Friday, November 20, 2009

Benny And Me

I've been to quite possibly over 200 baseball games in my lifetime, and I never caught a foul ball. However: I did once catch a ball during batting practice. In Y2K I took advantage of Shea's Pepsi Picnic Area promotion where on Wednesdays for an empty Pepsi can or bottle you can sit in the bleacher seats for free. The only "catch" was you had to show up on a line at around 2-2:30 and you'd have to sit through batting practice beginning at around 4:45. I was 18 and perpetually bored, so I didn't care. One afternoon during BP, a long fly ball was hit deep to left field. It was DEFINITELY coming our way and specifically heading towards ME. I extended my right arm and in an absurdly seeming casual manner, I caught the damn thing. I caught a home run! Yes I know, in batting practice, but still, best I've ever done. A kid frantically began looking around and asked "Where is it?! Where's the ball?" As casually as possible I said, "Oh, I caught it" and showed him the ball. His millisecond look of disgust before his phony congratulations is something I'll never forget. I give all of the credit to the man who hit that ball. That man was Benny Peter Agbayani Jr. And he retired last week.

And that is very sad.

Here's a little story: Once upon a time in 1998, before New York fell in love with Benny Agbayani, Benny fell in love with a woman. This woman fell in love with Benny, and she loved him so much that she agreed to marry him on a baseball field in Norfolk, Virginia. After the ceremony Agbayani went about his business with his triple-A Norfolk Tides team, continuing his life as a 27-year old career minor leaguer. And then he went on his honeymoon: to Shea Stadium. Benny didn't do much with his promotion to the big leagues, only making 16 plate appearances. Oh sure, he seemed nice enough. The guy actually did a serviceable job in parts of his first season playing center field, despite his 6 foot, 225 pound frame. His batting stance was basically him lifting up his left leg as the pitcher was finishing his wind-up, and then stomping his foot as the ball was reaching him, swinging like a little leaguer trying to prove he can hit a pitch as far as the abnormally tall kid. That was about all there was to him. But by 1999 he was a folk hero. When manager Bobby Valentinegave him a few starts in a row Benny took advantage, going on a tear, and very quickly Mets fans fell for him. The Hawaiian native was nicknamed "Hawaiian Punch", a nickname that automatically makes you liked by everybody. I distinctly remember Fox introducing a national telecast with a video featuring a classic Hawaiian Punch commercial interspersed with video of Agbayani hitting home runs. (Would you like some Hawaiian Punch? Sureeee. THWACK. Ahhhhhh home run...). Shea Stadium had the worst musical taste possible, but they got it right when they'd play "Benny and the Mets" after one of his hits. (The song that played after a Mets win in 2000 was "Who Let The Dogs Out". Jesus christ.) After a torrid beginning one would think his stats would regress to the mean, but Agbayani maintained really decent numbers. He finished that season raking .286/.363/.525. In the Mets' pennant winning 2000 season he hit .289/.391/.480. He was third on the team in OPS. It didn't make sense with that swing. How did pitchers not shake their heads over this guy? I threw him a steady diet of offspeed pitches. How did his fatass not fall down lunging at my sliders?

Agbayani's greatest moment came in the 2000 National League Divisional Series against the San Francisco Giants. It was the 13th inning, tie game, and off of Aaron Fultz Benny lifted his leg, stomped his foot and hit the ball very very hard. He hit the ball so hard that it went over the left field wall, and the Mets won the game to go up two games to one in a series they'd win the next night.

I was at that game. I didn't necessarily see the home run however. Sadly I was in an obstructed view seat in the mezzanine on the third base side, so all I saw was him hitting it, and a slender Barry Bonds in left field jog fruitlessly and look up defeatedly towards the bleachers. Oh well! We won, and that was all that mattered. And I don't think I paid full price for the ticket. Life was good. (Until the boredom kicked in.)

Agbayani's WORST moment (which I was NOT in person for but I was watching live on television) was during a regular season game in the very same year against the very same Giants. He caught a fly ball, and thinking that was the third out gave it to a kid in the stands. Unfortunately for the Mets, it was only the second out, and the umpires awarded Ellis Burks and Jeff Kent of the Giants home plate. But even then, the Mets came back to win the game. Thankfully for Benny, he wasn't playing for the 2009 Mets. Not only would they had lost the game, the kid he gave the ball to probably would have somehow hurt himself playing with it.

In June of 2001 Darryl Hamilton and Hawaiian Punch had some sort of signing take place in the recently opened Mets Clubhouse shop. For some reason I decided to bring my high school yearbook, which I had just received a day or so before. (I had long since lost the batting practice home run ball, because I was 18 and a total idiot with no sentimentality.And bored). It was the first time I actually interacted with "celebrities", so the conversation pretty much went something like this:

(Roger approaches the table and opens his high school yearbook to an empty page.)
Darryl Hamilton: What's this?
(Darryl and Benny both look at the cover.)
Hamilton: Hahaha (points to a random person in the book)did this dude ever take your lunch money?
Roger: I
(Benny continues to thumb through the yearbook, as if he's actually interested in its contents. He then passes it back to Hamilton.)
Hamilton: (laughing to himself) Here you go man.
(Benny signs it)
Benny: Thank you for coming
Roger: Asin...podfs...thanks.
(Roger walks away not knowing what the hell just happened.)

Darryl Hamilton would be DL'ed about a week later and never play baseball again. Him and his arthritic left big toe now work for the commissioner's office. He claims he placed a "hex" on the Mets because manager Bobby Valentine didn't treat him fairly. There's a slight chance Darryl was taking his issues out on me that day.

But anyway...

After the 2001 season Agbayani was traded to the Rockies. In 2002 he struggled and never played in the majors again. He would end up with Bobby Valentine in Japan, getting his own 49 second long chant and winning a championship in 2005. I never really saw much footage of those Japanese games, but I'm sure it would have freaked me out: I would have kept thinking that I was looking into a parallel universe where the 2000 Mets won the World Series and that all of the games were played in domes for some reason. And I hate domes. But I loved Benny. Aloha, Benny.

No comments: