The Mets were in Pittsburgh for their season opener. A close-knit team, they had gathered that evening at the Ruth's Chris Steak House across from their hotel to celebrate their World Series appearance and raise a glass to a promising 2001. "We saw [G.M.] Steve [Phillips] on the phone for a long time, and everyone got the creeps," Piazza told reporters the next day.
No one recalls who broke the news to the team, Valentine or Phillips, but everyone remembers that several players simply got up and left. A larger number sat motionless and began weeping.
"And these were guys who knew Brian only for a little bit," says infielder Desi Relaford. Cole had endeared himself to everyone there with a talent so bright it was bewildering, with his quiet professionalism, with the flair he showed in the Tyner race, with a shy smile that, Jenkins said, "had 137 teeth in it." And now, at age 22, he was gone.
"I distinctly remember the feeling in my stomach," Valentine recalls.
"It crushed my life," says Pat Strange, remembering sucker punches to the ribs he had felt during preinning warmups as Cole ran off, cackling, toward centerfield. Strange's voice catches. He is driving his nine-year-old son, Brian Cole Strange, to baseball practice and describing a memorial service held 11 years earlier inside the Meridian High gym. ("Because there wasn't a funeral home in Mississippi big enough," says Oil Can Boyd.)
Heath Autrey also named his son after Cole. "And it has nothing to do with baseball, I promise you," says the former Navarro third base coach, who once offered Cole a steak dinner if he could hit three home runs in a game. (Autrey was greeted in the eighth inning by a grinning Cole, who said, "Medium rare.") "It was," Autrey says, "Brian's spirit, his effect on people."
"Watching him play, it made you feel good," says Rob Walton, the scout turned college coach, searching for better words but coming up empty. "It just made you feel good."
Boyd has kept a Cole baseball card in his wallet since the death of the prospect who, he says, "was better than Rickey Henderson." Maness, Cole's best friend in the organization, has a tattoo on his pitching arm of Cole gripping a bat. There are dozens of remembrances like these, but the most powerful one might well be the photo of Cole that hangs in the home of an elderly white woman in east Meridian. A friend of Greg Cole's, a housepainter, saw it there a few years back and nearly dropped his roller and can. The lady explained that the young man in the photo had played ball with her son when they were little, and that she loved him. Then she continued about her business. She probably didn't even know he had died.
Maudelene Cole can't believe it herself sometimes. The house she lives in is new but small, with the wraparound porch she used to dream of when she was young. The home that Brian always wanted to give his mother was bought in 2011 with a portion of the undisclosed sum awarded to the Cole family to settle a lawsuit against Ford that lasted nine years and involved three trials. The first was declared a mistrial. Six years later, the second trial ended in a hung jury, one juror short of the nine-vote majority needed to rule in favor of the Cole family, which claimed that Brian's Explorer was defective in its design.
In the third trial, in 2010, a jury in Jasper County, Miss., found that the Explorer model that Brian had been driving was prone to roll over and that Brian's seatbelt had malfunctioned. (Ford stands by its claim that Brian was driving at an unsafe speed and was not properly belted.) The jurors ruled that the Coles should receive $131 million in damages. Ford, already having lost billions of dollars due to Explorer-related deaths, injuries and recalls, quickly agreed to a smaller amount as part of a confidential settlement with the Cole family. The jury's $131 million award, intended to approximate Brian's future income as a major leaguer, was determined by comparing his minor league statistics with those of current and former stars such as Kirby Puckett, Torii Hunter and Pujols.