Brandeis alum Nelson Figueroa ‘96 returns to the major leagues, picks up victory for the Mets
As the reporters filed out of what was once the locker room of the New York Jets in the underbelly of Shea Stadium, victorious New York Mets pitcher Nelson Figueroa ’96 sat with his wife Alisa at his side, his four year old daughter Renee happily chirping on his lap, and hundreds of family and friends waiting out in the corridor. It was the pinnacle of a long journey for the Brandeis that took him four years around the world until opportunity arrived in the form of the New York Mets.
“Willie [Randolph] came up to me in batting practice and said this was going to be my opportunity and that he believed in me and to go out there and do what I could do and enjoy it,” Nelson said.
With all eyes on him, especially the one hundred friends and family members in Billy Wagner’s suite, and the knowledge that his first start back could be his last, Figueroa responded with flying colors. The powerful bats of the Milwaukee Brewers were held at bay as he went six innings with six strikeouts. Figueroa had a perfect game going until a walk to Corey Hart in the fifth ended perfection and J.J. Hardy’s double later in that inning ended the shut out. Nelson surrendered one more run before turning the ball over to the bullpen where they kept the Brewers off the scoreboard and preserved the 4-2 win.
“To have the opportunity to come back in baseball and pitch for my hometown team and have the confidence from Willie [Randolph, NY Mets manager] and [pitching coach Rick] Peterson and Omar [Minaya, general manager] too…I’m very grateful to them for the opportunity,” Nelson told reporters after the game. “I was in such a good rhythm, really minimized my mistakes, even the pitch Hardy hit was a curveball, could have been down a little but the game’s a game of less than inches.”
Figueroa’s journey begins back in 1992 when the Brooklyn native spurned offers from Division One schools and joined Pete Varney’s baseball squad. While at Brandeis, Figueroa took courses in Engineering and American Studies while hanging out at the radio station at times from 2-4 am, playing unedited NWA records. Figueroa finished his major in 1998 but did not receive his diploma until this year.
“They said I owed some kind of loan for something, I’m like, ‘I don’t believe I owe anything.’ I think it was all taken care of 10 years ago and my wife surprised me this year when I came home, she had it up on the wall.”
Figueroa and his wife, who was at Brandeis as an athletic trainer for the Boston Celtics during Figueroa’s time at Brandeis (they didn’t date until long after Brandeis), keep in touch with Coach Varney and invited him to the game. He couldn’t attend as he spent the day coaching Brandeis to a 5-4 victory over Bridgewater State.
“Yeah, he’s soft”, Figueroa joked. “He became a grandfather and now he’s soft.” He then turned serious about Varney. “He was a tremendous influence on me, throughout Brandeis and well past. He’s softening every year. I remember he had number 25, and he gave it up to a freshman I think two years after me, and I said right then and there, ‘you’ll never be the same.’ Whenever he’s between the lines, he becomes a whole different person.”
Aside from Brandeis coach Richard “Pete” Varney, the person whom Figueroa connected most with was his advisor, Jerry Cohen, and he made an effort to take all of his courses.
“Which one didn’t I take” Figueroa said, recounting his time. “I went to my first class with him and just fell in love with the way he talked, the way he pushed the debate, the way he was so receptive when we sat down…I didn’t even like the other classes. He’s the only person that is real to me, I was lucky to have him…For me being a Puerto Rican at Brandeis, there’s not many that get to Brandeis and even excel and do the things I did and make the friends I made. I have life long friends coming out of Brandeis; my wife and my beautiful daughter because of Brandeis.”
In 1995, with his 6’1 frame and command over four pitches, Figueroa caught the attention of Major League Baseball scouts. Figueroa saw his dreams come true when the Mets selected him in the 30th round, 833rd overall. Although easy to overlook due to the low position, Figueroa made his stuff speak in volumes as he picked up seven wins with Appalachian League club Kingsport Mets. By 1998, he made it to double-A Binghamton. However, he soon learned a hard lesson about professional sports – things can change in an instant. Figueroa was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a five player trade.
“I’ve learned one thing in this game, you can’t control anything,” Nelson explained. “I can only control when the ball is in my hand and I’m out there on the mound.” Figueroa later explained, “Its part of the journey. You always think when you’re a little boy and you want to play baseball for the rest of your life, you think it’s easy. Sign with one club, make it to the major leagues and be there forever, and win a world championship, but the reality of it is how few of us make it into the big leagues. For me, at each level, being a 30th round draft pick by Mets, I really had to excel at each level. So as I was excelling and moving up the ranks and getting more and more excited about possibly playing for the Mets, I got traded and it was probably one of the worst days of my life because I didn’t want to go. Got to Arizona and provided me with an opportunity to make it to the big leagues maybe a little quicker than the Mets organization because they were new. Played there, got traded right away, went to Philadelphia which provided me with an opportunity to pitch my first almost full season to show what I could do. They gave me the ball every fifth day and I made the most out of that opportunity…Now I’m back with a championship caliber team and want to be a part of that for as long as I can.”
Figueroa made his MLB debut on June 3, 2000, facing the Texas Rangers. His performance made him the first Brandeis alum to play in a major league game, and afterwards he became the first Brandeis alum to lose a game, giving up four runs and seven hits in 6.1 innings. Figueroa appeared in two more games until he was part of another five player trade, this time to Philadelphia. He spent 2001 with the Phillies, picking up his victory on July 1st against the Florida Marlins and earning three more throughout the year, along with five losses. He then spent next season with Milwaukee and two years with the Pirates where, until last week, his last Major League appearance was a two inning relief appearance.
Released by the Pirates after tearing his rotator cuff, 2005 was spent rehabilitating his shoulder from two surgeries. His ‘team’ became “the physiotherapy associates in Arizona who took care of me and helped me get better.” Fully recovered from his injuries and rehab, Figueroa returned to the professional ranks with a triple-A club, New Orleans, in 2006. The next year saw him get cut by Seattle in spring training, and with no takers, Figueroa turned his attention internationally. It was a difficult period for Nelson but one thing that never changed was the love for the game.
“The game was always going to be fun; that was kind of my escape from everything. My escape from all the hard work, everything that I went through, being away from my family… the only time I was really content was by playing baseball. So to go all over the world and sacrifice that time from your family and friends and without them, without their support – that was the hardest thing for me, being in Taiwan and not being able to see your daughter in the morning and take her to school. I never felt I was going to give up, as long as someone was going to let me play somewhere. It was the same reason with Brandeis… I went to Brandeis with the ‘big fish in a little pond’ theory, I figured if I could do that there, I could do that anywhere in the world.”
Nelson picked up his career with Dorados de Chihuahua of the Mexican League, and later that year, he ended up in Taiwan, playing with the Uni-President Lions of the Chinese Professional Baseball League. Thanks to his arrival, the Lions climbed into the postseason and made it to the 2007 Taiwan Series. Figueroa shined in the series, starting in games one, four, and seven, winning them all, and taking the MVP Award. Not stopping to rest, Figueroa returned to represent Mexico in the Caribbean Series where he also won the MVP Award. Acting on a tip from scout Ramon Pena, Mets GM Omar Minaya watched him pitch and invited him to Spring Training where he won a spot in the bullpen thanks to a solid spring and a rash of injuries to the Mets arms.
Although back in the majors, Brandeis is never far from his mind. After leaving school, Figueroa worked in the offices, working hard especially to recruit and bring in more minority students to Brandeis. Unfortunately, the school has not been the most receptive or accommodating to one of the most successful athletes the school has produced. For one thing, he still doesn’t know why Brandeis hasn’t retired his number or inducted him into the athletic hall of fame.
“One of them said they wanted me to get back to the big leagues and the next person says they want to wait for my career to be over. Then the next person said, what happened was that Adam Levin – he was our scorekeeper for the baseball team, and so once he became the AD (actually sports information director), he’s like, ‘we’re going to retire your jersey this year’ and I’m like, ‘I can’t make it, you know I’m trying to hook with a team and I’m going to be in spring training’ so he says that then we’ll have to wait until I can… What I couldn’t understand was why not during alumni weekend which is in October which I’ll be done playing ball, I can go then… I would love to go down there and get that done this year.”
Despite the joy of the night, Nelson knows better than anyone that rarely is anything guaranteed in baseball, and he currently has to keep an eye over his shoulder. The day before the start, the Mets brought in Claudio Vargas, ostensibly as another body to tryout for the fifth spot. With Figueroa’s strong start, he’ll still have to show he can do it again. Still, he has shown no signs of stopping now, and he takes pride at his legacy and notoriety within the Brandeis community.
“You always talk about trying to leave your mark wherever you go, and that’s been my biggest goal all my life, to just be remembered for more than being a baseball player. Any time I can use my notoriety to help others and to try and make someone else’s life better or to try and inspire someone else. I had it rough growing up, but baseball provided me with so many opportunities. My education was first and foremost to me, and to get a Brandeis degree meant the world. I visited my uncle and my cousin in the cemetery before I came, and Jackie Robinson’s grave is maybe a two minute walk from there, so I went there and visited Jackie Robinson’s grave, and he has a quote on his tombstone very similar to that, ‘a man is measured by the lives he changes’ and I believe in that.”
Eventually departing to enjoy the praise, love, attention and big meal courtesy of his family, Nelson Figueroa could smile knowing that after everything he went through, the rehab, the minors, the long distances traveled – for at least one night, he was on top of New York.
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