; remarkable because Pete can easily pass for forty-five years old.
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RC: Pete, you are one of the senior employees with the Dodger organization. How long have you been with the Dodgers?
PB: I started in 1969 when I was 17. I came in (to Dodger Stadium) one day with my buddy John Wade who I played high school baseball with. John’s dad Ben was a scouting director for the Dodgers at the time. When school was out for the summer, Ben would bring John and me to the ballpark with him. One day one of the bat boys was sick and they needed someone to work down the line as a ball boy. They had the guy who normally works the line do the bats and I got to be the ball boy. They liked me and kept me on as a ball boy. That’s how I started with the club.
RC: You said that you played high school ball; did you go through organized baseball as a kid?
PB: Yes. I started in Little League from ages 8 to 12; Babe Ruth league from 13 to 15; American Legion from 16 to 18; and high school ball, of course; and then I played semi-pro ball.
RC: You also played professional ball in the minor leagues with the Angels organization. How did that come about?
PB: When the draft came in high school I didn’t get drafted, but one day I was here (at Dodger Stadium) early and one of the Dodger players wanted to hit and he said ‘Throw me some.’ I had a good arm because I played outfield in high school and I wound up throwing batting practice here. The Dodgers had a catcher named Jeff Torborg who ended up getting traded to Anaheim and one day Jeff asked me ‘Why don’t you come down to Anaheim Stadium and throw batting practice when the Dodgers go on the road?’ I went down there to throw batting practice for the Angels and they signed me three days later. That was in 1971.
RC: When you got signed by the Angels, what level did you start at?
PB: I went to Rookie ball that May in the Pioneer League and played in Idaho Falls; Twin Falls; Ogden, Utah; Billings, Montana; and a few other cities in that league. I actually played five years in the Angel organization and made it to Double-A, and then played six years in the Mexican League. When I was done playing I returned to the Dodgers as a batting practice pitcher in 1982 and have been here ever since.
RC: Do you travel with the team when they go on the road?
PB: I made one or two trips as a ball boy and bat boy and threw batting practice but that was in the summer when I was out of school. I was also invited on few road trips to throw batting practice which was a real treat because I got to throw in Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, in Park Jarry in Montreal before they build Olympic Stadium, and in Shea Stadium in New York.
RC: Do you have a job other than this one?
PB: I have a full-time job as an account executive in the distilled spirits and wine department for Young’s Market Company and have been with them for 30 years. Young’s is a family owned company and a great company to work for. How I got the job there is kind of ironic. When I was a bat boy back in the late 60s and early 70s, the visiting club house guy worked there and asked me if I needed a job during the off-season. I took the job and worked in the warehouse for ten and a half years during the off-season while I played minor league ball and got hired full-time in 1981. I worked my way up through the company and was promoted to account executive in 1987. The owner of the company was Vern Underwood Sr. who has since passed away. He was a good friend of Walter O’Malley and his son Vern Underwood Jr. is good a good friend with Peter O’Malley. Young’s Market Company has been family-owned for 120 years and the Dodgers were family owned until 1998. I’m very lucky to be associated with two great family-owned organizations.
RC: As the primary Dodgers left-handed BP pitcher for over 30 years, you’ve obviously thrown BP to many Dodger greats including all-time L.A. Dodger home run leader Eric Karros, future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, 1988 World Series hero Kirk Gibson, and Manny Ramirez, just to name a few – Out of all of the Dodger players that you have thrown BP to, who did you enjoy pitching to the most?
PB: I really enjoyed throwing to Mike Piazza and Billy Ashley, they were always in the same group when there was a left-hander going against the Dodgers. Maybe 10 or 15 times during the year they would hit balls onto the Pavilion roof during batting practice. To see that from the mound as you throw it and watch it hit the roof with a crash, that’s something else… something to experience. But it’s the Big leagues; they’re all enjoyable to throw to.
RC: Do you get excited or nervous when you throw batting practice?
PB: Just to be standing out there every day is a great opportunity that very few people get to experience and I have never taken that for granted, I still get butterflies. But it’s all business out there for fifteen minutes. You want to get those guys ready for the game, get them in the zone and dialed in on seeing the ball from the left side when there’s a lefty going that day or night. When there is, I throw to half of the starting line-up and Donny (Mattingly) throws to the other half. The fact that they have faith in me and have put me out there for so long makes me feel good. The day that I don’t throw good strikes out there I’m going to walk away. As long as I’m throwing well and they want to hit off me and asked for me then I feel I’m contributing.
