The Mets once considered Brian Cole the first piece in a roster makeover that would come to include Jose Reyes and David Wright. They saw him as a special talent, an uncommonly good person and projected him to reach the big leagues in 2002 -- one year before Reyes would make his debut and two years before Wright's final promotion. They envisioned the three players forming the core of the club's next generation.
Cole never played in the big leagues. He was killed in a one-vehicle accident while driving his SUV on a Florida highway on March 31, 2001 after completing Spring Training. Nearly 10 years after the Mets lost a treasured prospect, Cole's family was awarded a $131 million judgment against the Ford Motor Company, the manufacturer of the Explorer Sport that Cole was driving at the time of his death.
The case was settled before closing arguments in the punitive phase of the case were presented in the Circuit Court of the First Judicial District of Jasper County, Miss., near the victim's home. All but one of the 12-member jury agreed on the verdict. Resolution of the case required nine agreeing votes. The case had been tried twice previously, ending in a hung jury in each instance.
Jim Duquette, the Mets' assistant general manager at the time of Cole's death, testified in the second and third trials. He told the jury what the club had expected from the fleet, right-handed-hitting outfielder, who would have turned 23 late in the 2001 season. Cole had been selected in the 18th round of the Draft in 1998. He succeeded at each of the five Minor League levels he played at and had participated in the big league camp in 2001.
Duquette said Thursday that he told the jury that "the Mets were building a team around" Cole and compared him during his testimony to Torii Hunter, the Twins and Angels outfielder.
Cole batted .306 with 151 extra-base hits, including 42 home runs, in 1,289 Minor League at-bats (Reyes and Wright had 1,303 and 1,419 at-bats, respectively, in their Minor League careers). He had stolen 135 bases and produced a .503 slugging percentage and a .347 on-base average in 320 games -- all but 46 at Class A. The Mets planned to have him begin the 2001 season at the Double-A level, promote him to Triple-A at the All-Star break and probably to the big leagues in September. The team saw him as a regular big league outfielder in 2002.
"We looked at it this way," Duquette said by cellphone on Thursday. "We'd have Brian, then Jose and David, pretty much one coming up each year and feeding the Major League team. We liked adding to the core. But we fell behind in feeding the big league team. I said when I testified, we might not have traded [Scott] Kazmir if Brian hadn't died."
Had Cole performed as the Mets thought possible on the big league level, the club might not have pursued Carlos Beltran as a free agent after the 2004 season. Duquette agreed with the supposition.
At one point, the Mets thought their starting team might include Cole, Reyes, Wright, Fernando Martinez and Lastings Milledge and their rotation would include Mike Pelfrey, Kris Benson and Philip Humber. Only Reyes, Wright and Pelfrey have made a significant impact on the team at the Major League level.
"You can plan for things, good things," Duquette said. "But look what happens."
According to a statement issued on Thursday by the attorneys representing the Cole family, Cole was driving from the Mets' Spring Training facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla., to Mississippi to visit his family before traveling to Binghamton, N.Y., for the beginning of the Binghamton Mets' Double-A season.
"He and his 17-year-old cousin, Ryan, were traveling westbound on State Highway 8, near the Florida-Georgia border, when a car veered into their lane and Cole swerved to avoid it. Because of the Explorer's defective design, it rolled over," the statement said. "Cole, despite being fully seat belted, was ejected and killed."
The suit brought against Ford initially in 2002 alleged that a faulty seat-belt design and the propensity of Ford SUVs to roll over after tire blowouts caused Cole's death. Ford's defense included the assertion that Cole had been speeding and was not wearing his seat belt. Attorney Ted Leopold said Thursday that seat-belt marks were found on Cole's body.
The statement from Ford said: "This was a tragic accident and our sympathy goes out to the Cole family for their loss, but it was unfair of them to blame Ford. Brian Cole had been driving over 80 mph when he drifted off road for unknown reasons, suddenly turned his steering wheel 295 degrees, lost control, and caused the vehicle to roll over more than three times. He was not wearing his safety belt and died after being ejected from the vehicle. His passenger [a cousin], who was properly belted, walked away from the accident. The court denied Ford a fair trial by excluding evidence that the jury should have heard and considered about Brian's driving and the speculative nature of plaintiffs' claims."
Leopold, speaking by cellphone from south Florida, said on Thursday the baseball aspect of the case had significant bearing.
"You normally don't have this much of a lost wages claim," he said. But the jury had been persuaded that Cole would have been in position to earn millions as a player, and as a possible pitchman in the New York market.
The big league Mets team learned of Cole's death while in Pittsburgh for exhibition games. The Mets were in Pittsburgh again when the 9/11 attacks happened some five months later. The following season, players experienced unsettling feelings when they entered the clubhouse at PNC Park, recalling that they had learned of Cole's death while in that room and that they had gathered there after returning to Pittsburgh to resume the season days after the attacks.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.