Yesterday, Benny Agbayani retired from the Japanese major leagues (NPB) where he’d been playing for the last six years, occasionally under the skipper-hood of ex-Met manager/Scratchbomb nerd-heartthrob Bobby Valentine. Benny will always hold a special place in my heart, as I’m sure he does for most Mets fans.
Every fanbase in every sport has a guy like Benny: beloved for performing way over his head, despite a seeming total lack of physical gifts. Benny was built like a fireplug, had a boyish, pudgy face, and ran like he was mad at the ground beneath him. Fans like guys like him because it makes them think that any slob can play the game. Of course, even a guy like Benny has physical gifts better than those of 98% of the population. Regardless, he’s the kind of player whose appearance allows for the amount of identification and self-delusion necessary to be a Sports Fan.
Benny toiled in the minors for five years before finally getting a call up in 1998, thanks to Valentine, who’d managed him at triple-A Norfolk. After getting called up again early in 1999, he blasted 10 homers in his first 73 at bats, a Ruthian pace that, of course, could not be maintained (he waited until September before finally hitting his 11th homer of the season). In the postseason, he was somewhat eclipsed by the emergence of Melvin Mora, but he did have a few key moments. In game 4 of the NLDS, he hit a double to put the Mets ahead, and in game 6 of the NLCS, he got on base to lead off two late innings, and came around to score both times to give the Mets the lead, though his bullpen could not hold the lead in any of these cases.
In 2000, he became a more permanent fixture in the Mets’ lineup, and contributed many huge hits on their road to the World Series (one of which we’ll get to shortly). He also mistakenly tossed a fly ball he caught into the stands, thinking it was the third out (it was only the second) and had to frantically retrieve from the youngster who snared it. Such was Mets’ fans love for the guy that the blunder only made him more loveable somehow.
Unfortunately, loveability does not always equate to ability to play in the big leagues. Benny fell back to earth, as players of his type often do. He was traded to the Rockies in 2002, wound up on the Red Sox briefly, then went to the Far East, where he won a championship with Valentine’s Chiba Lotte Marines in 2005 (along with another ex-Met, Matt Franco).
Apparently, he was just as beloved in Japan as he was in Flushing, as this video will attest. This is footage from a Chiba Lotte Marines game, where the local fans are reciting a Benny Agbayani chant en masse. This is not unheard of in Japanese baseball, where fan folkways are a lot less like their American counterparts and more like European soccer supporters. But the Japanese baseball fans do not develop choreographed chants for everyone.
When I heard he retired, I thought immediately of game 3 of the 2000 NLDS, possibly the greatest game I’ve ever seen in person. I reminisced about that game way back in January of this year. Let’s take a trip back in time, shall we? (Original post here.)
After writing my kiss-off to the immortal (?) Jeff Kent, I realized that Mr. Kent played a small role in the top three games I ever saw at Shea Stadium. I broached this topic a few times two years ago, though I never got quite as far as I wanted to. And now that Shea is all but rubble, the time has come to pay my last respects.
After dismissing or ignoring baseball for a good chunk of my high school/collegiate career, I got sucked back in by the ridiculously ridonkulous year of 1999. That remains my favorite Met team that I definitively, distinctly remember. 1986 had better results, but I was barely aware of the game at that point. 1969 and 1973 both made the mistake of occurring before
I was born. 2006 seemed like magic when it was happening, but has become more and more depressing the more time passes.
1999 was exhilarating and terrifying all at once. It was like a carnival ride that whipped you around in the air a little too hard, and shook a little too much to be safe, and had lots of loose exposed bolts, and was run by a wild-eyed carnie on crank. There are some nights I wake up and I still can’t believe that it all ended on a bases loaded walk. And yet, I can totally believe it. How else could that year end–in a fair and probable manner? Pshaw!
But while I started to pay attention to baseball again, I hadn’t yet started attending games in person. When I was a kid, my mom brought us to maybe one game a year–two if it was a really good year. Shea was a 2 hour drive away, and we didn’t have any money to go more often than that anyway. So I was very slow to realize that I could go to a game whenever I felt like it. This just didn’t seem possible to me. In the entire 1999 and 2000 regular seasons, I probably went to three total games.
