This undersized Mets super-prospect could have been the next Kirby Puckett
As part of this weekly (hopefully) segment, I'd like to put a spotlight on an athlete who led an interesting life or career, yet is largely unknown by the average sports fan today.
When you think of MLB's diminutive dynamos, you probably rattle off the names of Joe Morgan, Kirby Puckett, José Altuve, Dustin Pedroia, Mookie Betts, and others. These men all stood comfortably under six feet, yet were able to produce results typically reserved for men of a larger stature.
Brian Cole could have been one these undersized MLB greats.
Brian Cole, Amateur Legend
Cole was born and raised in Mississippi. He excelled in multiple sports growing up, scoring a Meridian High School-record 22 touchdowns as a senior and starring on the school's baseball team. His exploits on the gridiron drew the attention of some of the biggest D1 football programs in the country, including Florida, Tennessee, Nebraska, and LSU. His grades made him ineligible, however, so he opted to attend Navarro Junior College in Texas.
Although the Detroit Tigers picked Cole in the 36th round of the 1997 MLB Draft out of high school, he stuck with his plan of attending Navarro for a year to bump his grades up. He was an all-conference selection on the Navarro football field as a receiver and return man. Cole also kept playing baseball in college, and did...quite well.
By quite well, I mean hitting .524 with 27 bombs and 49 stolen bases in 60 games, which earned him Baseball America's JUCO Player of the Year award. He still signed with the LSU Tigers to play football, but the New York Mets were able to sway him to the baseball diamond after they nabbed him in the 18th round of the '98 draft.
If the 18th round seems low for the JUCO Player of the Year, it's because it is. Bear in mind, however, that this was the height of the steroid era in baseball; bigger was better. Brian Cole, at 5'9" (maybe) and 170 pounds, was not built like the Cansecos or Griffeys of that period. Teams nowadays are better at analyzing talent, but his lack of size, coupled with the relatively small school he attended, made him a diamond in the rough for the Mets.
Regardless of where he was drafted, the Brian Cole Show was about to begin.
Brian Cole, Minor League Legend
Cole's first year of pro ball was excellent, albeit unextraordinary. The toolsy outfielder played in 58 games, 56 of them in Rookie Ball, and hit .298 with an .802 OPS. He showed a little bit of pop with five home runs, and flashed his elite speed with 16 stolen bases and eight triples. All in all, a very good start to a professional career.
He ran roughshod through A-ball the following year. The 20-year-old Cole hit .316/.362/.522 over 125 games, hitting 18 home runs, 41 doubles, and swiping 50 bases. Baseball started to take notice, as Cole shot up the prospect rankings heading into the 2000 season.
Brian Cole was not affected by the added pressure that comes with expectations. In 137 games across High-A and Double-A, he hit .301/.347/.494, with 19 dingers and an absurd 69 stolen bases. Rickey Henderson-like. He was named the 2000 Mets Minor League Player of the Year, an honor he easily could have won the season before as well.
He entered 2001 Spring Training as a 22-year-old firmly entrenched among the top prospects in all of baseball; a young man on the cusp of a long and successful Major League career. Cole's mesmerizing mix of bat speed, quickness, and hand-eye coordination drew comparisons to the aforementioned Kirby Puckett. Future big league stars like Heath Bell, Albert Pujols, and C.C. Sabathia marveled at his abilities. He was destined to become part of a three-headed monster in the New York Mets lineup, alongside David Wright and José Reyes.
Then tragedy struck.
March 31st, 2001
Despite Cole's widely-accepted excellence, he did not make the big league club out of Spring Training in 2001. The Mets had gone to the World Series in 2000, thanks in part to Jay Payton's contributions as their starting centerfielder. The Brian Cole phenomenon would have to wait a little while longer, as he was assigned to Double-A Binghamton with the promise of quickly being called up to Triple-A Norfolk.
Cole packed his belongings into his Ford Explorer and notified Mets management that he planned on driving home to Meridian to get a dent in his SUV fixed, then flying to Binghamton, New York. He dropped off another Mets minor leaguer named Brian Jenkins, who was from a town along the Florida Panhandle, and resumed his trek to Mississippi with his younger cousin, Ryan Cole, who was also heading back home.
Soon after dropping off Jenkins, Brian Cole had to veer onto a grassy median to avoid a reckless driver that had cut him off. While attempting get back on the road, he lost control of his Explorer and sent it tumbling through the grass. His cousin, whose seatbelt held him fast, survived with minor wounds. Cole, whose seatbelt did not lock properly, was ejected from the vehicle and suffered serious injuries to his brain and lungs.
He managed to fend off death for a few hours, but finally lost the battle at Jackson County Hospital. Brian Cole was 22.
Brian Cole, Legend
The Coles were awarded $131 million after a lengthy legal dispute with the Ford Motor Company, an amount estimated to have been his future career earnings as a Major Leaguer. They contested that the Explorer's defective seatbelts allowed Brian Cole to be thrown from the vehicle, and that the SUV was marketed incorrectly due to its propensity to roll. No amount of money in the world can fill the void left in the hearts of the Cole family, however.
All we can do now is not let Brian Cole's memory die with him. He never played a single inning in the Major Leagues, yet left a permanent mark on the teammates, coaches, and opponents he crossed paths with on the baseball diamond. His talent was undeniable, but so was his sheer energy and lust for life.
Brian Cole was just as much a star person as he was a star ballplayer. For that, we should remember the brief, but undeniable, brilliance of his life.