In a neighborhood that is known for breeding superstar basketball players, a Major League baseball player has emerged.
It took Nelson Figueroa a decade of international and local play before he started pitching for the New York Mets this season, and now that the Lincoln High School graduate has made it to “The Show,” he is making sure that he stays there.
“I really wanted to prove that I belonged,” said the Coney Island native, who in four starts this season has posted a 2-1, 4.26 E.R.A. record. “I wanted to get out there and prove that Spring Training was not a fluke. Just to pitch at Shea [Stadium] in front of family and friends was just something that means so much to me.”
But for Figueroa, who is the second Lincoln graduate to make it to the majors after Lee Mazzilli, the road to his favorite team’s home mound wasn’t so easy. In 1995, after being drafted by the New York Mets organization, the “Coney Island kid” joined the Mets for Spring Training.
“I was delighted to be drafted by the Mets. I was at spring training wearing Howard Johnson’s pants and Dwight Gooden’s jersey. At that moment, I knew that I was already living the dream,” recalled Figueroa.
After Spring Training, the organization decided to deal the former Lincoln star to Arizona. His reaction of leaving the club that he once dreamed of playing left him in tears.
“I cried. I asked if they could take someone else but that is the business of baseball. I thanked Steve Phillips [then-general manager of the Mets] for giving me the opportunity to be a Met but there was such a long jam of talent at that time,” said “Figgy,” a nickname given to him by his adorning fans.
No matter what happened to the star, he stayed strong and remembered his Coney Island and family roots.
“I was the oldest of three brothers living in Coney Island, so I wanted to set an example for them by doing the right thing,” said Figueroa. “Just being the second Major League player to come out of Lincoln is something that I take extreme pride in.”
It is that same pride that took him to Mexico in 2006 and Taiwan in 2007, where he had the most success of entire professional career, to prove that he could pitch.
“Out of necessity, I needed to go to Mexico and Taiwan. No one was willing to give me a chance. It was just great for them [Mets General Manager Omar Minaya and Scout Ramon Pena] to see what I was about,” said Figueroa.
In 2007, pitching for the Uni-President Lions of the Chinese Professional Baseball League Championship, Brooklyn’s own made huge “gong” by capturing the M.V.P. championship series award by winning four games in the series.
“It was a great honor to become MVP of the series, they just got tremendous talent there, and the teams in the States got note of that,” added the 1992 Lincoln graduate.
The fact that the former Railsplitter wasn’t going to let his Major League dream die meant trotting the globe just to prove that he can hurl the baseball.
“I was willing to go anywhere in the world, just to prove that I can pitch. If it meant going to hell and back, I would do it,” said Figueroa.
When asked if traveling throughout the world to prove that he could play was worth it, “Figgy” responded: “The road is definitely not paved and sometimes you look for a different way to get to where you want to go but definitely it was a long way.”
But this determination of playing baseball was the same determination that he had had when he served the legendary Coney Island High School as co-president of the school’s Student Organization.
“He had a love of baseball; he wanted to succeed both on and off the field. He just has this motivation and drive in him in whatever he done. After not seeing him for years, I got the feeling that he hasn’t changed,” said Figueroa’s former Student Organization Teacher and current alumni president, Fred Newman, who is retired but has taught at Lincoln for the past 35 years.
This past Tuesday, Figueroa went back to where it all started to speak to current Railsplitters, on both the varsity baseball and softball teams, about his long journey to the Major Leagues. He emphasized the role of education and family as his foundation for success, and afterwards, the students were treated to a “Q-and-A” session with Figueroa followed by an autograph session.
©2008 Community Newspaper Group
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