Nelson Figueroa might not be the greatest New York Mets player of all time. However, an encounter I had with him around two decades ago made me a fan for life.
I grew up as one of those baseball card nuts with zero friends who appreciated the art of sports collecting nearly as much as I did. Occasionally, I would find out one of my classmates also had some cards in their bedrooms, but not to the excess I had. My childhood’s focus was on amassing as many as I could. Specifically, my aim was to get them signed by the players on them.
Whether in person or by mail, I wanted player’s ink on those cards. I would travel to games, malls, and other events throughout the Tristate area to get as many of them signed as humanly possible. Along the journey, I met Figueroa.
My meeting with future Mets pitcher Nelson Figueroa won me over
Before he was pitched for the big league Mets but after he was originally traded by them in 1998, Figueroa was a member of a couple of clubs. Prior to this story taking place, he had suited up for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Philadelphia Phillies.
Back in those days, the big card companies would regularly produce cards with two or more prospects on them. Think of the old Tom Seaver rookie card with Bill Denehy on the left, The Franchise on the right. Not all would include future Hall of Famers.
Figueroa had a card like this with him and two other future Diamondbacks stars—or so many believed.
Figueroa was a member of the Phillies at the time when he stopped into my New Jersey town to sign autographs with a few others. Not one to pass up a chance to get an autograph from anyone, I gathered up my cards that I had spent hours alphabetizing (only by first letter, doing so beyond would have forced me into a lifetime of solitude).
I didn’t know much about the guy at the time. I didn’t know he would ever pitch for the Mets. I didn’t know after his career was over he’d be a part of the SNY team. A good decade-and-a-half older than me, I didn’t even know what to expect when I met this 27-year-old big league pitcher.
When getting autographs, I always half expected they would one day make me a millionaire. This signed Figueroa card wouldn’t become nearly as valuable as I one day thought it would. If this sounds harsh, it was Figueroa himself who put the idea in my head. I should have known better anyway. All of the men pictured were already in their late 20s.
An unexpected journey to the front of the autograph line
My turn to get my cards signed came and when I handed the card to Figueroa, he had a different reaction than many other athletes I met over the years.
He chuckled then commented on the players whose floating heads joined him on this 2001 Upper Deck Vintage baseball card.
“You sure you want me to sign this?” he asked.
I nodded. I didn’t know how to talk to adults let alone ones I never met before who were on TV playing sports!
Figueroa roasted the two other players pictured on the card.
He pointed at Geraldo Guzman who had been released after the 2001 season: “He’s not with the team anymore.”
The other player, Alex Cabrera received a similar jab. “This guy plays in a different country now.”
Figueroa then pointed at his own picture. In a tone of self-deprecating disgust, he said, “And then there’s me.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. Even back then I could appreciate a good joke poking fun at yourself.
Cabrera would, of course, go on to tie the single-season home run record in Japan so that punch wasn’t so horrific. However, he was right about one thing: the card was a major miss. None of the pictured players were with the Diamondbacks anymore.
Figueroa would go on to have a career that took him all over the world. He pitched in Mexico, Taiwan, Venezuela, and probably on top of Mount Everest at one point. After having last pitched in Major League Baseball in 2004, he rejoined the Mets in 2008.
Also present for 2009, Figueroa would end up he would amass one of the most unique resumes in the game. He didn’t just swat a lot of home runs and then promote a testosterone pill like Frank Thomas. A representative of multiple major league teams, foreign clubs, and Puerto Rico in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, his greatest achievement might be making a young man laugh.
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As angry as sports make us at times, as critical as us fans can get, it’s human moments like these we should all remember most. Figueroa may have used that same line plenty whenever he saw that card placed in front of him. At that moment, it was brand new material and the first time I realized a baseball player could make fun of himself, too.