Brian Cole (03/31/01)
It was clear to anyone who watched him play that Brian Cole loved playing baseball. The 22-year old Mets outfield prospect impressed just about everyone with his power and speed, but I think anyone who ever watched him left remembering the way he hustled on every play. There was nothing lackadaisical about him - in his mind, we was winning the World Series on every play. That's how he played and it was great to watch.
Scouts never gave him the regard he deserved because of his 5'9" height. They were wrong. Last season, between A and AA, he compiled a .301 average with 19 homers, 86 RBI and 69 steals. He also boasted a powerful, but accurate throwing arm. I saw him in the Arizona Fall league last October go back on a fly almost to the warning track, then throw a strike on the fly to nail the runner coming home from third. It wasn't quite in the class of Guerrero or Clemente, but it was pretty darn close. Comparisons to the Toy Cannon, All-Star Jimmy Wynn, were inevitable and warranted. Wynn, also 5'9", hit nearly 300 home runs in his major league career but was also noted for having good speed and a great arm.
I think Cole was more than just a ballplayer though. People openly rooted for him. Maybe because of his size, maybe because it was his exuberant play, but people wanted him to succeed. In a way, he represented us all in the baseball metaphor of life: a little guy in a big man's game, bucking the odds and loving every second of it.
Brian Cole was killed yesterday in a car crash driving home from spring training. He was near the Georgia border on his way to Meridian, Mississippi to drop off his truck before flying to Binghamton, NY to join his AA team. Police had no other details. Mets GM Steve Phillips cried when he delivered the news to the team.
I am always stunned when I hear of a ballplayer's untimely death, almost as if a distant relative had died. We know them vicariously, or at least a part of them, following their exploits at the ballpark. We share both in their joy when they succeed and their despair when they fail, and when tragedy like this strikes, we are left with emptiness and the feeling of being cheated. Not just of missing out on another good ballplayer, but, contrary to a public perception that has been distorted by a few bad eggs, another good person as well. We miss out on another Jim Bunning, who serves his country in Congress, or another Dave Winfield, whose foundation helps many who are less fortunate, or even another Roberto Clemente, who gave his life helping those in times of desperate need.
My thoughts and prayers are with his family. I know where he is now he won't be judged by his lack of height, but by the enormity of his heart. As should we all. God be with you, Brian Cole.
(A follow-up note: The Mets honored Cole by retiring his Class A St. Lucie jersey. The team also has named a basestealing award after him. Mets players paid for Cole's funeral expenses.)