NY Mets No. 50 Benny Agbayani: A Loyal Fan's Reminiscences of the Punch
Here's a trivia multiple-choice question for you:
The Hawaiian Punch is:
a. the name of the favorite fruit cocktail of Hawaiians,
b. the screen name of a famous professional boxer from Hawaii,
c. the strong hurricane that swept though the Hawaiian islands,
d. the term (or action) of endearment of a befouled Hawaiian wife
with her wayward husband,
e. the nickname Benny Agbayani went by as a right fielder during his
tenure with the New York Mets.
For those of you who picked out the letter "e", you are absolutely correct.
It means you must be a baseball fan. And if you are either of Filipino or Samoan descent, both of which encapsulate Benny's genetic roots, I gleefully suspect a rage of nationalistic pride would swell up your veins at the mention of this familiar name. It takes only a simple act of courage to feather one's patriotic nest.
More than that, rooting for any fellow countryman who has had great success and recognition in America's greatest pastime—major league baseball, is an adoration that could reach the sublime.
For a few misguided people, it becomes the only purpose and meaning of life. They are not too different than those silly, fringe–dwelling fans who bring risk and injury to sports arenas every where. Benny's followers, who are probably considered mainstream more than anything else, aren't like that at all.
Benny still rings loud and clear in the collective American mind.
Up to this date, there are only five players that share a Filipino linkage who have reached baseball's highest portals. There is no exact translation of the term "baseball" in Tagalog—the language most widely spoken, amongst 57 or so, in the dialect–rich culturally diverse Philippine Islands—the Pearl of the Orient Seas.
In Japan, where baseball is enshrined as a major sports event, it might otherwise be known as a loan word "besiboru", suggesting perhaps more of a convenient jargon than pure linguistic transliteration.
Benny's major league career, after doing his due diligence and regimentation in the minor league boot camp, lasted from June 17, 1998 through Sept. 29, 2002.
His first at–bat in the major leagues came up with the New York Mets, with whom he spent the longest and most significant part of his pro career. This New York franchise was his memorable first base.
He got his first start against the Florida Marlins and picked up his first hit off the Florida Marlins pitcher Brian Meadows in the first inning on June 19. On Jan. 21, 2002, Benny was traded to the Colorado Rockies in a 10–player 3–team mega deal. He joined the Boston Red Sox on Aug. 26, 2002.
He slugged off for his final out and composed up his swan song with his last hit on Sept. 29, when he and the Boston Red Sox defeated the Tampa Devil Rays at Fenway Park.
That was not the last of Benny.
Not long after, following the end of his US–based career, his right-fielding and home-run-hitting found a home with the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Japanese Major League baseball. He won MVP in the Asian Series on Nov. 13, 2005, playing for and reuniting with the Mariners's manager Bobby Valentine, who also was his coach and manager while he played with the Mets.
It was Valentine who resurrected Benny's pro career, albeit in a foreign country, where baseball is also devoured, even worshiped, by rabid baseball fans like you and I.
Japan is the Second Major League of the rapidly expanding world of besiboru, with the lines of continental separation and differentiation seemingly being blurred every year. Japan has just won its second consecutive championship in the world baseball classic.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, a starting Japanese pitcher for the Boston Red, was voted MVP of the series for the second consecutive year as well.
Benny was born and grew up in Honolulu, HI.
The volcanic origin of each of the Hawaiian Islands is a fine metaphor for the power and fury that drive the baseball bat when someone as powerful and accurate as Benny uncorks a home-run swing against a flaming cut fastball, the shifty split-fingered, the angular curveball, the humbling slider, and the notorious dorky knuckleball.
The laws of baseball physics are simple: the batter's raw power and perfect, oh perfect, no–mistake–about–it timing versus the pitcher's cunning, intelligence, deceit, and TNT dynamics of a business–as–usual, cold, unforgiving, hard–to–read one–armed lunge toward the hot plate.
Sometimes, a wayward pitcher throwing a heretofore very compliant ball would hit a slugger's skull or ribs or eyes.
