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St. Petersburg Times
Wilber Bonilla: Guaranteed To Make The Cut
by FRANK PASTOR
August 12, 2003
Wilber Bonilla has his own chair in a major league clubhouse. He owns bats and gloves used by pro players. He is on a first-name basis with much of baseball's top talent.
By all indications, he is living a lifelong dream.
Just not in the way he envisioned.
When he's not working at Bangz, etc., a hair and beauty salon on Spring Hill Drive near the Suncoast Parkway, Bonilla serves as hairstylist for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and opposing teams that visit Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
Last month, he appeared in national sports magazines when he highlighted Lou Piniella's hair to fulfill a bargain the Rays manager made with his players.
"I couldn't make it as a baseball player,'' Bonilla said, "so I made it as a hairstylist.''
Bonilla, 36, of Brooksville, dreamed of nothing but playing major league baseball while growing up in Puerto Rico. He was on a city league team that played against Chicago White Sox catcher Sandy Alomar and the brother of New York Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams.
Bonilla's passion for the game is visible on his right forearm, where the names of his children are tattooed over ribbons wrapped around a blue cap with the Major League Baseball insignia on it.
On his left arm, he sports the baseball logo from the Major League movie over the top of a Puerto Rican flag.
"I put my kids first,'' Bonilla said. "Then, baseball is a big part of me.''
A third baseman with good power and solid defensive skills, Bonilla had a shot at the majors.
He attended a tryout with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1984 but did not make the team. Just shy of his 21st birthday, he moved from Puerto Rico to join his uncle in Brooksville. He participated in several open tryouts, but lacked the speed and power major league teams sought.
Meanwhile, Bonilla was honing another skill.
He started cutting hair at age 14, first blow-drying his mother's hair on the way to church, then working on his cousins' and teammates' hair.
Bonilla's first few cuts resembled "mushrooms,'' he said, but his cousins didn't care, as long as he didn't cut their ears.
He soon found he was using the wrong tool.
"Scissors you use to cut jeans and paper don't work too good on the hair,'' Bonilla said.
Bonilla became a licensed hairstylist in 1989 and began plying his trade in major league clubhouses eight years later.
A friend from Spring Hill who worked with the Toronto Blue Jays invited Bonilla to meet Jays first baseman and fellow Puerto Rican Carlos Delgado during spring training in Dunedin in 1997. While there, Bonilla watched outfielder Wayne Kirby cut Cecil Fielder's hair.
"Are you trying to learn?'' Bonilla said Fielder asked him.
"No,'' Bonilla said. "That's what I do for a living.''
Fielder pointed to his hair.
"Will you fix it?'' he asked. "This guy doesn't have a clue.''
Shortly afterward, Bonilla began styling the hair of other Blue Jays, such as shortstop Alex Gonzalez and outfielder Shawn Green.
He worked in Dunedin during the spring and at the Trop any time Toronto played in St. Petersburg.
"Everybody looks forward to coming to Tampa to get their hair cut,'' Delgado said, "so he must be doing something right.''
Eventually, Bonilla started working with other visiting teams, such as the Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers.
Since the chair Bonilla used was near the Rays weight room, a few Tampa Bay players asked Bonilla if he would style their hair, too. After receiving clearance from equipment manager Chris Westmoreland, Bonilla began driving an hour from his home near Brooksville to St. Petersburg for each home series.
Bonilla doesn't charge players, who often tip him with shoes or equipment such as bats or gloves. He gives much of the equipment to underprivileged children.
Players love the convenience.
"It's nice to not have to go and wait in line in a haircut place when he's right here for us,'' Rays catcher Toby Hall said.
Some players are fussier than others, Bonilla said.
Outfielder Carl Crawford usually trusts only Sim Adams, who handles house calls for Hair Design in St. Petersburg, to groom his light fade.
But after watching Bonilla work on a few of his teammates' hair, Crawford agreed to sit in his chair.
"He did real good,'' Crawford said. "I'll give him another shot.''
Third baseman/outfielder Damian Rolls is the only Ray who doesn't allow Bonilla to style his hair. It's not that Rolls doesn't trust Bonilla. No one other than Rolls or his brother-in-law has cut Rolls' hair since he started playing professional baseball, and it has become something of a superstition.
"A man's hair is something special,'' Rolls said. "Can't afford to mess that up.''
Bonilla's most recognized work wasn't a cut but a highlight.
Piniella turned to him to fulfill a promise the Rays manager made to his team early in the season. Piniella said he would dye his salt-and-pepper hair if the team won three consecutive games.
The players wanted Piniella to go all blond. Piniella's wife, Anita, said no.
As a compromise, Bonilla suggested highlights.
"I was nervous to see what we were going to do,'' Bonilla said. "Once I knew what we were doing, I was okay.''
The experience was nerve-wracking for Bonilla, but the news conference that followed was even worse.
In front of 25 to 30 reporters gathered in the Rays clubhouse, Bonilla was asked to explain the highlighting process.
"I never had that much attention,'' Bonilla said.
Over the next couple of weeks, color photos of Bonilla dyeing Piniella's hair appeared in Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine.
The exposure didn't boost business; Bonilla already was booked solid. But it increased his profile in the community and the clubhouse.
Several players have approached Bonilla about getting their own hair lightened, including pitchers Jeremi Gonzalez and Jorge Sosa before a game against the Blue Jays last week. The game was the Rays' first at home following a 10-game trip to Boston, Chicago, Toronto and Kansas City.
Gonzalez put off getting his hair cut until he returned to St. Petersburg.
"We went to the road for 12 days,'' Gonzalez said, "and I had to wait for a haircut with him.''
When Bonilla's parents, Israel and Sarah, who live in Puerto Rico, watch a baseball game on television, they pay special attention to players' haircuts. When they see one they like or don't like, they ask their son if it was one of his.
In his spare time, Bonilla still pursues his dream of being on the field. He plays for the Suncoast Suns, a Stan Musial League 30-and-over tournament team based in Clearwater. He has won home run contests at Springstead High School and Anderson Snow Park.
He injured a tendon in his left arm swinging a bat in April and had surgery a few months ago, forcing him to shelve baseball for a while.
But the injury hasn't kept him out of the Rays' lineup.
"I always told my dad I would make it to a major league team,'' Bonilla said. "But I didn't tell him I would be doing hair.''
A glimpse behind Brooksville hairstylist Wilber Bonilla's scissors at Tropicana Field:
WHAT'S OUT: Mullet
WHAT'S IN: Fade
WHAT'S NEXT: Short on the sides, messy on top, very texturized.
BEST HAIR: Alex Gonzalez, Cubs ("He was really into how his hair looked. Whenever a new look came up, he always wanted to try it.'')
WILDEST HAIR: Eric Byrnes, Athletics ("Surfer look, all messy-looking.'')
MOST DEMANDING: Rays outfielders Al Martin and Carl Crawford, pitcher Victor Zambrano.
LEAST DEMANDING: Rays catcher Toby Hall ("When you cut the top of his head, he says, "Yeah, just trim it.' '')
CAN'T TOUCH THIS: Infielder/outfielder Damian Rolls is the only Ray who doesn't let Bonilla style his hair. Only Rolls and his brother-in-law have cut Rolls' hair since he started playing pro ball.
CAN'T SIT STILL: Particular about his hair, Cubs outfielder Kenny Lofton (then with the Pirates) returned to apologize to Bonilla for being so nervous in his chair.
PICTURE PERFECT: Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo speaks little English, so he and Bonilla communicated by pointing at pictures.
LIGHTENING UP: Hall, Rays outfielder Aubrey Huff, pitchers Jeremi Gonzalez and Jorge Sosa and Blue Jays pitcher Tanyon Sturtze receive blond highlights.
ON DECK: Rays pitcher Rob Bell ("When he starts throwing more consistent, he wants me to highlight his hair.'')
- Compiled by Frank Pastor