If you’re familiar with the 1993 film, A Bronx Tale, then you’re familiar with Robert De Niro’s famous line, “Remember, the saddest thing in life is wasted talent. You can have all the talent in the world but if you don’t do the right thing, then nothing happens.” Frankly, if you’re from New York then it should be a given that you’ve seen this movie at least a handful of times. Despite how much this quote personally resonates with me, a short lifetime of watching baseball has shown me that there is something worse than wasted talent; lost talent.
I define “lost talent” as athletes being incredibly gifted, but losing the opportunity to showcase all of that hard work due to out of control circumstances. Lost talent is Oscar Tavares being cut down at the age of 22 by way of a car accident. Lost talent is Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte suffering that same fate this past year. Lost talent is Jose Fernandez leaving behind not only a blossoming career, but an unborn daughter and the chance to be her father.
Many have passed tragically and unfortunately we will never know what could have been. Today, I would like to shed light on one of these departed souls. His name was Brian Cole, a minor league prospect in the Mets organization affectionately nicknamed as “The Best That Never Was.” Today marks the 16th anniversary of his passing at the age of 22. In honor of that, it’s only right to take a look back on the brief ray of light he shined on the Mets organization as an extremely talented ballplayer and exceptional human being.
Born in the town of Meridian, Mississippi in 1978, Brian Cole was a two-sport athlete excelling in both baseball and football. Displaying an immense amount of prowess on the gridiron, he shattered a Meridian High School record of 22 touchdowns as a senior. Cole was afforded multiple opportunities to play football at the Division 1 collegiate level, but baseball was his true passion baseball is what he would pursue.
It was destiny that Cole would select baseball, as he was almost born on a baseball field. His father, William “Pee Wee” Cole was a semi-pro ballplayer for the Sandflat A’s of Lauderdale County. Cole’s mother, Maudelene, had gone into labor and if Brian had come any quicker, he would have been born at Crestwood Field–a place that held tremendous significance as the former domain of several Negro Leagues greats like Satchel Paige.
His first encounter with professional baseball was as a 36th round pick in the 1997 draft by the Detroit Tigers. Unsatisfied with this result, Cole declined Detroit’s offer of $5000 in order to attend Navarro College, a junior college located in Corsicana, Texas. Bad grades had wrecked Cole’s opportunity to attract the interest of a Division 1 baseball program, so he sought to use junior college as a crutch to the pros. (Navarro has claims to fame in the form of a nice-sized group of NFL players, but is most notably represented in the major leagues by Red Sox utility man Brock Holt.)
In one season at Navarro, Cole posted eye-opening numbers. Posting a .524 batting average with 27 home runs, 82 RBIs, 95 runs scored, and 49 stolen bases in only 60 games, Cole earned the honor of being named Baseball America’s Junior College Player of the year. His choice to attend Navarro for a season paid off when he cut his draft position in half, being selected by the Mets in the 18th round of the 1998 MLB Draft. He made his professional debut in 1998 with the Kingsport Mets, the organization’s Rookie level affiliate. After 56 games, he earned a promotion to play with the short-season Pittsfield Mets. 1999 was spent with the Capital City Bombers of Low-A and 2000 was split between the High-A St. Lucie Mets and Double-A Binghamton.
His minor league numbers were impressive and only confirmed the rumblings that he would one day be a star. In 2000 he was recognized as the Mets Minor League Player of the Year and was honored at Shea Stadium. Later that season, he shared the field with future All-Stars Albert Pujols, Ty Wigginton, and Heath Bell as a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League. His career trajectory continued to skyrocket and his hard work and success finally paid off, as he was offered the opportunity to join the big club in Spring Training prior to the 2001 season.
When camp broke, tragedy struck. Driving to his home in Meridian from Port St. Lucie, Cole lost control of his vehicle, causing it into a spiral and eventually flipping over. The accident caused fatal injuries to his skull, brain, lungs, and several other organs. He was pronounced dead at Jackson Memorial Hospital a few hours later. In the passenger seat sat Cole’s cousin who avoided serious injury thanks to his seat belt. Cole had not been wearing his.