RC: Do they ask specifically for you to pitch to them?
PB: Sometimes they do when they want to take extra batting practice. Usually when there is a left-hander going they have me throw to one of the starting groups.
RC: I want to say this politely – you’re not a young man, you’re as old as I am, yet you are in great shape. How do you stay in such great shape?
PB: I don’t want to sound cocky, but I work very hard to stay in shape. I run all the time, I do arm exercises, when the team is on the road I throw a couple times – you can’t go eight or ten days without throwing and expect to throw strikes to big league hitters, and I go to the gym. This is a commitment and I dedicate myself to it. Tonight (after having already thrown BP) I’ll go home and do my ‘Dr. Jobe’ (arm) exercises with 5-pound dumbbell weights for about twenty minutes; I’ll do it while I’m watching the game, while I’m watching the guys who I threw to two hours earlier and cheer them on to get a hit. If they do it makes you feel like you contributed; if they don’t, well it’s not really your fault. You’ve got to work hard; I mean I’m going to be 60 years old in a few days. You don’t just show up… you’ve got to put something into it.
RC: What is your routine before you throw BP?
PB: I lift light weights before I go out and then run about twelve sprints on the grass to get my body loose. It’s a lot harder when you’re older. When you’re twenty, you can throw ten balls and you’re loose; it’s not like that when you’re older. It’s only been in the last 15 years that baseball players have been lifting weights and working on strength and conditioning. Before that, weight lifting was considered taboo, it tightens you up – that was for football players. My point is that you’ve got to stay in shape; you can’t just throw and go home. When I finish throwing, I go right into the trainer’s room, take my shirt off and they put an ice pack on my arm for 15 minutes. Then I take a shower, go home, do my arm exercises and get ready for tomorrow.
RC: During a batting practice session, how many pitches will you throw?
PB: Depending on how quickly I work somewhere between 130 and 150 pitches. Some hitters are very deliberate which slows things down a bit. Manny was very deliberate. Other hitters want that next pitch right away.
RC: Most pitchers today don’t throw anywhere near that number of pitches, have you ever had any arm problems?
PB: Yes, I’ve had one elbow operation and four shoulder operations including full rotator cuff surgery. Dr. ElAttrache, the Dodgers primary surgeon, did my last operation two years ago.
RC: During the 2008 season, my son Timothy and I were blessed to be involved in the Bluetopia Movie in which you were also featured. What was that experience like for you and have you been in any other movies or commercials?
PB: I was really humbled by that experience and to be able to go to the premiere event with everyone else in the movie was great. I believe that we are all bonded by that movie, you and I are bonded for life; we’re bonded with Kershaw who made his Major League debut during filming, we’re bonded with (tattoo artist) Landon (Heying), with the three older ladies from the Pavilion, we’re all bonded for life because of that movie. What was neat was them filming it and then anticipating when it was going to come out. It was a lot of fun and is the only movie I have ever been in.
RC: In Bluetopia, there was a scene where Manny Ramirez appeared to be kidding around with you. Were the two of you close?
PB: That scene was filmed on Manny’s first day in L.A. The media was there, Tim Marx and his crew were there filming for Bluetopia, it was crazy. There was a lefty pitching that night so they put Manny in my group along with Jeff Kent and Andruw Jones. I mean these are guys with close to 500 home runs apiece. I think I was more nervous that day than any other day in my career. Manny took a liking to me right away because he liked the way I threw to him. In the scene you’re talking about I had pitched him away and he took me deep so I came in on him a little more and he couldn’t turn on the ball as much or hit it as far so he hollered at me ‘I’m going to take the next one out there the other way’ as he smiled at me. It was a fun gesture and one of respect and competitiveness.
During Manny’s suspension, he worked out a lot to stay in shape. One day he wanted to take some batting practice and he called and asked if they could get me out there to throw to him, which I did. There were two security guards there and two bat boys and a clubhouse guy shagging the outfield and Manny Mota on the cage watching me throw to Manny Ramirez. It was so much fun, one-on-one with the guy in the middle of the day during my lunch break for a couple of weeks.
