IN AUGUST 1994 major league baseball players were on strike, and Reds reliever Johnny Ruffin was in Mississippi, near his home, trying to keep his arm loose. One muggy afternoon he pitched some innings in a game at Cheyenne Park, a gritty ball field nestled in the woods between Meridian and Collinsville. They called it semipro ball, but the players never got a dime, even though several of them had played in college or the pros. Greg Cole, who had been an outfielder at Southern Miss in the early '90s, struggled that day against Ruffin. "Johnny knew me, so I got nothing but nasty sliders," Cole recalls. "I didn't touch anything. None of us did."
Greg had brought along his little brother on a lark. Fifteen-year-old Brian Cole stood in the batter's box, wagging a bat that seemed nearly as tall as he was, staring unafraid at Ruffin, a 6' 3" whip of a man with a filthy low-90s slider that he'd forged on fields just like this one. Ruffin lifted his knee and unleashed a hissing bottle rocket that he later swore was "at least 92." The hiss became a crack that echoed into the pine trees some 500 feet away, soon followed by the ball. When Brian Cole touched home plate, all 5' 4" and 130 pounds of him, the only jaw not on the ground was his own. "He was just smiling," Greg says. "He didn't know."
Ruffin later discovered that the pitching rubber at the field was only 55 feet from home plate. "So my 92 probably looked to him like 97 or 98," Ruffin says. "It wasn't the kind of thing you forget."
More than 18 years later, the legend of Brian Cole blows through the wildflowers that now cover Cheyenne Park and the other neglected diamonds around Meridian. And it lurks in a handful of big league clubhouses, where the mention of Cole's name makes some of the game's brightest stars light up.
"Of course I remember," says Yankees ace CC Sabathia. "It was my first start as a professional."
The Indians' brass had made a caravan to Burlington, N.C., on Aug. 4, 1998, to watch Sabathia, the towering 18-year-old lefty they'd drafted two months earlier in the first round—17 rounds before the Mets picked the 5' 8", 160-pound centerfielder who was hitting cleanup for Kingsport that day. "I pulled Brian aside and said, 'Look, this guy's 6' 7" and throws 97, 98 and has a 93-mile-an-hour slider,' " recalls Tim Foli, who managed the Kingsport Mets that season following a 16-year playing career. "I told him, 'If you want to sit this one out, I won't think any less of you.' Brian just looked at me with that grin he had and said, 'I got it, Skip.' "
Sabathia hit 97 on the gun in the first inning. That was about the speed of the fastball Cole sent clanging off the wall in left center in his first at bat on his way to a two-hit night with a stolen base, an RBI and two runs scored. It would not be his last meeting with Sabathia, nor the most memorable, but it left an impression on the young pitcher who would go on to win 191 games (and counting) in the bigs. "Brian Cole," Sabathia says, "was the player who showed me I needed to develop an off-speed pitch."
"Let me tell you a few stories," Foli continues. "Brian would take a lead off third that was halfway down the line, and there was nothing the pitcher could do about it. Then one time he just scored. Ran across home plate standing up. It stunned all of us. He did it about four or five times that year. Stole home standing up."
Cole played outfield in the Mets' system from 1998 through 2000. He hit .306 with 42 home runs, 90 doubles, 193 RBIs and 135 stolen bases, numbers that might remind you of the ones Angels phenom Mike Trout put up in three-plus years in the minors—except that Cole had a lot more homers, doubles and RBIs and was 50 pounds lighter and five inches shorter than last year's American League Rookie of the Year.
"Have you seen him play?" asks Albert Pujols, as if that's the first question in any discussion of Cole. The Angels slugger played with Cole in the Arizona Fall League as a Cardinals minor leaguer in 2000, before he went on to win three National League MVP awards. "You'd think, man, this is just a little guy," Pujols says, "and then you were amazed by his power—driving the ball into both gaps and then standing on third like it was nothing." Finally Pujols asks, "Have you talked to Heath Bell?"