Life on the baseball bubble can be an awfully slippery slope, a fact Nelson Figueroa knows very well.
05/27/2010 6:34 PM ET
Nelson Figueroa just needs a mound
Pitcher has made stops all around the league
By Hal Bock / MLBPLAYERS.com
Figueroa is in the Phillies' bullpen these days, fetched from the waiver wire at the end of Spring Training when he was cut by the Mets. It was his second stop with the Mets, and this is his second stop with the Phillies in an odyssey that has taken him through Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, New York and several more exotic locations.
"I've been all over the world," he said. "I've pitched in Mexico. I've pitched in Taiwan. I've pitched in the Dominican, in Canada, Venezuela, Puerto Rico. All those places to play a game.'
He keeps his passport handy because, well, you never know where the next opportunity will come. The Phillies offered a chance, one more opportunity for a 35-year-old who's never asked for anything more than to prove he can pitch in the Majors.
The Phillies thought he could be a useful supplement to their staff, maybe a spot starter, maybe long man out of the bullpen -- a guy who could fill a number of functions. And he's delivered, posting his first Major League save and winning another game despite limited opportunities.
But what if they had passed on him? What if he had gone unclaimed?
"I was going to continue," Figueroa said. "I wasn't done. I wasn't over the hill. I would have been pitching somewhere this season."
Just not in Buffalo.
The Mets wanted to punch his ticket for their Triple-A International League affiliate, to add a little depth for the organization, but Figueroa was having none of that. There were offers elsewhere, and he has never been shy about traveling.
It turned out that he only had to move down the New Jersey Turnpike and went from the bottom of the NL East to the top, joining the Phillies, who've played in the last two World Series. "That is the ying and yang part of it," Figueroa said.
Baseball has tested Figueroa's persistence. Since reaching the Majors in 2000 with the Phillies, he has never spent a full season with one team. That's unless you count Chiuhuahua, Mexico, in 2007 when he told the manager he was not coming out of games because he needed to prove his arm was sound. That was after labrum and rotator cuff surgery in 2004.
"I've never lost my enthusiasm," he said. "I was out of the game in 2005 because of the surgery. I rehabbed on my own. I had to try and find teams to throw for. I went to open tryouts. You have to swallow your pride and find a way to prove what you can do. I never lost faith."
The Mets, who had drafted him out of Brandeis University in the 30th round in 1995, took a shot. It was a feel-good story because the Mets had been his team while growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. Now they would bring him back after his nomadic tour of the world. And Figueroa proved useful pitching for New York in parts of 2008 and 2009.
He figured he could make the team as a fifth starter but was cut near the end of Spring Training. It was a painful episode. "I gave that team my blood, sweat and tears, my heart and soul," he said. "I was shocked."
The Phillies' waiver claim put Figueroa on a staff of quality pitchers headed by Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, 47-year-old Jamie Moyer and young arms in J.A. Happ and World Series MVP Cole Hamels. Watching them has been a pitching education for Figueroa.
As the season has evolved, meanwhile, the Mets found themselves scrambling for pitchers, plugging in replacement starters when injuries and ineffectiveness shredded the staff. Figueroa chuckled at his old team's dilemma.
"They should have thought of that before they cut me," he said.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York City.