Monday, January 4, 2016

The Most With The Least: Benny Agbayani (1999-2000)

There are some players who become folk heroes without ever being expected to produce 500 at-bats or 30 starts in a season.  Players like Johnny Podres of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, Bucky Dent of the 1978 New York Yankees and Francisco Cabrera of the 1992 Atlanta Braves come to mind.  The memorable moments they produced in those seasons have lived on long after their playing careers were over.  In some cases - Buddy Biancalana's postseason for the 1985 Kansas City Royals comes to mind - their moments in the sun completely overshadowed the fact that save for the magical game or stretch of games, they did not have particularly good careers in the major leagues (Biancalana batted .205 and had a -1.5 WAR in parts of six seasons with the Royals and Houston Astros).

Some folk heroes who don't play every day actually do have good careers.  However, their careers are sometimes overlooked because they were never among the league leaders in any categories due to the lack of steady playing time.

Several Mets players have achieved folk hero status and a lifetime of adulation and respect even without the gaudy numbers put up by some of the hitters and pitchers currently in the team's Hall of Fame.  One such player became beloved for what he did during a two-year stretch, despite not being an everyday player.  His numbers were not All-Star worthy, nor will he ever be enshrined in the Mets Hall of Fame.  But his clutch performances in his limited appearances were crucial to the team's success during those two seasons and he will forever be remembered for his efforts.

Mahalo, Benny Agbayani!  You gave Mets fans plenty to cheer about.  (AP photo by Ron Frehm)

Benny Peter Agbayani was one of five Hawaiian-born players who suited up for the Mets over the years (the others were Carlos Diaz, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez and Tyler Yates).  However, he was the only one of the five who wasn't a pitcher and the only native Hawaiian originally drafted by the Mets who played for the team.  Like many roads on the island state, Agabyani's path to the majors was long and winding.  He was drafted in the 30th round of the 1993 June amateur draft and toiled in the minor leagues for nearly six full seasons (which included a regrettable turn as a replacement player in spring training due to the 1994-95 players' strike) before being called up by the Mets for the first time in June 1998.  Agbayani had three separate stints with the Mets in 1998, but only got into 11 games.  His infrequent appearances at the plate led to an underwhelming debut, as he batted .133 with no RBI during his time at the big league level.

After his brief stays with the Mets, the team placed Agbayani on waivers, but no other club was interested in his services.  The following offseason, the Mets once again dangled Agbayani for other teams to claim in the Rule V draft.  No one took the bait.  Despite the team's best efforts to end their relationship with Agbayani, the outfielder remained property of the Mets heading into the 1999 campaign.

Agbayani began his seventh professional season in 1999 at AAA-Norfolk and before too long, he made it impossible for the Mets not to notice him.  In 28 games with the Tides, Agabyani batted .356 and posted a whopping 1.139 OPS.  He averaged an extra-base hit every six at-bats, including eight home runs in the first month of the season.  A year after Agbayani couldn't crack an outfield that included the declining Bernard Gilkey and Butch Huskey at his worst, Agabyani got a second chance at the big league level in 1999.  Both Gilkey and Huskey were no longer on the team, with Gilkey having been dealt to Arizona at the trade deadline in 1998 and Huskey being shipped off to Seattle five months later.

Manager Bobby Valentine, who was Agbayani's skipper at Norfolk in 1996, had always praised the stocky slugger in the minors, and continued to believe in him once he made it to the majors.  Injuries to Bobby Bonilla and Rickey Henderson opened up a roster spot for Agabyani in mid-May and the six-year minor leaguer took full advantage of the opportunity, homering in his first game after the call-up.  Agabyani continued to hit with power and by June 13, he had already amassed ten home runs in his first 73 at-bats of the season - a feat no Met had ever accomplished.

Fans at Shea Stadium immediately gravitated to the hard-working Agabayani, and remained supportive even after Agbayani went through the inevitable home run drought that followed his month-long power surge.  Although Agbayani started just 70 games for the Mets in 1999, the team's record was 46-24 in those starts, making Agbayani a key cog in the Mets' machine that went on to make its first trip to the postseason since 1988.

Agbayani finished his first major league season with a .286/.363/.525 slash line, contributing 18 doubles, three triples, 14 homers and 42 RBI in just 276 at-bats, earning him a spot on the Mets' playoff roster.  Although he started just four of the Mets' ten postseason games against the Diamondbacks and Braves, he still reached base eight times in 21 plate appearances for a .381 on-base percentage.  Agbayani's RBI double in the sixth inning of Game Four of the division series broke a 1-1 tie in a game the Mets eventually won in ten innings.  Facing the Braves in the sixth game of the NLCS, Agabyani reached base three times even though he didn't get into the game until the sixth inning.  In the eighth frame, Agbayani led off with a single and later scored the go-ahead run on a hit by Melvin Mora.  The Braves then rallied to tie the game and send it into extra innings.  Once again, Agbayani led off the tenth inning by reaching base, drawing a walk from John Rocker.  Three batters later, he scored on a sacrifice fly by Todd Pratt to give the Mets another one-run lead.  Unfortunately, the Braves tied it again in the bottom of the tenth and went on to win the game and the National League pennant an inning later.

