And we’re back …
When we left off yesterday, right-hander Nelson Figueroa Jr. had just been taken off of the New York Mets’ 40-man roster but assured by the organization that he was in their plans for 2009.
Knowing that he was going to be fighting for a job come spring, despite 13 years as a pro and the minor league crown in wins and strikeouts, Figueroa came home, spent some quality time with his bride of eight years, Alisa, and his young daughter, Renee, and then it was time to pack his bags again and set off, this time for the Dominican Republic.
Back with Aguilas Cibaenas, the team with whom he’d caught the Mets’ eye with a playoff-record 13-strikeout performance the previous January, he posted a 3.13 ERA in five games, striking out 24 while walking four in 31 2/3 innings.
His next stop on his world tour was Venezuela, where he joined the Lara Cardinales for the playoffs. And on Jan. 18, almost a year to the day after he had wrapped up his Mets invite, Figueroa pitched arguably the best game in his 13-year career.
Facing Zulia, Figueroa tossed nine innings of no-hit ball in a game still tied 0-0 after that nine innings. The team came back to win, 1-0, in 10. Overall, with Lara in the post-season, Figueroa was 2-0 with a 3.66 ERA in 19 2.3 innings, striking out 20.
Pretty nice numbers to come home with and to leave the Mets to ponder as they make their potential plans for their 2009 staff. .
So now, if you’ve been keeping track, Figueroa has pitched in Mexico, in Taiwan, in Venezuela, in the Dominican Republic. He’s pitched in Japan and Australia. He would also appear to be pretty much a lock for the Puerto Rican team’s staff in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.
So what is the best part of being able to be such a world traveler as part of his job?
No, not the salary or the income. But, rather, the actual coinage, the souvenirs Renee collects from his – and, sometimes, their – travels.
“She loves the money from each place because it’s so different,” he explained. “She has a little cash register filled with coins, a collection of ‘play money.'”
Figueroa first met Alisa back when the two were at Brandeis and she was a student-trainer for the athletic teams, but they didn’t start dating until years later. She had received her graduate degree from Syracuse University and was living in that area when Figueroa was assigned to Double-A Binghamton, an hour south.
“I had my old student directory so I looked her up and called her and invited her to come to a game,” he recalled.
The two dated for a few years before he decided to pop the question in 2000, and did it in memorable style.
Knowing that Alisa was a huge Winnie-the-Pooh fan, the set-up came at a 4th birthday party for the son of one of Figueroa’s Tucson teammates, Ken Huckaby. During the festivities, who should show up but Winnie the Pooh, holding his ever-present “hunny jar.”
But when he pulled his hand out of the jar, it wasn’t covered with honey but rather holding a ring. Which Winnie then presented to Alisa, as he took off the head and revealed … well, you figure it out.
The two wed that following off-season and have lived as happily ever after as they can when they are separated for so long during the year. The times they are together as a family are cherished down to every last minute.
Most recently, before Figueroa left on Thursday for Port St. Lucie, they were spent painting the walls of Renee’s new “big girl room,” a color that Figueroa described in true “father of a 5-year-old” style as “a cross between Cinderella ballgown blue and Heffalump purple.”
Before that, the three went on a long-awaited Disney Cruise to celebrate the big girl’s 5th birthday. And Figueroa was able to bring her to her dance and gymnastics classes (she is an outstanding athlete like her dad) and watch her perform there.
“The hardest part of the baseball life that people don’t see is the family you leave behind,” Figueroa said. “I’ve gotten to play dad maybe four months in the last three years.”
But Figueroa, and perhaps more importantly Alisa, know that this is what he does and there will be time together soon enough. In the meantime, thank heaven for Skype as he’s been able to watch his daughter grow up thanks to the wonders of modern technology.
“Skype is awesome,” he said. “I’ve been all over the world and I can still see her perform. She grabs her mike and dresses up and sings to me.”
Over the years, the Figueroas have also been actively involved in different community service projects together, but none quite so unique as one that came out of tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001.
Figueroa was up with the Philadelphia Phillies on the road in Atlanta when the planes struck his hometown.
“After the Towers fell, I was sitting in my hotel room in Atlanta and had a screen saver of a baseball on my computer,” he recalled. “They were showing everyone putting up their American flags and I had the idea of meshing a flag and a baseball so I created the image on Photoshop and went down to Kinko’s and made six T-shirts.”
When he got the to park that afternoon, he gave one to his teammate, pitcher Robert Person, and sent a few over to friends in the Braves’ clubhouse, including pitchers Jason Marquis and Mike Remlinger, who had a cousin who worked with silk-screening T-shirts in Boston.
Together, they had about 1,000 shirts made and distributed them to players on all 30 clubs for free. Players started wearing them, including the Florida Marlins who wore them as their batting practice shirts.
Fans saw them and wanted them and that’s when it clicked that they could raise money for the victims through the sale of those shirts.
“The shirts said ‘For all the heroes and victims, united we stand,'” Figueroa said. “We got the licensing from Major League Baseball and the Players Association and everyone was on board, at $10 a shirt with all proceeds going to the September 11 fund.”
With just two weeks left in the season, there wasn’t that much time to keep the shirts in the public eye, but overall, along with an accompanying auction with items donated by superstars in the game, they raised over $400,000 for the fund.
“A lot of the wives joined in with the fundraising part, and during the games they’d sit on the concourse to sell the shirts,” he said. “At Shea, they sold out of 1,000 shirts in less than 10 minutes.”
So there you have it. And now readers of GotMiLB will be returned to their regularly-scheduled Q&As and my nattering about other topics, starting tomorrow with a special Valentine’s Day version of Beyond the Boxscore with a real angel …
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 …