RC: As a life-long Dodger fan and season ticket holder, I’ve watched you out there for many years and have always envied you and your talents. What goes through your mind when you step across the lines?
PB: I have a purpose out there. I have fun but I have to stay focused on why I’m out there. I’m nothing out there really. All I do is contribute and give the coaches a little bit of a break. They throw BP on the road all the time and during spring training, so I help them out when the team is home. I throw because I’m left-handed and there aren’t very many left-handed coaches to throw BP. Once I step across the lines, it’s all business. I’ve got a job to do and I take it serious, that’s why I’ve lasted so long. You don’t just go through the motions. Today’s guys are making millions of dollars and they’re dialed in. If they get a guy throwing all over the place that takes them out of their rhythm and that’s the last thing you want. I always start them away until they get their timing down and then I start working in and put the pitch right where they want it. That’s my job out there.
RC: In the Bluetopia movie, we learned that you have a huge baseball memorabilia collection of bats, balls, cards, ticket stubs, programs, and the like, many of which are autographed. Out of your entire collection, what is your most precious piece of baseball memorabilia?
PB: I can tell you that without even thinking about it – it’s my Roberto Clemente autographed baseball card that he personally signed for me at the batting cage when I was a bat boy. In addition to our Dodger baseball cards, John Wade and I would always bring in cards for the visiting team and when the Pirates came in, I brought in my Roberto Clemente card and he signed for me. Roberto Clemente was arguably one of the greatest baseball players that ever lived and he passed away at an early age, and getting that card signed makes it very special and precious to me. I wouldn’t sell that card for $10,000. I mean, I actually handed him that card, he signed it, and handed it back to me. I also played catch with him down the right field line when I was a ball boy between innings to warm him up. I actually got to play catch with Roberto Clemente! What a thrill… what a memory. I tell some of today’s players this and they say ‘Ya right.’
Getting autographs like that is a thrill… a brief moment in time that you will never forget. It’s not about the money, it never has been; it’s about the love of the game. Today the collecting is all about ‘what’s it worth’ and trying to make some money and the players think that you’re just trying to make a quick buck, but that’s not the case with guys like us. We’re fans of the game, we want to get it signed and put it up and show it off and be proud of it and pass it on to our kids.
RC: Approximately how many baseballs, bats, and cards do you have?
PB: I mostly collect cards and have hundreds of them. I have maybe 40 or 50 autographed balls and 50 or 60 bats from guys who I threw to.
RC: In your 30 years with the Dodgers, what is your single-most memorable moment?
PB: Getting (my) World Series ring in 1988. I could walk out of here tomorrow and I’ll have this for the rest of my life. It’s my prize possession and I’m so proud of it. I feel so lucky.
RC: Who is your current favorite Dodger player?
PB: I can tell you that Dee Gordon is such an exciting guy to watch and when he gets on, he’s the catalyst for the team, but I’d have to say it’s between Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier.
RC: Who do you consider the greatest baseball player in your lifetime?
PB: For a pitcher there is no doubt about it, Sandy Koufax. As for a player, Willie Mays probably had the most power, but all around I would say Roberto Clemente. He could hit for power if he wanted to, hit for average, had a great arm, was a great fielder, he was exciting to watch…what a ball player.
RC: Your situation is extremely unique, you’re on the professional inside level but you’re also a fan of the Dodgers and a fan of the game. What is that like?
PB: I’m the luckiest guy in the world because I’m the envy of every working guy that gets up every morning to go to work in Southern California out of how many million people that dream of playing baseball in the big leagues, and even though I don’t play in the big leagues, I get to put on a big league uniform and throw to big leaguers… it’s awesome. Ya I’m unique because I’m a fan but I’m also a pro. I won 109 games in the minor leagues in my eleven years. I didn’t have the talent to make it to the big leagues, but I had enough talent to play pro ball in the minors; yet I’m also a big fan and a collector, so I can relate on both sides. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to be able to do what I do. It’s a dream come true, a dream that I hope never ends but I know it will one day; and when it does, at least I’ll leave it all out there on the mound my last day… my last throw.