NEW YORK -- All told, the “Benny and the Mets” phenomenon that took over Queens in the late 1990s lasted, essentially, for only three seasons. Benny Agbayani burst into the consciousness of Mets fans in 1999, as a 27-year-old Hawaiian rookie with thunder in his bat. He delivered a clutch walk-off homer during the 2000 playoffs. By ‘02, Agbayani was gone from Flushing. By ‘03, he was out of the Majors.
He remains one of the most beloved Mets in franchise history.
“It was awesome,” Agbayani said earlier this year, during a rare trip back to Flushing. “Coming out of Hawaii, you never believe that would ever happen. That’s why I love this place. Great memories, great place and I’ll never forget it.”
Much of what Agbayani brought to the Mets, he revealed early. Following a brief cup of coffee in 1998, Agbayani returned to the Majors the following May and turned a hot start into a torrid one, batting .400 with 10 home runs over his first 83 plate appearances. The Shea Stadium sound system took to blaring out Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” in Agbayani’s honor, and a cult hero was born.
“That was my boy, man,” said Jay Payton, a Mets outfielder from 1998-2002. “We started off in the Minor Leagues together and pretty much came up together and helped each other out. I knew his swing inside out. He had that big leg kick.”
Agbayani’s relationship with Payton could have become awkward in the spring of 2000, when the two found themselves competing for the same roster spot. Because Agbayani had a Minor League option remaining and Payton did not, the former was at risk of not making the team. But a last-minute decision to carry one fewer pitcher created space for both, which proved handy when Agbayani hit a go-ahead grand slam in the 11th inning of the Mets’ second game of the season against the Cubs in Tokyo.
As Agbayani continued to hit, he spent more and more time in the lineup. By October, he had long since become a full-time starter, giving him the chance to deliver two of the more dramatic hits in franchise history.
The first, a walk-off homer in the 13th inning in Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Giants, gave the Mets a 2-1 lead in a best-of-five battle they would win the next day. Then, in Game 3 of the World Series, Agbayani hit a go-ahead RBI double in the eighth inning off Yankees starter Orlando Hernandez; it wound up being the only game the Mets won in that Series.
“Oh, it was amazing,” Agbayani said. “You had to be here to see what it was like. I can’t explain it in words, but these fans came out and they really supported us.”
Agbayani’s other best-known play is not quite so flattering. In a 2000 game against the Giants, the left fielder flipped a sacrifice fly to a young fan in the stands, thinking it was the third out. As Agbayani frantically grabbed the ball back from the boy, a second Giants runner came around the score, nearly costing the Mets the game. (In the end, they won, and Agbayani gave the fan a new ball an inning later.)
It was quirky, not entirely unlike Agbayani’s career; as quickly as he became a star in New York, he was gone. His production decreased the following season, and so did his playing time. On Jan. 21, 2002, the Mets dealt him to the Rockies in a three-team trade, which did nothing to jump-start his production. Agbayani didn’t make it through a full season in Colorado, briefly landing in Boston on a waiver claim before leaving MLB for good. He spent the next season entirely in the Minors, before his old manager and longtime supporter, Bobby Valentine, recruited him to Japan to play for the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Six productive seasons in Japan made Agbayani a star in that country until his retirement after the 2009 season. At that point, Agbayani moved full time back to Hawaii, where he works on the luggage ramp for Hawaiian Airlines. In the afternoons, he coaches his daughters’ softball team.
Agbayani returned to Queens once in 2010, visiting Citi Field shortly after it opened, then again this past summer. In Payton’s words, he is “just a quiet dude” who values the privacy of everyday life. To many Mets fans, however, he will always be that star that rose sharply and brightly in the late 1990s.
“When you come up, you want to make a pretty good impact,” Agbayani said. “Some days, you’re going to have down days. Some days, you’re going to have up days. But you just want to keep that evenness and just go out there and play, and try to help this ballclub win.”