At the time, I worked for an educational publishing company. There was one intern in our office, a kid from Brooklyn who looked like my slightly chunkier, slightly shorter doppelganger with curly hair. He was a nice guy, completed all of his tasks well and on time, and he loved the Mets. Looooooooooved the Mets, in way that I’d never seen anyone love anything other than another human being.
When the Mets made the playoffs in 2000, he snagged some seats to game 3 of the Division Series against the Giants. He knew I was a fan, and he had an extra ticket, so
he asked me if I wanted it. I almost didn’t know what to say. I never tried to get playoff tickets myself because it wouldn’t have even occurred to me that I could go to a playoff game. Like, I’d be turned away at the turnstile because…well, just because.
Eventually, I stammered out a yes. I was super, super excited. But not as excited as The Intern. Because this kid was NUTS the entire game. I mean, out of his damn gourd. In an awesome way. Not drunk, or belligerent, or using the game as an excuse to yell at chicks to take off their tops. He was just crazy for his favorite team, and ecstatic to be watching them play postseason baseball in person. And he wanted to let everyone within 75 miles know about it.
I was not used to this kind of behavior. When I went to games as a kid, I would buy a scorebook and score the game (/push glasses up nose). In fact, I have a scorebook for this game, which I worked on intermittently and had to abandon once I ran out of innings.
Early in the game, someone on the Mets did something good–I can’t remember who it was or what they did–and The Intern immediately hung his hand in the air for a high five. It took me three full seconds for me to (1) notice it, and (2) realize what he wanted me to do.
So I raised my hand, and he hit it as hard as I’ve ever been hit by someone who didn’t want me dead. I pretended it didn’t hurt. And I pretended that it didn’t hurt every time he did it. Which was at least five times an inning, in a game that went 13 innings and pushed past the five hour mark.
But after too long, I absorbed his enthusiasm by osmosis. How could I not? This was an unbelievably tense game. With the series tied at a game apiece, whoever won would be one victory away from advancing to the next round.
I don’t know if it was a pitcher’s duel so much as a hitter’s fail-off; both teams left double
digits on base (a whopping 16 stranded men for SF). After giving up 2 runs in the fourth, the Mets scratched out one in the 6th and one in the 8th to tie it up, scoring their second run off of the nigh-unhittable Rob Nen. Then the two teams took turns making idle
Nearly every half inning saw batters reach, get into scoring position, sometimes getting as far as third, but no one could get that one big hit. In the 11th, Jay Payton broke three bats
before finally striking out against Felix Rodriguez while the winning run stayed anchored to second base (granted, that man on second was the mollasses-esque Robin Ventura). It seemed that every time I blinked, Barry Bonds was coming to bat with a chance to put the game away. But because this was the playoffs, he either struck out or popped up every
I began to think the game would never end. And I didn’t mind. Even though I hadn’t sat down since the 6th, even though the 14th inning stretch loomed, I wasn’t the slightest bit tired. The Intern had enough energy for the entire stadium. He clapped, he high fived until my hand was numb, he started up LET’S GO METS! chants for the entire section. He was a one-man pep rally.
The game ended on a walk-off homer from Hawaiian dynamo Benny Agbayani in the bottom of the 13th. The entire stadium shook. Literally. I actually initiated a high five with The Intern, with both hands. He looked frightened for half a second, then laughed like a madman.
The Intern was pumped all the way down the ramps, but once we went out the gates, he lost all of his energy. As if he tripped over a switch, all of sudden the tireless cheerleader
was gone. He seemed drained, maybe even a little embarrassed, even though he had absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. He had to catch a bus back to Brooklyn and said he’d see me back in the office. I wished him a safe trip and went on my own way.
I barely saw The Intern after that. Within a few weeks, I was laid off from my job. I would spend a year trying to find employment again. I have no idea what he’s up to now. But I’ve gone to dozens of Mets games in the last 4-5 years, and in a way, it’s all his fault. Because that was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a game, and it wasn’t even my fun.
Jeff Kent? He had two hits in the game, but he also struck out twice and left three on base. And as far as I know, he still refused to put on the clown suit.