Years later, Cole’s family would win $131 million as restitution in a lawsuit filed against the Ford Motor Company. The settlement was intended to represent Brian’s future earnings as a major leaguer, based on the comparison of his minor league statistics with notable players such as Kirby Puckett, Torii Hunter, and Albert Pujols. They won on the claim that the vehicle he was driving, the Ford Explorer was “defective and unreasonably dangerous for the uses for which it was marketed because the vehicle has an unreasonable tendency to roll when used as Ford marketed it to be used [as a station wagon replacement], and that the vehicle is also defective and unreasonably dangerous from an occupant protection or ‘crashworthiness’ standpoint because the safety belt failed to remain locked and permitted Brian to be thrown from the car and killed.” But in the eyes of his family, no amount of money could ever quell the pain that losing Brian caused.
In honor of his memory, we can look back on some of awe-striking anecdotes from a tremendous Sports Illustrated profile by Michael McKnight that left us all wondering about the young man’s unlimited potential:
- During the professional baseball strike of 1994, Reds reliever Johnny Ruffin participated in an exhibition game in Mississippi, made up of college and former professional players. Greg Cole, a former outfielder at Southern Miss in the early ‘90s brought along his 15-year-old brother Brian to participate. Facing a 5’4″ 130-pound Cole, Ruffin fired what he would claim to be a 92 MPH fastball to the plate. Cole belted it out of sight, only leaving an echo in the pine trees roughly 500 feet away. Ruffin would also later realize that the pitching rubber was only 55 feet away and that a 92 MPH fastball would probably resemble more of a 97 or 98 MPH pitch to the young Cole.
- In 1998, Cole had the opportunity to face the Cleveland Indians’ first-round pick, CC Sabathia. Facing a giant at 6’7” and armed with a 98-mile-per-hour fastball and a slider at 93 MPH, Kingsport’s manager Tim Foli offered his 5’8”, 160-pound cleanup hitter the opportunity to sit this one out. Cole grinned back at him and simply said “I got it, Skip.” Cole banged two hits off of Sabathia that night en route to a stolen base, an RBI, and two runs scored. While recounting his encounter with the diminutive, yet impressive centerfielder, Sabathia said, “Brian Cole was the player who showed me I needed to develop an off-speed pitch.
- Looking back on the late center field prospect, former Kingsport Manager Tim Foli recounted Cole’s speed and prowess on the basepaths, “Brian would take a lead off third that was halfway down the line, and there was nothing the pitcher could do about it. Then one time he just scored. Ran across home plate standing up. It stunned all of us. He did it about four or five times that year. Stole home standing up.”
- Kevin Mench, formerly of the Texas Rangers, had the chance to watch Cole as a member of the Grand Canyon Rafters in the Arizona Fall League. He watched Cole snag a hit in 16 straight games and had this to say about it, “People say they’ve seen Halley’s Comet, well I’ve seen Brian Cole. Everyone knew he was going to be a star in the majors one day. He had this glimmer about him, this glow.”
- When Cole was invited to Spring Training in 2001, he was joined by fellow prospect, Jason Tyner. Tyner was the Mets’ first-rounder in 1998 and had warranted a million dollar signing bonus on the foundation of his speed. Eventually, the two went at it in a 60-yard race. As the years go by, the story takes on a life of its own, but the consensus is that Brian was so far out in front that he backpedaled the last 10 yards.
Looking back, possibly the most impressive thing about Cole was his power relative to his size. When you examine his minor league numbers, it seems eerily similar to Mike Trout’s time in the minors. However, Cole was about five inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than the de facto best player in baseball right now. The 2006 Mets could have been a completely different team with Cole in the fold. During the trial regarding Cole’s death in 2010, former Mets GM Jim Duquette testified to how important Brian Cole was to the Mets organization. “He was a player we were going to build around as an organization. We were planning on David Wright at third base, Jose Reyes at short and Brian Cole in the outfield. We were hoping that somewhere around 2002 he would be on the scene as a rookie in the major leagues.” Former teammate and friend from the Mets minor league system, Pat Strange, would go on to name his son Brian Cole Strange, in honor of his fallen friend. Sadly, we will never know what would have come of Cole’s talent, but he will never be forgotten.
Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell–USA TODAY Sports