In 2003, Jose Reyes would make his major league debut and would quickly establish himself as one of the most dynamic players in baseball, a fan favorite, and one of the faces of the team. One year later, David Wright would make his debut and likewise established himself as one of the premier third basemen of the era, a fan favorite, and one of the faces of the team. While the duo proved to be one of the best young tandems in baseball, were it not for an unfortunate twist of fate, they would have been joining a third dynamic young player who would have already made his professional debut—one that, perhaps, would have put the Mets over the edge in 2006, 2007, and 2008.
Meridian, Mississippi, has a history going back over 150 years. To some, the city is best known for being ravaged in the Civil War, when Union General William Tecumseh Sherman burned the city to the ground because of its strategic location. To others, the city is better known for being a hot spot during the Civil Rights Movement, and the home to murdered activist James Chaney. To others, the city is simply a stop on Amtrak’s Crescent line, one of many en route to the line’s termini of New Orleans or New York. To some, though, Meridian, Mississippi is where the legend of Brian Cole began.
The Coles were a family of athletes. The patriarch of the family, William, played semi-professionally. Two of Brian’s older brothers, Robert and Greg, played as well, with Robert playing professionally with the Atlanta Braves in the late-1980s and early-1990s and Greg playing in college, manning the outfield for the University of Southern Mississippi. Despite his 5’9”, 170-pound frame- atypical for baseball- Brian seemed poised to eclipse all of them.
While in high school, he stood out on the diamond and on the gridiron, earning all-state honors in both sports- his 5A Mississippi state record of 22 home runs still stands unbroken to this day. Turning down football scholarships from a variety of schools- including Florida State- in order to pursue baseball, Brian was rudely greeted by the realities of the business when the 1997 MLB Draft approached. Because of his smaller stature and poor grades, professional teams were looking to lowball him and D1 colleges were not interested in granting him scholarships. His name was finally called in the 36th round by the Detroit Tigers, 1,075th overall, but he rejected their $5,000 offer. Instead, he made arrangements to attend Navarro College, a junior college in Corsicana, Texas.
Cole spent just a single season with the Navarro Bulldogs, but it was a season to remember. That spring, he appeared in 60 games and hit .524, slugging 27 home runs and stealing 49 bases, winning Baseball America’s Junior College Player of the Year Award. For his exploits on the football field, he received an offer to play at LSU, but when the 1998 MLB Draft approached, the Mets approached Cole with an offer he found acceptable. When the Mets made their 18th round selection, they called Brian Cole’s name, and the two sides agreed to a $100,000 signing bonus, making the JuCo standout a professional.
Assigned to the Kingsport Mets, Cole punished the Appalachian League, hitting .300/.317/.491 in 56 games, slugging 5 home runs, and stealing 15 bases in 23 attempts. He was even better in 1999, when he was promoted to the Capital City Bombers, the Mets’ South Atlantic League affiliate at the time. In 125 games, the 20-year-old hit .316/.362/.522, slugging 18 home runs and stealing 50 bases in 66 attempts. He began the 2000 season with the St. Lucie Mets and hit a staggering .312/.356/.528 in 91 games, slugging 15 homers and stealing 54 bases in 65 attempts. His performance earned him a promotion to the Binghamton Mets later that season, and while he was not able to keep up such a torrid pace in Double-A, his numbers were still encouraging, hitting .278/.326/.420 in 46 games with 4 homers and 15 stolen bases in 19 attempts. All in all, he hit a combined .301/.347/.494 in 137 games for St. Lucie and Binghamton, slugging 19 home runs and stealing 69 bases in 84 attempts.
Knocking on the door of the major leagues, the Mets front office knew it was only a matter of time before Cole would make his MLB debut. The question was not if he would be able to hack in in the majors, but rather, how good would he be. Though not necessarily a five-tool player with grade 8s across the board, Cole had a broad, strong set of skills. He could hit for contact, he could hit for power, he had speed, could field his position, and had an incredible arm. One could make the case that he needed to improve his walk rate, with a career 6.1 walk percentage in 320 games, but one could also make the argument that his plate discipline was not poor, but that he valued notching hits more highly than drawing walks at that point in his career.
Cole was honored at a pregame ceremony at Shea Stadium that September, named the Mets’ Minor League Player of the Year.
WHAT WENT WRONG
The dynamic outfielder impressed in spring training camp that following March, giving fellow players and coaches a tantalizing taste of what was to come, but the Mets had no interest in pushing him too hard and erred on the side of caution, giving him addition time to develop his skills in the minors. On March 31, 2001, Cole was reassigned from spring training camp to Double-A Binghamton. Instead of heading straight up to Binghamton, he decided to drive home to Meridian first, giving his cousin and fellow farmhand Brian Jenkins a lift to their respective homes on the way. Jenkins’ home was first, roughly seven hours from Port St. Lucie in Port St. Joe, on the Florida panhandle. After dropping Jenkins off in Blountstown, where a family member would pick him up, Cole and his cousin continued their long drive back to Meridian.
While passing Sneads, Florida, another vehicle on the road entered his lane, almost sideswiping his Ford Explorer. He swerved onto the median to avoid the collision, but lost control of his while driving on the rough grass. The car rolled and flipped multiple times, and because he was not wearing a seat belt, Brian Cole was ejected from the vehicle, suffering catastrophic damage to his head, lungs, and other organs. Despite the injuries, Cole survived and was transported from the crash site to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Marianna, Florida. While en route he seemingly started regaining consciousness, but succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead roughly three hours later.
After his death, Cole’s family filed a lawsuit against Ford, claiming that the Ford Explorer is “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.” Ford did not admit any wrongdoing in Cole’s death, claiming that he was driving dangerously. The suit lasted over a decade and was tried three times, with the first ending in a mistrial and the second in a hung jury. The Cole family won the third trial, with the jury awarding the family $131 million, but the two sides agreed to settle out of court for an undisclosed sum to avoid problems during the settlement phase of the case.