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Bonilla eager to create own identity, legacy

Freshman Brandon Bonilla, son of Major League Baseball all-star Bobby Bonilla and godson of MLB legend and former ASU great Barry Bonds, joins the Sun Devils’ pitching staff this season. (Photo by Tyler Emerick)
Freshman Brandon Bonilla, son of Major League Baseball all-star Bobby Bonilla and godson of MLB legend and former ASU great Barry Bonds, joins the Sun Devils’ pitching staff this season. (Photo by Tyler Emerick)

Baseball bloodlines don’t get much nobler than Brandon Bonilla’s.

Son of a six-time All-Star slugger and godson to the all-time home run king, Bonilla is baseball’s proverbial prince.

Talk to the freshman pitcher for a matter of minutes, and his knowledge of the game shines much brighter than a typical 18-year-old. But his maturity, developed from growing up under the wings of his father, Bobby, and his godfather, Barry Bonds, doesn’t overshadow his love of the game.

He embraces his famous name, but he doesn’t let it define him.

“It’s something that’s never going away,” Bonilla said. “People know about it. I cherish my family. I don’t try to work around it, but I also want to find my own path. I think about what they did and think how I can get there myself.”

Bonilla experimented with other sports growing up, but baseball was always his future. After his sophomore year of high school, he moved from Connecticut to Florida to enroll at the IMG Academy-Pendleton School and take the game more seriously.

There, he developed his arm enough for the Colorado Rockies to select him in the 37th round of the 2011 MLB Draft, but that’s when Bonilla first diverted from his father’s path.

Bobby never played collegiate baseball, opting to play professionally after his prep school career ended. Brandon, on the other hand, committed to Southern California early, but eventually found himself more comfortable at ASU, the school where his godfather played and has his name retired in right field at Packard Stadium.

“I talked to Barry a lot about ASU,” Bonilla said. “He didn’t push me towards it, but he said it’s a great school and was happy I ended up here. Being a Sun Devil, you can win a national championship and move on to the next level.”

The coaching staff in Tempe quickly recognized what they had in Bonilla.

“He’s a very rare talent, and he’s just scratched the surface of where he’s going to be,” coach Tim Esmay said. “That young man’s upside is tremendous. He commands a presence, and he’s energetic on the mound.”

Bonilla, a left-hander, throws upward of 97 mph and has command of two off-speed pitches to keep batters off balance.

“I actually think we may have gotten held back before he got here,” junior pitcher Alex Blackford said. “He throws gas, and he’s got the biggest hands. He’s like a puppy. He’ll be a huge part of this team when he grows into his body. It’ll be scary.”

Bonilla made his first career collegiate appearance over the weekend against Western Michigan. In an inning of work Friday, he struck out two batters while allowing only one hit. Sitting behind home plate watching him throw was his father.

“I’m just having a lot of fun being a dad and watching him do his thing,” Bobby said. “I think he’s doing great, but that’s a dad’s point of view. It’s very cool to just sit here and be proud of him.”

With Brandon on the mound and out of the batter’s box, the comparisons to Bobby and Bonds don’t garner much traction, which might bode well for the young player.

“The best thing with Brandon is he knows he’s not playing to live up to Barry Bonds or Bobby Bonilla," Esmay said. "He’s playing for himself. They weren’t pitchers, so he can be who he is. He’s settled in quick, and he knows what it’s all about.”

Even though Bonilla doesn’t resemble his father on the field, he tries to model himself off the field after the words his father taught him.

“My dad told me whatever I do, put a smile on and enjoy it,” Brandon said. “Whether it’s working in a store or playing baseball, enjoy what you do. I try to live like that, and I definitely enjoy being a Sun Devil.”

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