Retirement signals an absolute finality. For the first time since obtaining an education, a person is no longer a member of the work force. A second career or the immediate future appears unknown. Contemplation of new journeys and goals are on the horizon and the time comes to discuss the next challenge and find solace in a place outside of the familiar arena. Professional athletes face a similar dilemma once their playing days come to a close. Broadcasting becomes a common avenue for many who sought to stay close to the game. Nelson Figueroa, a former major league pitcher for over a decade is now in his first season as a New York Mets studio analyst for SNY, drawing on his own experiences, while staying around the game.
For nearly a half century, the borough of Brooklyn became synonymous with both baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The rallying cry of, “Wait Till Next Year” fueled the title starved borough until winning it all in 1955. Nelson Figueroa was born nearly two decades after those glory years in Flatbush, initially developing a deep passion for electronics. The son of an electrical engineer, Figueroa watched his father install intercoms and learned how to repair electronic devices. After Brandeis University no longer offered a major in the field, Figueroa chose a career on the baseball diamond, eventually being drafted by the Mets in the 30th round and the first player from Brandeis to reach the major leagues. Dreams of big league glory took him across six major league teams.
Figueroa suddenly became known for his journeyman status after being traded as a throw-in in separate deals for Curt Schilling and Bernard Gilkey. The big leagues constantly eluded Figueroa who had been unable to sustain his minor league success at the highest level. Through persistence and sacrifice, Figueroa kept making stints in the show. Whether as a fifth starter or an extra arm in the bullpen, teams called his number. A return to New York in 2008 under manager Jerry Manuel, allowed Figueroa to attain major league stability. Figueroa started sixteen games in a Mets uniform, but it was the 1-0 victory in 2009 on the final day of the regular season against the Houston Astros, which secured his place in Mets history.
Facing the likes of Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee in the Houston batting order, Figueroa pitched a complete game shutout, the first in the history of Citi Field. Three years later, Figueroa returned to the International League, helping the Pawtucket Red Sox capture the Governor’s Cup. Figueroa would complete his career with more victories and appearances in Triple-A than in the majors and become one of the top pitchers in the recent history of minor league baseball.
Entering the 2015 season, Figueroa chose to remain in baseball as a studio analyst for Mets broadcasts on SNY, replacing the widely popular Bobby Ojeda. His rookie season as a broadcaster coincided with the renaissance of a Mets which finds itself in first place in the National League East, led by the youthful pitching of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard. Figueroa also returned home to Brooklyn to relive his minor league experiences as an announcer for Brooklyn Cyclones. Baseball Essential recently caught up with Figueroa to discuss his transition to broadcasting and his days growing up in Brooklyn.
BASEBALL ESSENTIAL: You were born and raised in Brooklyn. What is it like for you to be able to have everything come full circle being a part of the Mets organization and calling these games in Brooklyn?
NELSON FIGUEROA: “This has been a tremendous opportunity to not just get involved and become the lead analyst for SNY, but to have an opportunity on my off day to come here and do analyst work live during the broadcast, alongside Scott Braun has been a tremendous opportunity to see how it works on a day in and day out basis. For me it is a little different working in the studio alongside Gary Apple, but to do it live is something I enjoy doing and something I hope I can get better at”.
BBE: As a graduate of Brandeis University, who scouted you and were you surprised that you were drafted coming out of a school not traditionally known for baseball?
NF: “What happened was Pete Varney was the coach at Brandeis University at the time and he scouted me to go there. While at Brandeis I was able to play in the Cape Cod League and won a championship back in 1994 and put myself on the map. Then I had a ton of scouts watching and I wasn’t the biggest player. I did not throw harder than 91 miles per hour. I was only about 5’10” – 5’11”. It took a leap of faith and Paul Baretta took a chance on me in the 30th round of the 1995 draft. The first thing I said was, “how soon do you want to me to sign and when can I put on a Mets uniform?”
BBE: Some people may not know this about you but you have a deep passion for electronics. There was one story where manager Jerry Royster‘s hard drive crashed on his computer. Where did you develop this hobby and could you have envisioned yourself working in the field if baseball did not pan out?
NF: “That was one of my first loves because my dad was an electrician. At a young age, I saw him be able to take things apart and see all the wires and the inner workings of electronics and I fell in love with it then. I wanted to be an electrical engineer actually at Brandeis, but the program had been taken out the year before, so I had to find another course. I went into American Studies and got a History and a Sociology degree. I ultimately got drafted and played baseball, which I always wanted to do, but I saw a future in electronics.”
BBE: Your dad Nelson Figueroa Sr. is an electrician and I was reading you developed a close bond with him growing up watching him fix wiring in buildings. What type of influence has he had on your baseball career?
