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"He was knocking on the door [of the majors]," says Mookie Wilson, the Mets' first base coach, who had managed Cole in Arizona. "I remember telling [manager Bobby Valentine], 'This guy's going to force you to make a decision soon. He's going to make your life hard.' "
Mets centerfielder Jay Payton had finished third in the 2000 NL Rookie of the Year voting and helped the Mets get to the World Series. When spring training ended, the team assigned Cole to Binghamton and told him he'd be in Triple A Norfolk by summer. Disappointed yet buoyant, Cole told fellow outfield prospect Alex Escobar as they packed their lockers in Florida, "Let's get out of here, papi. Let's go play some ball."
A few days earlier Cole had been in a fender bender in a Taco Bell parking lot; he told the Mets that he was going to drive his Ford Explorer to Mississippi so his brother could have it fixed. He'd fly to Binghamton from there. He also wanted to pick up his teenage cousin Ryan Cole in Jacksonville and bring him home too.
"We argued about it," remembers Greg Cole. "I wanted to go pick up the truck so Brian could just fly to New York from Florida, but he said no." It wasn't the dent and it wasn't picking up his cousin that made Brian so adamant about driving to Mississippi. It was his third and most tender weakness. Says Greg, "He just wanted to come home."
Cole gave Brian Jenkins a ride home too. The catcher was from a small town in the Florida Panhandle. When Cole dropped him off at the Blountstown exit on March 31, Jenkins, who had been assigned to Class A, said, "I'll be up there with you in Binghamton in two months."
"Shoot," Cole laughed. "I might be at Shea by then."
A friend of Jenkins's picked him up and drove him south toward his home in Gulf County. During their 40-minute trip, a teammate called Jenkins and asked for Cole's number. "I said I'd have Brian call him," Jenkins recalls. "So I call Brian. No answer. Try him a couple more times. No answer. Call again, and a state trooper picks up."
Florida Highway Patrol investigator Rick Warden had arrived at a single-car crash near the small town of Sneads to find bats and cleats and fielder's gloves lying in a broken trail on the interstate. "I said to myself, This was somebody," Warden recalls.
Cole had driven on the median for 100 yards in an effort to avoid a car that abruptly entered his lane. As he tried to get back onto the road he lost control of the vehicle; his Explorer leaped off the asphalt and rolled three-and-a-quarter times before coming to rest in the median's foot-high grass. Ryan Cole had remained belted and would walk away from the scene. Brian had been thrown from the Explorer and suffered injuries to his skull, brain, lungs and several other organs.
Despite his harrowing condition, as Cole was being driven to Jackson County Hospital he began "coming back, arousing, thrashing, fighting and pulling on the tube," EMT Terry Powell testified later. "[My] partner rode in the back with me to help me keep him controlled." Cole's fight ended at the hospital three hours after the crash. A nurse made a call to Meridian that numbed the town and brought Maudelene Cole to her knees.