AGBAYANI: THE METS’ “BENNY-FACTOR” SLAMS THE CUBS
Did you ever notice that certain players that have toiled in the minors for a while tend to exhibit surges in production when they finally get a crack at the big time? It’s as if they had those hits stockpiled for the Show and can’t wait to get them out of their systems once fortune and the front office permits. So it seemed to be with Benny Agbayani, a stocky outfielder who physique evoked the same comparisons with a pineapple that were applied to his predecessor as the resident Hawaiian Met, Sid Fernandez. Benny flaunted a somewhat more athletic build however, and for a time looked to be a greater source of batting power than his record on the farm had indicated.
A 30th round draft pick by the Mets in 1993, Agbayani spent the better part of 6 seasons moving up the rungs of the farm system with stops at Pittsfield, St. Lucie, Binghamton and Norfolk before getting a 15 AB cameo with the big club in 1998. However, he failed to make a good enough showing to remain, going 2 for 15, and was returned to AAA where he found himself assigned once again the following season. Never a major power threat, Benny had nonetheless endeared himself to Norfolk manager Bobby Valentine during his tenure there with a combination of hustle and timely hitting. When Bobby V moved up to take the reins of the varsity squad, he lobbied for Benny’s promotion when a wave of outfield malaise necessitated a call up. And so, in May of 1999, Agbayani was given another shot at the majors.
At this point, Benny was a 27 year-old spare part who was generally regarded as a non-prospect by much of the baseball intelligentsia of the time. Prospect or not, he seized the chance afforded by this second go-round and went on a power binge that was so out of character with his past performance that it amazed even him. Inserted into the lineup against the Colorado Rockies (in a weird instance where both starting pitchers that day were named Bobby Jones), Benny collected two hits including his first big league home run. He continued to mash after that, collecting 6 more bombs over the next 2 weeks and an amazing 10 in his first 73 at bats. He reached the All Star break with a total of 11, but came back to earth in the second half of the season and finished the year with 14.
Still, he had put up solid numbers for the year, batting .286 in 276 at bats while knocking in 42 runs with an OPS of .888. More importantly, he had played a not-insignificant role in helping the Mets reach the post-season for the first time in 11 years. He would save his playoff heroics for the following year however, and batted a soft .235 between the Division Series and LCS in ’99 with only 1 RBI.
The 2000 season began with the Mets facing the Cubs in the Tokyo Dome in the first major league game played on a continent other than North America. Benny hadn’t had a particularly glorious showing in spring training that year and was lower in the club’s pecking order of outfielders. In the opening series, Valentine had opted to go with Jay Payton, Darryl Hamilton, Rickey Henderson, and Derek Bell, the latter coming over in the trade that had netted new rotation ace Mike Hampton. Agbayani was relegated to the bench, the vantage point from which he watched the team drop the first contest by a score of 5-3.
The next day found him there again as the teams took a 1-1 game into extra innings. As the game moved to the top of the 11th inning, the Mets looked for a chance to push the go-ahead run across and avoid a sweep. Cubs reliever Danny Young was brought in to start the inning, the seventh pitcher used by manager Don Baylor that day. After getting two out, he surrendered a single to Mets first baseman Todd Zeile and then issued back-to-back walks to load the bases. The pitcher’s spot in the lineup came up and Valentine tapped Benny as a pinch hitter. After tossing his first pitch to Agbayani wide of the strike zone, Young made his next offering a little too good and Benny promptly knocked it over the center field wall for a grand slam. That shot would prove the decisive blow as Dennis Cook closed out the Cubs in the bottom of the inning for a 5-1 Met victory.
That game marked the initial win in the season that would see the Mets return to the World Series for the first time since the fabled run of 1986. Along the way, Benny would contribute another solid season, hitting a total of 15 HR’s and driving in 60 runs in part-time duty. He continued to shine during the post-season that year, crashing a walk-off 3-run shot off the Giants’ Aaron Fultz to win game 3 of the Divisional Series, and contributed during the subsequent NLCS against the Cardinals and the World Series against the Yankees where he drove in the winning run in the sole Met victory that fall.
After that, alas, the bloom was off the rose as Benny had a somewhat injury-plagued 2001 and saw his numbers dwindle along with his appearances in the lineup. That offseason saw him shipped to the Rockies where he toiled for a time with mediocre results, and then he was briefly with the Red Sox before leaving for the greener pastures of Japan’s Pacific League. There, he found glory with the Chiba Lotte Marines, reuniting with manager Bobby Valentine and helping to win a championship in 2005.
Agbayani may not have been among the greatest of Mets players, but found a measure of glory during his brief tenure that secured him a spot among the most beloved. Aloha, Benny.