NF: “He taught me from day one about hard work. I used to go with my dad every Saturday and see what he did for a living. He was such a hard worker. Did everything possible to get the job done. I have seen him climb up and down dumb waiters to get down to the basement to see what was wrong with the wires. He was the kind of guy you can trust and is somebody I modeled my life after.”
BBE:Your journey to the big leagues was a long one as a 30th round draft pick pitching for six teams. You also bounced around between AAA and the majors. What are the major differences between the minors and the show?
NF: “The pay. Actually, everybody who gets drafted has the talent to play Major League Baseball. It is all the other things. The intangibles. Can they survive a slump? Not being successful for half a season. Can they do the work necessary to become successful? To learn how to deal with failure like never before. When you were growing up, you were always the best player on your team, so when you get to the professional ranks, you are with other professionals who are the best at what they do. It’s tough for some guys to swallow their pride and realize they are not a finished product yet. I outplayed every first rounder from my draft class and was going to play until they took the uniform off my back.”
BBE: The highlight of your major league career was a complete game shutout on the last day of the 2009 season against Houston, the first in the history of Citi Field. What memories do you have of that day?
NF: “I remember just going out there with a different approach. Dan Warthen had been working with me tirelessly. He felt I was very close to figuring out how to be more consistent at the Major League level. We worked on different grips and I went out there on the last day of the season and just challenged hitters. I remember in that game, Lance Berkman said to one of the infielders, “his ball is doing something different today”. I credit Dan Warthen a lot with that game.”
BBE: Later in your career you returned to AAA pitching at Pawtucket and winning a Governor’s Cup. The team recently announced plans to move out of McCoy Stadium. Where you surprised when you heard the news and what impact does that team have in minor league baseball?
NF: “That’s a very iconic team in that area of the globe. You are talking about Pawtucket Red Sox. They are synonymous with the Boston Red Sox. Everybody loves their PawSox. The history is very rich and very deep. Hearing that they were moving out of McCoy Stadium, it is one of those things where the newer ballparks take over. It is a shame because it is a different kind of ballpark. The fans always turn out there and I was very lucky and fortunate to win a championship there.”
BBE: Currently you are a studio analyst for the Mets for SNY. The Mets are first place in the NL East. What impressions do you have of the club this far and what areas need improvement if the team expects to reach the postseason?
NF: “I have been really impressed with this team’s resiliency. There has been so many ups and downs. You lose David Wright early on. They lost Mejia twice to suspension. There has been so many subtractions and new additions to this team, that along the way, this team has bonded together and weathered the storm together. Here we are in August and they are still in first place and the one thing that is plaguing this team is a lack of a seventh inning guy since Clippard and Familia cannot do it alone”.
BBE: Seeing the Brooklyn Cyclones, Staten Island Yankees, and the Lowell Spinners for the first time, which prospects have caught your attention?
NF: “It’s tough when you only see a team one time. I like Alfredo Reyes for the Brooklyn Cyclones. So smooth at shortstop. Alex Palsha had a really good arm. They are a long way away from the major leagues. You say that to most of these guys, but look at someone like Michael Conforto, who came here to Brooklyn and tore it up and got to the next level so quickly. The centerfielder for the Spinners, Luis Alexander Basabe is a tremendous player. Eighteen years old. Has a very strong arm and can cover a lot of ground. Has a nice approach at the plate with some pop in his bat, so he is an exciting player to watch in the future”.
The opportunity to have a career with a team you grew up watching is a rarity in the days of precise scouting and player evaluation. Finding a calling once those days is equally scarce. Throughout his two decade journey through the ranks of professional baseball, Nelson Figueroa has accepted every challenge and has seen more than more players have during their careers. Enduring the near impossible odds of coming out of a school not known for its baseball program and growing up in Coney Island to eventually win nearly 150 games in the minor leagues is no easy feat. Nor is lasting over a decade in the major leagues as a 30th round draft pick never being entrenched in a roster spot. The chances of Replacing the well-respected Bobby Ojeda on the Mets pre and post game on SNY is an equally difficult task, but one Figueroa has handled with class, becoming one of the brightest young analysts in the game. It is a testament to the leadership of broadcast veterans Curt Gowdy Jr. and Bill Webb, who put together the critically acclaimed team of Gary Cohen, Ron Darling, and Keith Hernandez in the Mets television booth. In the largest media market in the country, SNY established itself as one of the most credible regional sports networks, where Figueroa is quickly making the transition into the media ranks. A man who worked for every last opportunity in his career, Figueroa is succeeded in his new path just miles away from the backdrop of the area he grew up in Brooklyn.