KINGSTON, R.I. - After an outstanding season with the Sussex County Miners of the independent Can-Am League, former Rhode Island standout Martin Figueroa ('17) has been signed by the St. Louis Cardinals.
"He's a high-character guy," Sussex County manager Bobby Jones said of his star infielder. "He's a great kid, he can really hit, he's got a lot of versatility. He really enjoys the game, really enjoys his teammates. They're getting a great guy."
Originally drafted by the Houston Astros following his senior year at URI, Figueroa spent the 2017 season playing for the Greenville Astros of the Appalachian League. There, he appeared in 21 games, going 18-for-66 (.273) with two doubles, one home run, six RBI and seven runs scored. However, at the end of his debut season, Houston cut ties with Greenville, dropping the club from its farm system and leaving Figueroa's baseball future up in the air.
"It was surreal," Figueroa said of the rapid turn of events. "I had worked my entire life toward one goal - getting drafted. Then all of a sudden I didn't have a team."
Shortly after being released from the Astros however, Figueroa heard from Jones, who offered the Elizabeth, N.J. native a home, back home in the Garden State.
"He called me up and asked me to play for him," Figueroa recalls. "It was a no-brainer. I knew I wasn't ready to be done playing."
So, by the time 2018 opening day rolled around, Figueroa was back in Jersey with the Miners, playing his home games at Skylands Stadium, less than 60 miles from his family in Elizabeth.
"For the first time in five years, I was able to play in front of my mom," said the third baseman, who was raised by his single mother, Ursula Figueroa. "She was able to see me play a few times in college, but not much, so it was really nice to be back playing closer to home."
Figueroa quickly made a name for himself in the Can-Am League, collecting Player of the Month honors after hitting .422 with 23 RBI over 27 games in the month of June. For the season, he drove in 50 runs and hit .328 with five homers. His efforts helped lift Sussex County to the Can-Am Championship title, in addition to earning him the league's 2018 Rookie of the Year award.
In a season full of highlights, without question the most memorable came in Game 4 of the Can-Am League Championship Series against the Quebec Capitales. It was backyard baseball stuff, the kind of thing you only see in movies.
With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, runners on first and second, and the Miners trailing the Capitales 5-3, Figueroa drove the first pitch he saw way over the right field wall and became an instant legend in the process. Not only did the three-run, walk-off homer clinch the game, it gave Sussex County its first-ever Can-Am league title.
Was his family there to witness the big moment?
"Why do you think I went off like I did?" he asks, with a laugh. "What are the odds that my entire family comes to watch me play in the championship game and I hit two home runs, win MVP and win a championship?"
Pretty good, actually.
Rhody fans may recall the 2016 Atlantic 10 Championship, at Fordham University in the Bronx. It was there that Figueroa combined to go 7-for-11, with two home runs, four walks, 11 runs scored and four RBI en route to being named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Making the experience extra sweet was the fact that his family was there for that as well.
Who knows, maybe he was just born for the big moments.
He's quick to attribute the success to luck, though. A good luck charm, if you will.
"It's so crazy, every time she comes to a game I go off," he says of his grandmother Paulina Figueroa, who will turn 94 in February. "I'm not even joking, she really is my good luck!"
The next stop on Figueroa's baseball journey will likely be in Jupiter, Fla. with the Palm Beach Cardinals, St. Louis' High A affiliate in the Florida State League. And while the distance will be much greater than the 90-minute drive that it was this past year, it goes without saying that his family will still be following closely.
"I really am blessed," Figueroa notes, reflecting on his career thus far. "The path I've taken hasn't been the most traditional, but I'm so thankful for the opportunities I've had, as well as the ones that lie ahead."
"When I told Martin, to hear the excitement in his voice and everything, it was just a really cool experience," added Jones, who will probably always remember calling Figueroa with the news about the Cardinals. "I've sent a lot of guys in the last two years but this was very special because I never felt like he should have been out (of affiliated ball)."