They always defend it was an accident. Just ask Ozzie Guillen.
That's classical ballistics science which defines this great American pastime. Its subtle and delicate art, on the other hand, is delineated in how the outs and runs are driven in, in the soft bunted swing and the kamikaze running between equidistant bases, in the sacrifice fly, and the left–right switches mandated from the dugout.
The Broadway theater and Shakespearean drama belong in the minefield between an irate manager and the arbiter. Amid their verbal tussle is volcanic dust dusting off from an irate manager's uncontrollable feet because he is not polished enough to lobby his case with an urbane plea for mercy. And they both know full well they cannot turn it into a fisted skirmish.
Ask Lou Piniella. There is decency in the air.
In all of baseball, major, minor or even just pedestrian, the quantity of cigars they burn out or chew up between innings enrich the elastic pockets of tobacco barons and trigger arrhythmias in the US Surgeon General's nervous cardiac sanctotum.
Beyond art and science, there is a God who uses oxidation and volcanic-like heat to produce iron.
Benny's trials in the minor leagues and the exhilaration or frustration of being an item within a trade between teams he might have liked or disliked, had later on forged an iron-clad will to blossom wherever he is planted. Those drives produced successes that endeared him to us.
Like grapes crushed into a great wine, his emergence as one of the few five Filipino men that have graced baseball's highest altar, is sweet cocktail to our surviving nationalistic feelings, both paternal and maternal, very rarely fraternal.
All mixed together from his exploits, he gave us the Hawaiian Punch, formulated and distilled in the non–volcanic, though non–pacific, holy grounds of New York's Shea Stadium. It was, oh, intoxicatingly sweet.
Where are you Benny, come back to USA, please?
In the meanwhile, we have got Geno Espinelli, another Filipino baseball sensation, playing with the San Francisco Giants. How about the Giant and the Punch stroking our patriot's pride in 51 fields of American soil?
Herr Agbayani, still fresh in our collective minds, is the winning run you drove in that finalized the New York Mets only victory in the 2000 World Series.
You planted a dagger in the hearts of Chicago Cubs fans when you cracked an 11th inning Grand Slam on Mar. 30, 2000, thus serving up the runs that the Mets needed to earn their first win for the season.
Your smooth, with perfect mechanics–swing, reminds us of the fluid lava flows sliding down the slopes of Kilauea, known as one of the greatest lava–producing volcanoes in the world.
Where you in your mother's womb yet, when those liquefied balls of fire coalesced into a river of dark earthen matter, fertilizing the left fields, middle fields, and right fields of those green beautiful pineapple islands?
There is a familiar sound of lava flows cracking the formidable rock formations that emulates the pop that squeaks off the bat swung by this boy of summer.
Only a discerning fan who has attended a baseball game in a semi–enclosed stadium would recognize that familiar percussive sound.
On average, a professional baseball player expects to play less than six career years in US Major Leagues; more so with right fielders like Benny due to the nature of their position. Benny played just a little less than six years.
Each of those years, I am sure he loved. Much surer, we all loved him as a person and a player. Outside of the US soil, his career has found longevity and greater fans base.
Perhaps he could play, if he wished, into his early forties.
No steroids and performance–enhancing substances have ever been linked to him. Moreover, his demeanor on and off the field was consistent and dignified. He was never accused of rudeness or self-centeredness—a trade mark of today's egocentric media-fermented athletes. Benny, a true sportsman indeed.
In the Hawaiian Islands, there is known an eternal hot spot that brought into existence at least five major volcanoes. In our hearts and minds, there is a fixture of a poet laureate of a noble Filipino–Samoan–American heritage.
From this blended persona, a river of self–assured memories races straight toward a known destination, and slides down, with few twists and turns on its rectangular journey, like hot and turbulent lavas seeking a permanent home to anchor its glory, far beyond the beige pages of time–worn Baseball Almanacs.
With Benny, our Hawaiian memories have a punch. You flame up our hot spots.
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