Despite a fantastic rookie season that ended with valuable postseason experience, Agbayani was not guaranteed a spot on the roster as the 2000 regular season approached.  Rickey Henderson was still the team's left fielder, newcomer Derek Bell was brought in to play right field and top prospect Jay Payton was ready to play every day in the major leagues as the team's center fielder.  But Agbayani caught a break when the Mets broke camp to fly to Tokyo for their season-opening series against the Chicago Cubs.  The quirky schedule during the first week of the season meant the Mets would only need to carry ten pitchers on the roster instead of the usual eleven.  That opened up a spot for Agbayani to make the trip with the team to Japan.  And with one swing of the bat, he made sure he'd make the flight back to New York with his teammates instead of another trip back to Norfolk.

Agbayani did not play in the first game, nor did he play in the first ten innings of the second affair in the Tokyo Dome.  But with the game deadlocked in the 11th inning, the Mets loaded the bases against Cubs reliever Danny Young.  Young had retired the first two batters he faced, but then allowed a single to Todd Zeile and back-to-back walks to Rey Ordoñez and Melvin Mora.  With pitcher Dennis Cook slated to bat for the Mets, Valentine decided to use the right-handed hitting Agbayani against the southpaw Young, who was making his first appearance in the big leagues.  Young threw a first-pitch ball, then fired a low fastball to the plate that Agbayani golfed over the center field fence for a grand slam.  The blast led to a 5-1 victory and gave the Mets a split in their season-opening series.  And even though Agbayani was due to the be sent down to the minors once the team needed to use their fifth starter, he never played a single game below the major league level in 2000, due mostly to his game-winning grand slam in Japan.

Melvin Mora (left) and Todd Zeile (right) flank Benny Agbayani as he crosses the plate in Tokyo.  ( screen shot)

Although Agbayani remained with the team once they returned to the United States, he was relegated to a bench role over the first month of the season.  But Rickey Henderson, who drew the ire of the front office for playing cards with Bobby Bonilla during Game Six of the 1999 NLCS, was off to a horrendous start in 2000, struggling to stay above the Mendoza Line.  Through May 9, Henderson was batting .207 and had stolen just two bases.  It was a far cry from his fantastic 1999 campaign, when he batted .315 and had 37 steals.  The Mets were also just 13-13 in Henderson's 26 starts through early May.  Meanwhile, Agbayani was continuing to deliver for the Mets, albeit in limited action.  Agbayani started a mere five games in April and had batted just 32 times through month's end, but in that small sample size, he posted a .321/.387/.571 slash line, produced five extra-base hits and drove in nine runs.  More importantly, the Mets won all but one of the games Agbayani started in April.

When Agbayani started, he produced and the Mets won.  When Henderson started, he did not produce and the Mets were mediocre.  Henderson also whined and was generally a malcontent, while Agbayani had a positive outlook and a winning demeanor.  The writing was on the wall for Henderson, and by mid-May, he had been released by the Mets and Agbayani was given a shot to start more games.

Three days after Henderson was released, the Mets found themselves in fourth place in the N.L. East with a 20-20 record.  But with Henderson gone and Agbayani finally getting a chance to prove himself, the Mets responded by winning eight of their next ten games.  Agbayani started seven of those contests, batting .348 and reaching base at a .423 clip.  The Mets went on another hot streak from mid-June through early July, winning 12 out of 16 affairs.  Among the key contributors in that sizzling skein was Agbayani, who torched opposing pitchers with a .357/.429/.833 slash line during the two-and-a-half week period.  The left fielder started a dozen times during the 16-game stretch, reaching base on 21 occasions, smacking six home runs and racking up 14 RBI.

As the calendar flipped from July to August, the Mets were on a roll and Agbayani was putting up gaudy numbers.  By August 11, the day the Mets got to 20 games over .500 for the first time in 2000, Agbayani was the owner of a robust .315/.404/.502 slash line.  Only Mike Piazza (.349/.416/.676) and Edgardo Alfonzo (.328/.427/.519) had better slash lines on the team than Agbayani.  Agbayani remained above the .300/.400/.500 mark until mid-September, when a late slump and the loss of playing time to September call-up Timo Perez brought him under those figures.  But by then, it had become a foregone conclusion that the 2000 squad was going to crash the playoff party, unlike the 1999 campaign, when the Mets needed to play a 163rd game to qualify for the postseason.  And a big reason why they were returning to the playoffs was the decision to start Benny Agbayani with more regularity, as the Mets went 57-37 when the outfielder was in the starting lineup in 2000.

