When last we met (that would be yesterday), it was the off-season of 2007-2008 and right-hander Nelson Figueroa, Jr. has been to as many countries as most of the teams in “The Amazing Race,” pitching in Chihuahua, Mexico, in Taiwan and in the Dominican Republic in hopes of reviving his inexplicably dormant career and getting one of the 30 organizations to give him a shot, sign him to a minor league contract and let him pitch stateside in 2008.
His hometown team, the New York Mets – the team that had drafted Figueroa in the 30th round of 1995 out of Brandeis University — had already told him there was no room for him in the organization when he spoke to them.
But that stance softened considerably one January night in 2008 in a Dominican Winter League post-season matchup.
A playoff start for Aguilas Cibaenas was pushed back due to a rainout so Figueroa found himself on the mound on Monday, Jan. 7, facing Estrellas.
In the stands that night was Ramon Pena, a special assistant to Mets GM Omar Minaya.
“I struck out 13 that night and broke the Dominican record for strikeouts in a playoff game,” recalled Figueroa. “In Mexico I had had 11 complete games in 18 starts to try to show them my arm was healthy and still nothing. Because no one was interested in a 33-year-old guy trying to continue chasing his dream.”
Well, Pena handed his card to Figueroa’s older teammate, Luis Polonia, who passed along the info to Figueroa.
“He asked me if I had a job in the states and said that he had a guy with the Mets who said he could get me a big league invite,” Figueroa recalled. “Now I’d had my agent calling people left and right and I had talked to the Mets myself and they had told me they didn’t have any room.”
After another good start on Jan. 13, Pena came to the clubhouse and told Figueroa face-to-face that he’d get him as good an offer as he could on the minor league side.
“I still looked at him like he had three heads,” laughed Figueroa, who ended up going 4-0 with a 1.45 ERA n the post-season there, but a few days later he had that contract in hand and within weeks was in camp in St. Lucie with his old team.
“You know, I was so glad to be back with the Mets again,” said Figueroa, who grew up in Coney Island rooting for the Mets teams of the 1980s. “To be with the team that I loved as a kid, the team that drafted me, the team I always wanted to play for. To be able to walk into the clubhouse where Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden and Howard Johnson were. “
But just being there wasn’t enough. As a non-roster invitee, at 33, Figueroa still had his work cut out for him. He started working intensively on the backfields with pitching coach Rick Peterson, and he saw the results both physically and mentally.
“I had to show them I could pitch and that what I bring to the table was different than what they had,” he said. “When I got there, Peterson told me there were a lot of things I could do that no one else could. And I thought he was out of his mind. I’d been doing pretty much the same thing for 13 years and no one else had thought I was special. And I don’t know if he’s just the best mind game professor in the game as far as getting you to believe in yourself, but it was working for me.”
It worked for Figueroa right through spring training 2008 and though he was a final cut from big league camp, he was summoned back fewer than two days later when Pedro Martinez went on the DL with a hamstring injury.
He appeared in two games in relief before making his first start as a Met at Shea Stadium against Milwaukee on April 11.
Needless to say he had quite a cheering section on hand, and that cheering section had some pretty nifty digs: the private luxury suite belonging to Mets ace closer Billy Wagner.
Figueroa had met Wagner during spring training, when he (Figueroa) was working on technique while Wagner was playing with his kids on a backfield. Wagner had offered the use of his suite to Figueroa any time he was pitching, knowing that he came from New York but had had little chance to pitch in front of family and friends.
“I looked up and it was the fifth inning and I had a perfect game going,” he recalled. “It was surreal … the roar of the crowd, looking up at Shea Stadium and going to the home dugout and seeing fans over the dugout, and remembering when I was a kid sitting there and watching Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling coming back to the dugout.”
In that game, he allowed two runs on two hits in six innings, fanning six. Wagner got the save and gave him the game ball.
On hand were Figueroa’s wife Alisa, his daughter Renee, his parents, his grandmother, his siblings and an assortment of other friends and relatives.
Figueroa would make four starts during that April/early May stretch, combining for a 3.86 ERA in that span and striking out 18 in 23 1/3 innings before hitting a rough patch in back-to-back starts in May. The timing was bad for him because that stumble came when they were ready to bring some pitchers up. Figueroa was designated for assignment and sent back to New Orleans where he remained for the rest of the summer, going 4-7 with a 4.43 ERA in 20 games for the Zephyrs.
In September, working exclusively in relief, he posted a 1.35 ERA in seven games, allowing just one earned run that month.
But due to the numbers game, Figueroa was removed from the 40-man roster once again following the ’08 campaign, though the Mets told him right away that he was in their plans and that they wanted to resign him to a minor league contract with an invitation for 2009 spring training.
“They called me even before they made the move to express their interest in keeping me and told me that everyone in the organization wanted me back and that I’d done great, I’d done everything I needed to do,” he said. “I wasn’t looking to hold out for $8 million. It wasn’t about money, because honestly we get paid more in the Major Leagues than
anyone should get paid. But it was hard to have my roster spot taken away.”
But in the end, Figueroa took the offer. After all, it’s the Mets. It’s his team. And as he leaves his Phoenix home today to head east to St. Lucie for another spring training battle, he goes in with confidence and hope that there is a place for him there.
“I think I’m a serviceable back end of the rotation starter or long man because I bounce back quickly,” he said. “I’m looking forward to making his team out of camp in whatever way they need me. I just look at it as another challenge. You have to fight for a job every year when you’re someone like me.”
Tomorrow, we look at Nelson Figueroa, world traveler and family man … what has he been doing this off-season, where do his travels take him this month? And why is there a picture of him with his hand in a Hunny Jar?