Bad grades kept Cole from Division I baseball, and his lack of size pushed him to the 36th round of the 1997 draft. His brother Greg turned down the $5,000 signing bonus offered to Brian by the Tigers and drove him to Corsicana, Texas, just in time for football season at Navarro Junior College.
In the fall of '97, near the end of an all-conference season as a receiver and kick returner, Brian's football coach, Keith Thomas, walked him over to meet Navarro's baseball coach, Skip Johnson. "We went straight from football practice," Thomas recalls. "Brian was wearing football cleats, and sweats that were still wet from his shoulder pads."
Johnson says, "The first fly ball I hit him, he falls flat on his face. Then he pops up and runs it down and catches it at the wall like a touchdown pass."
"Willie Mays--type deal," Thomas says. "Me and Skip just looked at each other."
"Ask Brad Hawpe," says Johnson, now the pitching coach at Texas. "If he doesn't tell you Brian Cole is the best player he's ever seen, I'd be shocked."
"It'd be hard to say he wasn't," says Hawpe, who has played eight years and hit 124 home runs in the big leagues after starring at Navarro and then LSU. "That first day he raced our fastest guy and beat him by three or four steps, and he wasn't even running. Then he picked up a bat, and ... it was beyond special."
Cole's statistics during his lone season at Navarro were "just crazy, Wiffle-ball numbers" says Dave Lottsfeldt, the Mets scout who signed him. Cole hit .524 and smacked 27 home runs, more than double the previous school record. He stole 49 bases, drove in 82 runs and scored 95—in 60 games. "And this was a very good level of baseball," says Hawpe. "We played against tons of guys who went on to D-I [and] pro ball." The football player no one had heard of was named Baseball America's junior college player of the year.
Three years later, in the spring of 2001, a young pitcher named Mark Hamilton was playing Class A ball in Battle Creek, Mich., when a question was kicked around the bullpen one night. "Who was the best player you ever played with?" The answers were familiar—Kerry Wood, Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells—until Hamilton's turn came. "The best player I've ever seen, hands down," he said, "was a guy named Brian Cole."
The relievers looked confused, but in a corner of the bullpen a righthanded submariner named Mike Ribaudo nearly fell off the bench. "I said, 'Wait a minute, what the f--- did you just say?' " remembers Ribaudo, who had played a season with Cole in the Mets' system.
"It was Mike's secret, and he thought he was the only one who knew it," recalls Hamilton, who had pitched against Cole while at Panola [Texas] Junior College.