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A heartfelt farewell to a good-hearted barkeep

Published Oct. 1, 2005

The line began at the casket, where a too-young man lay faintly smiling amid an explosion of roses, and meandered out the funeral-home door into the night, the gathering darkness not half as heavy as the mood. Frank Bonfili's many friends saw him for the last time Sunday evening.

El Cap bar and restaurant _ "The Cap," if you're a regular _ will not be open today. They're burying the bartender at 11 a.m.

Expect a crowd.

"I'm just in awe of the support and the love that the community has shown for a beer-and-wine barkeep. He wasn't a celebrity," said Bonfili's sister, Alida King.

Apparently he was. Bonfili, who died of a heart attack Thursday at 46, made a lot of friends in 17 years as the owner of El Cap, Tampa Bay's archetypal sports bar. Hundreds of those friends, and many members of Bonfili's large extended family, came to his wake Sunday night to say goodbye, comfort his wife and tell stories about a man who never forgot a name.

All the El Cap regulars were there _ City George, Mr. B, Sun-Flo, Mikey, Doc, Johnny Flood. Bonfili had a nickname for everybody. He also had a cooler behind the bar so he could always greet his customers with a cold one.

"The minute you hit the door of the place, he was always up to greet you," said Dave Strimer, a dentist whom Bonfili called "Doc." In Strimer's case, the cold one was always a Budweiser.

"I can't think of when he had a bad day, or when I went in there and he was grumbling," he said.

Bonfili's friends remembered his easy smile, his affection for his wife and partner, Mary Jean, and his generosity. When some of the El Cap regulars helped the Bonfilis move into a new house, Frank gave them food, beer and soda all day long. "Any four people could have moved him in about four or five hours. It took us about nine," Bonfili's friend Pat Walton said.

Later, everybody who helped with the move received a gift certificate for dinner at Pepin, a restaurant just up Fourth Street from El Cap.

Bonfili's parents, Steve and Rose Bonfili, bought the tiny El Cap bar in 1963, shortly after they moved to the area from Pennsylvania. Frank and Mary Jean Bonfili took over the bar in 1980. They expanded into the beauty shop next door, then into the travel agency next to that. Jack's Barber Shop _ owned by a man known to El Cap regulars as "Jack the Clipper" _ is the only business in the building to survive the restaurant's expansion.

The other day, Jack the Clipper cut Steve Bonfili's hair so he could go to his son's funeral.

The El Cap menu, authored by the Bonfilis, has all the charm of a program for a high school play. Printed on white paper and (more often than not) smeared with ketchup, it is full of advertisements for lawyers, car dealers, real estate sales people and auto mechanics. The current edition includes an ad for a notary public who performs weddings ("Call now to reserve your special date and time").

Most of the space is dedicated to "El Cap's Winning Kitchen Line-Up." The sports-crazy Frank Bonfili made sure that every item on the menu was described with a sports metaphor. Hungry fans can choose among the Grand Slam Ham & Cheese Sandwich, the Triple Play Bacon, Lettuce & Tomato Sandwich, and the Homer Ham Sandwich ("Always a smash at the plate"). El Cap's World Champ Hamburger costs $2.20, 10 cents more with cheese.

If Sunday's wake had a theme, it was baseball. Of the 100 flower arrangements decorating Anderson-McQueen Funeral Homes, Ninth Street Chapel, one stood out: a giant baseball made of white chrysanthemums and, for the stitching, red carnations. The flower ball was sent by members of the extended family.

"My brother had priorities _ family, friends, and baseball," Alida King said. The greyhound and thoroughbred tracks were on the list, too, but baseball was a passion. Bonfili spent his early years rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His uncle, umpire Augie Donatelli, took him to games and introduced him to ballplayers.

When Bonfili's family moved to St. Petersburg, he had to go without big-league baseball, except during spring. He wasn't happy about it. Later, he turned his restaurant into a sort of halfway house for sports fans, a place where people could watch a ballgame on a big-screen TV and wish one were being played down the street.

"Before there were sports bars, Frank was the epitome of sports bars," his cousin Jim Valenty said. Even now, the walls at El Cap are a shrine to big-time athletics, mostly baseball. Among the artifacts are pennants, caps, and signed portraits of Hank Bauer, Kirby Puckett, and umpire Eric Gregg.

For Bonfili, pictures of ballplayers were never enough. Perhaps as much as any single person, he embodied the area's almost childlike hope that it would someday get a team of its own. When the Chicago White Sox seemed ready to move into St. Petersburg's new domed stadium, Bonfili printed up T-shirts saying, "Tampa Bay White Sox." And when the San Francisco Giants considered coming to town, "He had so much Giants paraphernalia down at the bar, you just couldn't imagine," Valenty said.

Few people cheered as loudly as Bonfili and his patrons when baseball officials announced that an expansion team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, would begin play in the city in 1998. El Cap held a Vince Naimoli day in honor of the team's managing general partner.

Bonfili had season tickets to the Devil Rays inaugural season; he would have sat about 15 rows behind third base. He wanted to go to the opening game with his father, who is 80. Bonfili told several friends he hoped his father would live long enough to go.

At the wake, several friends said they planned to have a plaque made in honor of Bonfili's contribution to baseball in St. Petersburg. They hope the city will display it prominently.

"He really deserves to be recognized," said L. A. Buswell, the man Bonfili knew as "Mr. B." He added, "It's a shame he and Mary Jean will never see a ballgame together."

No, they won't, but Bonfili will never be far from the game. At a spring training game a while back, Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, and other St. Louis Cardinals players signed a baseball for Dennis Crombie, an El Cap regular.

On Sunday night, Crombie leaned over his friend's casket, said goodbye, and placed the baseball gently inside.