A new cap and gown for Benny Agbayani
By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer
Homegrown pro baseball player Benny Agbayani reaches another milestone today, but this one is about grade point averages, not batting averages.
Advertiser library photo Feb. 14, 2002
Benny Agbayani will receive his degree, thanks in part to the prodding of his wife, Niela. The couple have a daughter, Aleia.
Advertiser library photo Feb. 14, 2002
A bachelor's degree in sports and leisure was a long time coming for the 31-year-old outfielder for the Boston Red Sox it took him more than a decade but he made it, thanks to distance learning, encouragement from his wife and the same drive that got him to the major leagues when many said he would never make it.
"His road to the majors was tough," said Jarnett Lono, HPU's sports information director. "He had everyone telling him, 'Nah, you're too small, too slow, you haven't got the size. ...' What kept him going was his wife, Niela. She was an awesome softball player at UH. She has that attitude where she's really strong and determined and focused."
Niela Agbayani completed her degree in 1993 and continually encouraged her husband to complete his.
"She kept pushing the issue," Benny Agbayani said.
His achievement is all the more notable in a day when many young athletes choose the big payday in professional sports and turn their backs on education.
Agbayani's baseball career took off at HPU in 1991 when he helped the Sea Warriors make their first and only appearance in the NAIA World Series. By 1993 he was HPU's Most Valuable Player, NAIA District 29 MVP, NAIA All Area One Player of the Year and a Point Loma Invitational All-Tournament Team selection.
As a professional, his career batting average of .274 tops his GPA of 2.24. He's known as a clutch hitter, and it was his dramatic home run that won the day for the New York Mets in the 13th inning of Game 3 of the National League Championships against the San Francisco Giants in 2000. He had been in the team's minor league system since 1993, and a Met since 1998.
Despite his success in baseball, Agbayani wanted something that would serve as an incentive for his own year-old daughter and an example for his young fans as well as to secure his future "after the body falls apart."
"When you sign a professional contract, you see the dollar signs and don't think of going back to school, but you don't realize the money isn't going to last forever," Agbayani said. "For some kids, they don't realize that one day you may get hurt and never play sports again, and you have to do something, you can't just sit home."
But it has taken as much determination to finish college as it took to keep slugging his way up the ladder of professional sports.
"It was always hard for me to go back," Agbayani said. "I'm always playing, during off-season and during the season."
He plays during the off-season for the Los Mochis Caneros of the Mexican Pacific League.
HPU recognized that, and worked to help Agbayani fit school into a busy professional baseball career.
Adviser Debbie Nakashima worked out a schedule of online classes that would fulfill his degree requirements, and he took one or two courses each semester, sometimes going online to write papers or do research early in the morning when the baby woke up, after Agbayani had played a late-night game.
But with everything in place, getting the degree meant learning a whole new skill the Internet.
"But he got into e-mailing his teachers, doing Webcasts, e-mailing assignments," Lono said.
And when Agbayani was back in Hawai'i, where he and his wife have bought a home, he would always check in at school and slide into a classroom in person. Hawai'i is his permanent home, and his family lives here much of the time, traveling with him when possible.
With his bachelor of arts degree behind him, Agbayani feels comfortable that when he does choose to leave baseball, there will be an equally fulfilling future waiting perhaps a high school job teaching athletics to kids in Hawai'i.
"The people here," he said, "they're the ones who made me what I am."
Reach Beverly Creamer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8013.