Agbayani was going to the playoffs for the second time in his two full seasons in the big leagues.  However, unlike the Mets' 1999 postseason run, when he started just four games, Agbayani was expected to be a key contributor if the Mets were going to have a deeper playoff run, especially after having just completed a season in which he finished fourth on the team in batting average (.289), third in on-base percentage (.391), third in slugging percentage (.477) and third in oWAR (2.1).  He also added 19 doubles, 15 home runs and 60 RBI in just 350 at-bats.

The Mets' division series opponent was the San Francisco Giants, who produced the best record in baseball during the 2000 campaign with a 97-65 mark.  The Mets split the first two games at Pac Bell Park, with Agbayani reaching base five times in eight plate appearances.  In Game Three, Agbayani was kept off the bases in each of his first five plate appearances.  He had been removed for a defensive replacement in each of the first two games, a practice that Agbayani was quite familiar with, as manager Bobby Valentine had removed Agbayani in 51 of the 94 games he started during the 2000 regular season.  But as the game progressed into extra innings, Valentine did not take Agbayani out of the game, allowing him to bat for a sixth time in the bottom of the 13th, even after he had failed to get a sacrifice bunt down in his previous at-bat when the Mets had two runners on and nobody out.

Valentine noticed Agabyani was disgusted with himself after his failure to move the runners over cost the Mets a chance to win the game in the 11th, saying, "He really felt like he let the team down.  He was kind of pacing in the dugout, just hoping to get another chance."

And with one mighty swing of the bat, Valentine was rewarded for his decision to stick with him.

Video courtesy of YouTube channel

On a 1-0 pitch from Giants reliever Aaron Fultz, Agabyani ended the taut affair with a long home run into the Shea Stadium left field bleachers.  The blast gave the Mets a 3-2 victory and a 2-1 series lead.  The following night, the Mets took the series from the Giants on a one-hit shutout by Bobby Jones.  Agabyani had more hits in Game Four than the entire Giants lineup, as he went 2-for-4 in the Mets' division series-clinching victory.

Unlike the 1999 National League Championship Series, when every game was decided by one or two runs, the 2000 NLCS wasn't nearly as nerve-wracking, as the Mets defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in five games, with three of their four wins in the series coming by four or more runs.  Agbayani had a stellar series, reaching base ten times in the five games, including two doubles, four walks and three RBI, but once again he was overshadowed by the great performances of Edgardo Alfonzo and Mike Piazza (both hit over .400 in the series and combined to produce seven extra-base hits), as well as Timo Perez, who set a club record with eight runs scored in the series, and Mike Hampton, whose two wins earned him the NLCS Most Valuable Player award.

It was on to the Fall Classic for Benny and the Mets, where they would square off against their crosstown rivals, the New York Yankees, in the first Subway World Series since 1956.  Agbayani and the Mets would drop the first two games to the Bronx Bombers, with Agbayani collecting hits in each of those games.  The Mets absolutely had to win Game Three, and when the eighth inning rolled around with the score tied at 2, it was up to Agbayani to deliver.  And that's exactly what he did.

With one out and Todd Zeile at first, Agbayani stepped up to the plate to face Yankees starter Orlando Hernandez, who had struck out 12 Mets batters in seven and a third innings.  Agbayani refused to give El Duque a baker's dozen, lining a double into the left-center field gap.  Zeile motored all the way around from first base to score to go-ahead run.  The Mets added another run in the inning and held on to win the game, 4-2.

The game-winning double gave Agbayani hits in all 12 games the Mets had played up to that point in the 2000 postseason, setting a franchise record for longest hitting streak in a single postseason.  It also gave Agbayani a 13-game postseason hitting streak, dating back to the final game of the 1999 NLCS.  That tied Edgardo Alfonzo's club record and was only four short of the major league record of 17 straight games, which was set by Hank Bauer from 1956 to 1958 and matched by Derek Jeter from 1998 to 1999.

Agbayani's hitting streak came to an end in Game Four, although he did reach base on a walk.  He was back to his clutch hitting ways in Game Five, giving the Mets a temporary 2-1 lead with an RBI single off Andy Pettitte.  (Agabyani made a career out of hitting Pettitte, going 8-for-18 with two doubles, a home run and four RBI off the lefty.)  However, the Mets failed to score another run after Agbayani's hit, dropping the game and the series to the Yankees.

