Nelson Figueroa Jr. was 5 feet, 10 inches and just 125 pounds when he played baseball at Lincoln HS in Brooklyn but, buoyed by the leadership skills and life lessons instilled in him by his teachers and coaches, he impressed enough people to pitch in college and eventually be signed by his favorite team, his hometown New York Mets. The first player from Brandeis University to reach the major leagues, “Figgy” pitched the first complete-game shutout at the Mets’ new stadium, Citi Field, in 2009, a highlight of his 13-year professional career. In 2013, he pitched for silver-medal winner Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. After that, he served for several years as SNY TV’s Mets pre- and post-game analyst, winning an Emmy Award. Today, living in Weehawken, New Jersey, Figueroa, 46, wears several hats. He is a fill-in TV baseball analyst, a popular coach at Mets Fantasy Camp where average people can live out their big-league dreams, a co-host of the New York Post’s “Amazin' But True” podcast, the director of outreach for the political education website voteinorout.com and an instructor for the New York Youth Baseball Foundation.
I grew up in Coney Island and went to PS 188 in my neighborhood starting in 1979. I had some very passionate teachers. Beverly Engelman was my teacher for both 3rd and 5th grades. I would always write about how I wanted to become a professional baseball player. She encouraged me to find out more about what it would take and about the struggles these athletes had to go through, which was interesting to me and something I never forgot.
Herman Darvick wasn’t one of my teachers, but he was in charge of a lot of the functions that went on at the school. He was a huge supporter and kept tabs on me through my whole journey. He was the school’s softball coach so he saw me play. I wound up going to Japan and China to play baseball in 6th grade. He made a big deal out of it when I came back, telling everyone. That was when I realized I had above-average talent in baseball.
Mr. Darvick was a huge autograph collector. He went on “Oprah” to show off his collection and was able to get Oprah’s autograph. Very cool. He followed my baseball career and came out to watch me play in the big leagues. We have a very good relationship to this day. Now he has all of my baseball cards and my autograph.
I attended Mark Twain JHS for the Gifted and Talented, also in my neighborhood, from 7th through 9th grades, starting in 1986. You had to audition your talent to get in, and I had to take an aptitude test and a fitness test. I was lucky enough to be accepted, and the education and attention to detail at that school was second to none.
My physical education teacher, Hector Ramirez, was one of my first Hispanic male role models. He had an almost military disciplinary style and pushed me to be better, to pay attention to detail and to focus on my education. Since athletics was my “talent,” he said it was important to use it as a vehicle to get into college, but it was also important to continue to get good grades. I kept in touch with him long after I left the school and often went back to visit and talk with the kids in the athletic talent program. I started Lincoln HS as a sophomore in 1989. Melvyn Glenn was my English teacher and academic adviser. The coach from Brandeis University saw me pitch at a tournament in Massachusetts and gave me information about the school. Mr. Glenn told me it was one of the best universities in the country. I had always planned to go to a “baseball school” like the University of Miami or Stanford, someplace warm. But once I realized none of those schools was looking for a 5-foot-10, 125-pound pitcher, I chose Brandeis, where I played Division 3 (nonathletic scholarship) baseball and got a great education.
Fred Newman, another teacher at Lincoln, ran the Student Organization, and I was co-president my senior year. I learned a lot about government and took leadership classes. Mr. Newman was the head of all that. He’s been the straw that stirs the drink at Lincoln HS for at least 50 years, and he’s still there. He tried to get you to look beyond yourself in terms of what you could achieve.
One of the things I loved about my public school education was the socioeconomic differences of the students. They were so varied and helped me learn to understand people of all different backgrounds.
It’s important to be well-rounded and what I learned at Mark Twain helped me to accomplish that. At Lincoln, using what I learned about being a leader and doing things inside and outside the classroom, the person I was going to become took shape.
— As told to Joe LoVerde, editor