Wednesday, October 25, 2000

SULLIVAN: Agbayani now proven major-leaguer

Once on verge of Triple-A career, now Series hero

        NEW YORK — Benny Agbayani has retired from the prediction racket. He forecast the World Series as the Mets in five games, and there's no longer any chance it can work out that way.

        He will henceforth stick to hitting. It's what he does best.

        The left fielder known as “Hawaiian Punch” atoned for his regrettable pronouncement to shock radio's Howard Stern with a resounding blow against the New York Yankees Tuesday night. His eighth-inning double triggered a two-run rally that produced a 4-2 victory, defeated Senor October, Orlando Hernandez, and put the Mets back in contention for the championship.

        “All we heard about was "El Duque' and how he had won so many games in the postseason and never lost,” Agbayani said. “There's a first time for anyone.”

        The Yankees still lead the best-of-seven series, 2-1, but their record streak of 14 straight World Series wins is finished. Their chance to push the Mets to the brink of elimination must wait at least another day, and their surest October starter is probably finished unless the series stretches to a seventh game.

        Hernandez was heroic Tuesday, about as good as he had been while compiling an 8-0 postseason record. He struck out 12, and escaped a no-out, bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning.

        But after Todd Zeile's one-out bouncer hopped over the glove of Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter for an eighth-inning single, Agbayani drilled Hernandez's 1-0 pitch through the gap in left-center. Zeile raced home with what proved the winning run.

        “It's always been my dream to play in the World Series and play in the big leagues,” Agbayani said. “It means a lot. It's so emotional, so exciting. I come to the park and I'm ready to play.”

        Agbayani left the field Tuesday to a thunderous ovation, replaced by pinch runner Joe McEwing, who subsequently scored an insurance run. When Agbayani returned to the field, to congratulate his teammates upon the final out, he raised his eyes to the sky, clasped his hands in prayer and then smiled the smile of the much-relieved.

        For most of his career, Agbayani has appeared to be a career minor-leaguer. He spent parts of seven seasons in the Mets' farm system, eminently available if anyone else wanted him, before making the big club for keeps at age 28.

        “I've said from the beginning that Benny didn't deserve to go to Triple-A,” Mets GM Steve Phillips said last week. “He absolutely didn't deserve it. I thought he could be a productive major-league hitter. I will say I did underestimate Benny when he was in the minor leagues, but so did every team when they didn't claim him on outright waivers.”

        For most of this season, Agbayani has been on the fringe of the Mets' roster. He narrowly made the team out of spring training and was nearly dealt to Tampa Bay before the midseason trading deadline. When the Mets were preparing their postseason roster, Agbayani was again in doubt because of a strained right hamstring.

        His 13th-inning home run in Game 3 of the Division Series against San Francisco vaulted Agbayani from anonymity to celebrity. When he had finished chatting with Stern, a limousine was waiting to take him to “Live With Regis.” Agbayani's appearance preceded that of Joseph Lieberman.

        “Everything worked out in my favor,” Agbayani said. “All of a sudden, I'm a big part of the team.”

        Bigger now than ever before.



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