Benny Agbayani receives a hand (or two) from his teammates in the 2000 World Series.  (Don Emmert/Getty Images)

The following season, the Mets failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1998.  A year after he maintained a .300/.400/.500 slash line well into September, Agbayani regressed, especially in the power department.  Although his .277 batting average and .364 on-base percentage were still among the highest on the team, he produced just 22 extra-base hits in 339 plate appearances for a .399 slugging percentage.  As a result, he lost playing time in left field to rookie Tsuyoshi Shinjo (24 games), Darryl Hamilton (20 games) and Joe McEwing (18 games).  He lost his job for good during the off-season, when he was part of a three-team trade that netted the Mets outfielder Jeromy Burnitz, starting pitcher Jeff D'Amico and four other players.

Just as the Mets crumbled in 2002, so did Agbayani's career in the majors.  He split the season between the Colorado Rockies and the Boston Red Sox in 2002, then played in the Kansas City Royals organization in 2003 after being acquired from the Cincinnati Reds.  He then moved on to the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan's Pacific League for six seasons.  The time away from the United States led to Agbayani's renaissance in baseball, as he had a career year in 2004 (.315, 35 HR, 100 RBI) and was part of Chiba Lotte's first championship in 31 years during the 2005 campaign.  Agbayani achieved both personal and team success under the tutelage of his favorite skipper, Bobby Valentine, who took the job overseas two years after being relieved of his managerial duties in New York.  When Valentine was fired by the Marines in 2010, Agbayani walked away from the game, pledging his loyalty to his former manager and his disdain for the way he was unceremoniously let go.

Agbayani never had more than 350 at-bats in any of his four seasons with the Mets.  Nor was he ever expected to play every day for the team.  But he was a key player in two postseason runs by the Mets, producing timely hit after timely hit, making him a fan favorite during his short time in New York.  Fans loved and respected Agbayani so much, they were quick to forgive him when he suffered a defensive lapse in 2000, giving a ball that was still in play to a young fan in the stands - a gaffe that allowed two runs to score.  But it was easy to overlook the occasional lapse in judgment once his entire body of work was considered.

Benny Agbayani had 1,084 plate appearances for the Mets.  On a team that has had great hitters and power threats like Rusty Staub, Darryl Strawberry, Mike Piazza and David Wright, many people would be surprised to discover that of all players to surpass 1,000 plate appearances in franchise history, Agbayani ranks sixth in lifetime OBP (.372), tenth in career slugging percentage (.461) and eighth in OPS (.833).  He reached base more often than Edgardo Alfonzo (.367 OBP as a Met), had a higher slugging percentage than Howard Johnson and Dave Kingman (.459 and .453, respectively) and produced a higher OPS than Keith Hernandez (.816).

The Hawaiian also provided punch in the playoffs, producing seven extra-base hits in 67 postseason at-bats.  Agbayani is one of six Mets to amass 20 or more lifetime postseason hits, joining Edgardo Alfonzo (26 hits), Cleon Jones (23), Mike Piazza (22), Lenny Dykstra (21) and Keith Hernandez (20) as the only Mets to do so.  With 14 career walks in the playoffs, Agbayani reached base via hit or walk 34 times in 22 games.  Only Alfonzo (26 hits, 10 walks) reached base more often in the postseason than Agbayani.

Getty Images

"I hope Met fans always remember me as a great ballplayer, someone who gave his all, was always there in the clutch."

--Benny Agbayani, as told to Anthony McCarron/Daily News

No one will ever say that Benny Agbayani was one of the best players to ever play for the Mets.  But he certainly gave his best with the little playing time he received.  And when he did play, the team won, as evidenced by their 103-61 record in Agabyani's 164 starts between the 1999 and 2000 campaigns.  (They were 88-73 when he didn't start.)  Furthermore, no one can argue against Agbayani being one of the franchise's most clutch hitters in high pressure situations, especially in the postseason.

Bobby Valentine always believed in Agbayani's ability on the baseball field.  He believed in it when both men were at AAA-Norfolk in 1996.  He believed in it again from 1998 to 2001, when Agbayani and Valentine were together on the Mets.  And he believed in it for a third time when they were reunited in Japan at the end of Agbayani's career.

Valentine knew what he was getting in Agbayani.  He was a fine hitter who exhibited patience at the plate and was aggressive when the situation called for it.  The numbers don't lie, even if the playing time wasn't there the way it was for more experienced hitters.  Agbayani made the most out of his brief opportunity with the Mets and it led to him becoming the beloved folk hero he is today among Mets fans, nearly a generation after he played his final game with the team.

Note:  The Most With The Least is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who performed at a high level without receiving the accolades or playing time their more established teammates got, due to injuries, executive decisions or other factors.  Please come back next week for the next installment.

No comments: