College Sports

Eagles' Bonomi perfectly at home in America, mate

Culture shock? More like shocked culture.

Winthrop's Aaron Bonomi gets questioned all the time -- what's with the accent? Got a pet kangaroo at home?

"That's just ridiculous," the junior said, words bending in his Australian dialect like some of the drives he's been poking over first base. "It's highly illegal to have a pet kangaroo."

There can't be too many full-blooded Australians around the area, much less any that play second base. The diminutive infielder is as out of place in Rock Hill as Larry the Cable Guy at a yacht club.

Yet everyone around Bonomi is the stranger. He's the one that's perfectly at home, loving life and taking over as the Eagles' sparkplug.

"I've always tried to be an energy guy, keep them motivated," he said. "If you have big Mo on your side, anything can fall your way. I try to keep momentum on our side, keep things rolling."

That's him, usually hitting leadoff, playing second, turning a fluid double play and offering a "Whoooo!" that would make Ric Flair proud. He's in the dugout, feverishly pacing, clapping his hands and telling his teammates that this next hit will be the game-winner.

He'll be getting into his crouch when roommate Matteo D'Angelo is on the mound, muttering Italian words D'Angelo taught him to relax the young hurler. He'll bounce a tailor-made groundout to short or miss by a hair on a Broadway fastball and stalk back to the dugout, cursing himself and twisting his face into a scowl.

"At Rice, he got picked off first and came back in telling himself to go back to Australia if he got picked off again," said another of Bonomi's roomies, center fielder Tyler McBride. "He never shuts up."

And every bit of it works. Brought in to replace do-everything second baseman Chris Carrara, Bonomi has taken over the position and the leadership.

"You're in our dugout during ballgames, he's one of the loudest guys you can hear," coach Joe Hudak said. "Even if he's not playing. He brings a lot more than just being a good second baseman and a good hitter. It didn't take long once he got here for him to fit in and be one of the guys to lead us."

Bonomi deferred, saying captains Eddie Tisdale and Billy Froehlich were the team's leaders, but admitted he does what he does to get the best out of himself and others. It's something he learned from his father, a left-handed hitting second baseman like himself.

"I just have always been that type of person," he said. "Probably got a big mouth, people would say."

McBride, D'Angelo and Rand Baughman, who live with him, agree.

"On the plane ride back from Texas, I had to sit next to him," Baughman moaned. "Thought I was going to die. I got a Sudoku book and just sat there, trying to ignore him."

Bonomi grew up without high school baseball but was on a club team in Perth, Australia. A major-league scout that signed one of Bonomi's friends asked him if he'd be interested in playing college ball, so Bonomi committed to Chipola (Fla.) Junior College.

There were other players ahead of Bonomi so the coach recommended he try Southeastern (Iowa) Community College. Through recruiting coordinator Mike McGuire, Hudak heard about a guy who could hit and vacuum-clean the double-play balls.

"He's a hard-nosed kid, just loves to play the game," Hudak said. "He plays with no fear."

Bonomi reported to Rock Hill, took over the job and was hitting .289 with three doubles and nine RBIs heading into today's game at No. 24 Coastal Carolina. If he's homesick, he's doing a great job of disguising it.

"The things I miss the most are just hanging out with my mates, going to the beach, that sort of thing," Bonomi said. "But I like Rock Hill. I got to go home over Christmas and visit and I don't think about home all that much."

His teammates ride him mercilessly about his accent, trying to teach him the time-honored phrases "y'all," "fixin'" and "that ain't nuthin'." He shoots it right back with a few "g'days" and follows with what's become an unofficial team slogan -- "Crikey, mate!"

"He's so chippy and hyper that coach Stas (Swerdzewski) calls him the Chihuahua," Baughman said. "He's always getting worked up about stuff."

Baughman shook his head and ruefully recollected a recent supper out on the town. He, McBride and D'Angelo dressed up while Bonomi walked out in his ripped jeans, white belt, glossy white leather shoes and white sunglasses.

"I don't wear khaki shorts or anything like that," Bonomi shrugged. "I'll wear (my clothes) and they're ragging on me. Go out in Australia and everyone's wearing them."

But it's all in good fun. There's a line that's never approached because as much as everyone chides, Bonomi's contributions to the Eagles' welfare have become too important.

"We're the same type of hitter," said McBride. "Usually, I'm batting ninth and he's batting first, so we're going to get a lot of the same type of pitches. We talk a lot about the game."

"Never seems to be in a bad mood," Hudak said. "A kid you like to be around."

It's that intense look Bonomi has stepping out of the on-deck circle to begin the game -- to Men at Work's "Down Under," naturally. He'll be clapping his hands after a hit, sending a billow of chalk into the air, or else grimacing while trudging to the bench.

Constant motion, energy and most of the time, a smile. Plus a willingness to learn and offer to correct the curious questions, instead of brushing it off as a smart-mouth remark.

"I don't know why it annoys me, but people talk about a koala, a koala bear," Bonomi said, eyebrows beginning to knit. "It's a koala, it's not a bear. It's a marsupial, it has a pouch. That's one thing that will get me going."