04/11/2008 10:36 AM ET
Going the distance
Brooklyn product hopes to make good in Queens
By Ted Berg / SNY.tv
Nelson Figueroa pitched about 280 innings with five different teams in three countries in 2007. (AP)

Nelson Figueroa has come a long way to get home.

In pursuit of a spot on a Major League roster, the 33-year-old Brooklyn product went from Mexico to Taiwan, then back to Mexico, then to the Dominican Republic, then represented Mexico in the Caribbean Series. In the process, he won MVP awards in the Taiwan and Caribbean championships. And that was just in 2007.

On Friday, Figueroa takes the mound for his hometown team, the one that drafted him in the 30th round in 1995 and the one he grew up rooting for. In a start against the Brewers for a team with a hobbled rotation, this local boy gets the chance to make good and the opportunity to justify his exhausting year of travel and baseball.

"My dream was always to be a Met," said Figueroa after Wednesday's game. "When I first got to extended Spring Training, I had Howard Johnson's pants and Dwight Gooden's jersey. So for a kid that grew up in New York, right there was everything I wanted. I could have gone home and been happy just to have put on that uniform.

"Now, I get to see HoJo every day. I get to see Darryl Strawberry. This is the dream we all dream of. I went all over the world to prove one thing: That I can pitch at a very high level. And this is the highest level they have, as far as I know."

Figueroa was traded by the Mets to Arizona in 1998 and made his Major League debut with the Diamondbacks in 2000. He last pitched in the Majors with Pittsburgh in 2004, before shoulder surgery set him on his globetrotting journey to demonstrate his health and talent. But the quest to disprove doubting scouts is nothing new to the right-hander. Even when he was in high school, at Lincoln Memorial in Coney Island, the undersized Figueroa struggled to get the attention he deserved from college coaches.

"I was thinking Big East," said Figueroa. "But everyone in the Big East said, 'You won't pitch until your junior year.' You look at a piece of paper and you see 5-foot-11, 135 pounds and it's not wowing anybody."

While pitching in a summer baseball tournament in Waltham, Mass., Figueroa caught the eye of coaches at nearby Brandeis University, a predominantly Jewish school with a Division III baseball program.

"He threw in the mid-80s when we saw him," recalls Brandeis head coach Pete Varney. "He was a real skinny kid, but we loved the way he went about it. He was a good student-athlete, and we were lucky enough to attract the young man.

"We have a very good academic reputation, so that's our little niche to get kids to come to our place," added Varney. "And what further attracted Nelson was the opportunity he was going to have to pitch right away. To some of the D-1 schools, he wasn't a finished product or didn't throw hard enough. They didn't know when he was going to grow or how hard he would throw in the future, so they didn't want to take a big chance on him."

What brought Figueroa to Brandeis -- the desire to pitch and be noticed -- kept him going throughout his 2007 world tour. But though it's unlikely that any Major League pitcher has won games in as many countries as Figueroa did last year, his quest to prove his health twice took him someplace even more uncommon for a starter: extra innings.

In a game in Mexico, Figueroa threw 153 pitches over 10 frames.

"I wanted to stay in because it was a team that bypassed me in Mexico, and I said I was going to show them that they made a mistake," he remembered.

"When I went to Mexico, I told them I wasn't going to ever come out of the game. They thought I was joking, but I was dead serious. I said to them, 'All the teams in the States want to see me healthy, they want to see that I've recovered from my surgery. The only way I'm going to do that is by pitching.' They said, 'Do you get bonuses?' I said, 'Yeah, to get back to the big leagues again.'"

Three teams and two continents later, Figueroa again started a game and pitched past the end of regulation. This time, though, Omar Minaya was watching, thanks to a tip from scout Ramon Pena. With a one-run, 9 1/3-inning outing, Figueroa showed the Mets GM he had the method and the muster to make it in the Majors.

"I think I threw something around 280 innings in 2007," Figueroa said. "Had I thought I threw enough innings after 250, I probably never would have been spotted by Pena."

Though it's unlikely Figueroa will approach anything like his inning totals from last season in 2008 with the Mets, his new team -- with its lengthy list of injuries in the rotation and bullpen -- could certainly benefit from his impressive endurance. A pitcher as confident in his abilities as he is dismissive of pitch counts and inning restrictions, Figueroa can only hope that fans in New York latch on to him the way they did in the previous stops on his tour.

"In Taiwan, the malls are six stories high," he recalled. "Every time I went up the escalator, fans would be waiting to take pictures and get autographs. My name is different there -- it's pronounced 'Figoolow.' I'd hear people walking by me saying, 'Figoolow! Figoolow!'

"It's an awesome experience to go from being not wanted at all to adored. I liked the adored part."

Whether Figueroa will get the same treatment in New York might hinge on his performance Friday night at Shea. The demands of pitching in the market don't bother someone so traveled, but at least one Mets fan will be putting extra pressure on Figueroa.

"My dad's a Mets fan, and my dad boos me," he joked. "He gave me a whole scouting report already. He's a typical Mets fan -- he knows what's best for the team."

It's a great story. A local product and Mets fan spans the globe to come back to the team he wanted to pitch for all along. But if 250 innings weren't enough for Figueroa in 2007, a single start certainly won't be enough for him in 2008.

"The storybook ending," he said, "isn't going to be just that I made the team."

Ted Berg is a senior editorial producer for SNY.tv. He can be reached at tberg@sny.tv or via the Flushing Fussing Facebook group.
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