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"I collect bats," says Bell, the Diamondbacks reliever and three-time All-Star, "and I have only one that's unsigned, because Brian never got to sign it." When guests in Bell's home see the strange name branded on his prized bat but no signature, Bell says, "I sit them down and tell them about the best ballplayer I've ever seen."
"The first thing I think of is the one he hit off the scoreboard against me in Columbus, Georgia," says Sabathia, who was otherwise dominant on July 23, 1999, the second time he pitched to Cole. The big lefty allowed three hits and struck out seven in six innings, but Cole's blast is what he remembers from that night. It was "terrifying," according to a scout who saw it, and is still the subject of whispers among players who were there.
"He was a player we were going to build around as an organization," former Mets general manager Jim Duquette testified in a Mississippi courtroom in August 2010. "We were planning on David Wright at third base, Jose Reyes at short and Brian Cole in the outfield. We were hoping that somewhere around 2002 he would be on the scene as a rookie in the major leagues."
I almost gave birth to Brian on a baseball field," says Maudelene Cole, rocking in her chair one afternoon in Meridian. "It was the last game of the summer over at Crestwood Field."
Brian's father, William (Pee Wee) Cole—shortstop, pitcher and captain of the Sandflat A's, one of the best semipro teams in Lauderdale County—got his pregnant wife to the hospital on time on that September day in 1978. Then, for all intents, he drove the child right back to Crestwood, one of several fields in the area that once felt the spikes of Negro league greats such as Satchel Paige. Like Paige, Brian would learn the game by playing it against men two and three times his age on crude diamonds shielded from the world by miles of forest and screaming crickets. Before Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd pitched in the World Series for the 1986 Red Sox, he pitched for Pee Wee Cole's team at age 13.
Built like the college slot receiver and punt returner he would become, Brian was a coiled spring. The hand-eye coordination that his teammates and coaches still struggle to describe—the ability to put the barrel of the bat on any pitch thrown near him—was honed with a broomstick and a pile of what Brian and his brothers called "cuckabugs." These spiky nuggets, which still fall from the sweet-gum trees in the yard outside the Coles's former house on 34th Avenue in Meridian, were fired at Brian by a daunting three-man rotation of Robert (Popeye) Cole, his oldest brother, the first black player to earn a baseball scholarship to Ole Miss; Greg, who starred at Southern Miss with future Pirates slugger Kevin Young; and Michael, the youngest and most athletic of the Cole kids until Brian came along. "They took over raising him," says Maudelene, who worked full time as a cashier at Captain D's Seafood on 22nd Avenue. "It was a wonderful thing, a blessing."
Brian earned all-state honors in both football and baseball at Meridian High, whose football program was then the most successful ever in a state that produces NFL talent the way it once produced cotton. Playing running back in a brutally simple offense, he averaged 12 yards from scrimmage. Recruiters from Florida State, Nebraska and Tennessee came to lure him to their megastadiums. But his passion was baseball.
High school baseball has been played in Mississippi since the 1920s. Cole was the first kid in the state to hit four home runs in one game. In his senior year he hit 10 homers in a six-game span, and set the 5A state season record with 22 home runs. It still stands.
Opposing coaches asked to check his bat. Some teams tried walking him, even when he led off an inning. They might as well have asked Cole to turn left out of the batter's box and take third. He'd steal his way there soon enough.
He wasn't perfect. The best player we've never seen, as both Sabathia and Pujols call him, had at least three weaknesses: He didn't care for schoolwork, he didn't always run out ground balls and he could become desperately homesick. His first weakness soon ceased to matter, for he was almost done with school. He would turn the second weakness into a strength, beating out routine grounders to second and frightening countless minor league infielders into errors. The third weakness, his homesickness, is the one he would never defeat, the one that would help bring about his end.