THE FULL NELSON, PART 1
It’s times like these that I thank heaven for having GotMiLB as an outlet. And I’m sure my editors do too.
Trying to get everything awesome from an interview with a player like New York Mets pitcher Nelson Figueroa, Jr., into a column that is supposed to top out at 1,000 words max is like trying to pour the ocean into a Dixie Cup.
So while readers of MLB.com can enjoy the “encapsulated” version of Figueroa’s amazing journey, here at Got MiLB I can give you the “full Nelson.”
It will, however, be spread out over three days …
Part 1 will be about his baseball life and career heading into 2008. And this will be more about his history so you can understand his present and everything that goes with it (so most of the interview excerpts will come in Parts 2 and 3).
Part 2 (Thursday) will be about his return to his hometown team, the New York Mets.
And Part 3 (Friday) will be about Figueroa, the guy behind the baseball player, and his amazing and beautiful family.
And this week’s Q&A, which usually runs on Friday, will be pushed back a day to Saturday.
All straight? Then let’s start pouring that ocean into that cup now …
First of all, it’s hard for me to believe that Nelson Figueroa, Jr., will turn 35 this May. His green eyes still twinkle like a teenager’s. He still exudes the amazing energy and passion that he had the first time I talked to him, back in 1996 when he absolutely blew away the hitters in the Class A South Atlantic League.
In his first full season after being drafted in the 30th round out of Brandeis University in 1995, Figueroa took the hill for the Capital City Bombers in Columbia, S.C., in 1996 and went 14-7 with a 2.04 ERA including eight complete games, four of them shutouts. In 185 1/3 innings he scattered 119 hits and struck out a minor-league high 200 batters.
Writing for USA Today/Baseball Weekly at the time, I dubbed him the “Brooklyn Cy Clone,” several years before the Mets themselves moved their short-season New York/Penn League club to Coney Island from Pittsfield, Mass., and gave them the same name.
Figueroa grew up in Coney Island and graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School. His fellow alumni there range from former Mets star Lee Mazzilli, Stephon Marbury and Marv Albert to Mel Brooks, Louis Gossett, Jr., Leona Helmsley, Arthur Miller and the Neils Diamond AND Sedaka.
But clearly a guy who saw the big picture, he accepted an offer to head to Brandeis, a Division III school known more for its academics than its sports, rather than any of the Division I schools that showed interest.
Brandeis’ products include such luminaries as Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davis as well as actresses Tyne Daly, Debra Messing and Loretta Devine. But no other Brandeis Judge has made it to the big leagues aside from Figueroa.
He’d been recruited by the coach there who had seen him in a New England tournament, and Figueroa’s family was enthusiastic about the idea of their son getting a great education while also getting the chance to take the mound regularly from his freshman year on.
To get drafted by the Mets, even in the 30th round, was simply … cliché though it may be … a dream come true for the skinny right-hander who idolized Dwight Gooden. And when he headed down to his first extended spring training before making his debut, he was given Gooden’s old jersey to wear.
After pitching in tiny Kingsport, Tennessee, in his debut, where he went 7-3 with a 3.07 ERA, he moved up to the Sally League and became something of a legend.
The next summer he skipped right past Advanced A St. Lucie and went straight to Double-A Binghamton where he had his ups and downs, going 5-11 with a 4.34 ERA. A return to upstate New York to start 1998 saw him go 12-3 wit a 4.66 ERA before he was blindsided by an event that is so common in baseball but probably never expected, at least not the first time: he got traded.
Figueroa was shipped with outfielder Bernard Gilkey to the Arizona Diamondbacks that summer in exchange for catcher Jorge Fabregas and pitcher Willie Blair. At Triple-A Tucson, he posted an more-than-impressive 3.70 ERA in seven starts, showing little trouble moving from a pitcher-friendly Double-A Eastern League to the hitter-happy Pacific Coast League.
The next summer, “Figgy” went 11-6 with a 3.94 ERA with the Sidewinders and in 2000 he was finally called up to Arizona to make his Major League debut.
But his path would be that of a journeyman over the next several years, and a well-traveled one at that. Figueroa moved from Arizona to Philadelphia to Milwaukee to Pittsburgh, jumping between the big leagues and Triple-A, between starting and long relief, trying to show anyone and everyone that he could fill in whatever role they needed him and do so capably.
He reached double digits in wins in the Minors five times in that span and his ERA was always solid, often excellent.
In 2005, though, his workhorse ways ground to a halt as a torn rotator cuff cost him the entire season and his 2006 comeback was a short one, spent primarily with the Washington Nationals’ Triple-A outpost in New Orleans.
And when 2007 rolled around, Figueroa could not find anyone willing to take a shot on a guy who ranked among the active minor league career leaders in nearly every key category.
In fact, taking into account the time that Figueroa spent with New Orleans in 2008, the Mets’ Triple-A squad that summer, the right-hander is the active minor league leader in wins (104), strikeouts (1,251), complete games (25) and shutouts (11) with an impressive 3.54 ERA in that time.
“My greatest fear in the minors every year is when we get those team sets of baseball cards and people start looking at the back of them,” he laughed. “They look at mine and think it must be a typo.”
For Figueroa, the frustration that has come with knowing that he’s been tagged as a “four-A guy” can barely be expressed, especially when you look at his numbers.
“I can’t claim to be a big league pitcher if you keep me in the minors,” he said. “I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in the big leagues but I got the label early on of being a ‘four-A pitcher’ and it’s taken me the longest time to get over. And I’m not sure I AM over it.”
So in the summer of 2007 he packed his bags and took them on the road, heading first to Mexico where he pitched for Chihuahua of the Mexican League, and then in September he headed to September where, a member of the Uni-President Lions, he was MVP of the post-season. His long strange trip continued to the Dominican Winter League where he struck out 13 in a game one night, fortuitously with a Mets front office executive sitting in the stands.
To be continued …