After a steady diet in the realm of the long-ago in 2013, we’re going to take a visit to someone in the realm of the not-so long-ago. It’s time for Glory Days to profile the final Rising Apple Off-Season Player of the Week: Benny Agbayani.
Dateline: May 20, 1999. Bobby Valentine’s New Yorkers are welcoming Phil Garner’s Milwaukee Brewers to Shea Stadium. Batting seventh in left field for the home team is 27-year-old Hawaiian wonder Benny Agbayani. Drafted in the 30th round of the 1993 draft, Benny had a brief stint in the majors the year before and had been brought up again just nine days earlier. Now he was looking to become a full-time major-leaguer and build on the proud set by fellow Hawaiian Mets Ron Darling and Sid Fernandez.
After giving up an early double to future Indianapolis Indians icon Lou Collier, Al Leiter settled down to retire the Brew Crew in the 1st inning. His Milwaukee counterpart, one-hand wonder Jim Abbott, wasn’t as lucky in his first half-inning: after John Olerud drew a two-out walk, Mike Piazza hit a single to extend the inning, and he was in term followed by Edgardo Alfonso, who also drew a walk. That brought up Robin Ventura, and in a preview of things to come in October, he took a 3-2 pitch from Abbott and turned it into a grand slam (all four runs counted this time, and for good measure Ventura would match the feat in the second game of the doubleheader). Agbayani looked to extend the early rally with a single, but Ray Ordonez’s groundout ended the inning.
Leiter faced his own trouble in the 3rd, putting a runner on third with one out. Ronnie Belliard was thrown out at the plate on Mark Loretta’s fielder’s choice, but a wild pitch sent Loretta to second, and Collier’s second double of the game got the Brewers on the board. Leiter then proceeded to give up back-to-back-to-back singles that plated two more runs, cutting the Mets’ lead to 4-3.
Milwaukee’s fourth run came in the next inning when Leiter mismanaged a sac bunt by Abbott that allowed an unearned run to score. But New York got it back under almost identical circumstances in the bottom of the 4th: Agbayani led off with his second single and Ordonez walked after a wild pitch. Leiter then tried to bunt the runners to second and third, but Abbott mismanaged the ball and forced in an unearned run. 5-4, Mets back on top.
They didn’t stay on top for long: with two on and two out in the 5th, Alex Ochoa hit a clutch double to score Jeff Cirillo and Jeremy Burnitz. Down 6-5, a game which had started so well was getting away from the home team. But the subject of today’s story wouldn’t let his team drop a sure thing. Piazza and Alfonso led off the bottom of the 5th with singles, then after a Ventura flyout and pitching change that brought in Steve Falteisek, Benny Agbayani stared down a 2-1 pitch and golfed it beyond the wall in left center. Out popped the home run apple as Benny rounded the bases with a three-run homer, and as he touched home the Mets were back up 8-6.
Mike Piazza provided a spot of insurance in the 6th inning with a two-out, two-run bomb, and Agbayani himself woke the apple up again in the next inning with a solo jack that made it 11-6. With a lead like that, you’d think that now, finally, the game was out of reach for the Brew Crew. Turns out the Amazin’s would need every single one of those runs.
Reliever Allen Watson served up a three-run home run to Cirillo in the top of the 8th, requiring the services of the legendary John Franco in the 9th. Franco wasn’t quite as legendary on this afternoon, however, as he gave up a leadoff double to Marquis Grissom and a one-out walk to Ochoa. After getting Belliard to fly out to Agbayani in left for the second out, pinch-hitter Sean Berry got weak contact on a 1-1 pitch, skying it to second base. Edgardo Alfonso got under it, but the ghost of Luis Castillo played mischief ten years before his time, causing the Fonz to commit an ugly error. The misfortune was almost costly: Grissom scored on the play and Ochoa was barreling for home to tie it. But out of right field came a cannonball from Roger Cedeno, and as Piazza applied the tag for the final out, the Shea faithful celebrated the wild 11-10 victory. Their attention soon shifted to the hero of the day, Benny Agbayani, and his game-deciding final line of 4-4, 3 R, 2 HR, 4 RBI.
Agbayani would finish 1999 as a key part (14 HR, .888 OPS in 314 plate appearances) of a Mets squad that finished 97-66 and two games shy of the World Series. The next year New York got over the hump and won their fourth National League pennant, and Benny’s go-ahead double in the bottom of the 8th of Game 3 gave them their only series win over the Yankees. He would only spend one more year in Flushing, however, playing in only 91 games in 2001 before being traded to Colorado in a convoluted three-team deal that moved three more players in our game above (Alex Ochoa returned from to the Brewers from the Rockies and both Jeremy Burnitz and Lou Collier went to the Mets). Benny played 48 games in 2002 for the Rockies before being claimed off waivers by the Red Sox on August 26, playing 13 games in Boston before season’s end. He was relegated to Triple-A Omaha in the Royals organization in 2003 and was signed by the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Japan Pacific League, where he would spend the last six years of his career. He retired after the 2009 season at the age of 37. So all-in-all, it was a respectable career for a man who still draws smiles on the lips of Mets fans whenever his name is mentioned.
May 20. A good day for Babe Ruth in 1919 (hits the first of his 16 career grand slams) and future met Jim Fregosi in 1968 (hits for his second career cycle). Also a good day for Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart in 1927 and 1932, respectively (beginnings of each of their non-stop solo flights across Atlantic Oceans). A bad day for Bikini Atoll in 1956 (U.S. tests its first hydrogen bomb there during Operation Redwing) and followers Arianism in 325 (beginning of the First Council of Nicaea, which successfully represses the Christian theological splinter group by establishing the Nicene Creed – thanks, History of Christianity class from last year). A great day for Benny Agbayani in 1999.