Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Brien’s Song

By Jeff Kallman

"[H]ere I was, 11 picks [later], able to get my time in the big leagues," wrote Doug Glanville, outfielder-turned-baseball writer (and a fine one), in the New York Times two years ago, remembering his draft (first round, 1991, to the Cubs) and the number one overall pick therein. "I made my major league debut, earned a multi-year deal, had a locker next to Alex Rodriguez's. [Glanville played for the Rangers for part of 2003.] I try to tell myself that it was because of my better judgment about what risks to take, or my Ivy League opportunities, but comfort does not come. For me, reading about Brien Taylor is haunting."

For a lot of people inside and around baseball, in the run-up to this year's draft and even after high school left-hander Brady Aiken was picked first overall by the Houston Astros,thinking about Brien Taylor remains haunting.

The fact that Taylor sits at this writing in a federal prison, a once-tapered young man who now shows a vague resemblance to Kirby Puckett, awaiting September release, following a conviction for cocaine trafficking in 2012, is slightly more than just another haunt. "[T]he reality that you cannot play anymore shocks you back to life," Glanville wrote. "You hope you have saved enough money, you hope divorce doesn't await you; you certainly don't expect that a jail cell door might close on your freedom."

The reality that Taylor he couldn't play anymore came too soon, too harshly, perhaps too deeply underwritten by the contradiction that doing the right thing cost him something deeper than merely the dream about which Glanville wrote. And we may never know what battered in and out of his mind when, at last, he put his glove and spikes away, returned to his native North Carolina, taking up such work (with UPS, with a beer distributor, then with his father's brickyard) as once seemed unfathomable considering what his pitching talent rewarded him with in the 1991 draft, trying to support his five children, still driving the black Mustang he bought with a small chunk of his bonus.

He was a tall, sinewy-looking left-hander who threw like a howitzer; he was compared frequently enough to Randy Johnson. The worst kept secret in baseball as the 1991 draft approach was that the Yankees — holding the number one pick, hard as it might seem to believe now, thanks to a rebuilding effort in George Steinbrenner's suspended absence (over the Dave Winfield/Howard Spira case) — would move heaven and earth to get this kid. His family might have been dirt poor, but uber-agent Scott Boras helped persuade them to think in terms of Taylor's real baseball value and not as just a down and out family who could be had minimally simply out of gratitude.

Taylor also had the ill-fated Todd Van Poppel to thank for the fortune about to be his. Van Poppel had gone number one in 1990 and landed a $1.25 million signing bonus plus a major league contract. Boras shrewdly evaluated Taylor to be worth $1.5 million without the major league contract. After the family stuck to the script — "We want the value," his mother insisted — Taylor got his $1.5 million and a clear shot at possibly making what became the Core Four (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada) the Fab Five. (Jeter would go number one in the 1992 draft.) He'd spend 1992 and 1993 striking out 337 hitters in 324.3 innings at the A and AA levels, earning a cult following along the way and possibly making the Yankees salivate over the question of when, not if, Taylor's talent would be married well enough to experienced fundamentals to bring him to the Show.

"He was rough when we got him," says Bill Livesey, the Yankee scouting director in 1991. "The guys in the minor leagues said, 'Geez, he can't hold runners on.' I said, 'Geez, there's never been anybody on.'"

December 18, 1993. Taylor's brother Brenden suffered head injuries in a fistfight against a man with whom he'd tangled in the recent past. Taylor and a cousin went to the man's home to confront him. Taylor himself got into it with the man's friend. He took a swing at the man with his left arm, missed with one punch, and fell. Both Taylor and Boras thought it was no worse than a bruise, until Dr. Frank Jobe — to whom the Yankees sent Taylor — saw what he called the worst-looking rotator cuff injury he had seen yet, completely off the shoulder bone.

At first it seemed the injury and the surgery to repair it would cost Taylor nothing more than the 1994 season. It cost him too much more. His fastball lost eight miles an hour, he couldn't throw his curve ball for strikes, and the strikeout machine turned into a walker, with 54 walks in forty innings pitched. The following spring, with the Yankees planning to send him to AA ball to continue rehorsing, Taylor admitted, "Sometimes I get the ball across the plate, sometimes I feel like I've never held a ball in my life." He'd go to A ball instead, walk 43 in 16 innings. He'd spend the following two seasons becoming a further lost cause until the Yankees finally released him.

"We were roommates in spring training in 1994," Jeter says. "He was a good dude. He was a nice guy, sort of shy from North Carolina. Sometimes one thing goes right, one thing goes wrong and it can change the course of a career. Unfortunately, for him — and for us, as well — he got hurt."

Brief spells in the organizations of the Mariners and the Indians brought no better results. Finally, Taylor left the game in 2000. "We've all been living a passion whose only true inevitability is that it will end," Glanville would write. "Sadly, with Taylor, you feel like he never got started. His career seemed to be forever pointed behind him, to one sliver in time that changed everything. And now it appears that he may have nothing but time, stuck in a future that keeps him in that same tormenting past."

There have been numerous number one picks whose careers short circuited for various reasons. Taylor lost it to an injury suffered doing worse than trying to do right by his brother. You can never stop wondering what else that cost him internally when at last he had to walk away from the game everyone, including perhaps himself, thought he had an above average chance to rule.

"You know what?" Boras says of the pitcher he calls the best high school pitcher he ever saw. "Brien Taylor's arm was so good, he came back from rotator cuff surgery and he still threw over 90 miles per hour, but he was no longer Brien Taylor."

Until his arrest, it became known that Taylor refused to answer his phone if he smelled sportswriters calling. Maybe knowing that he was no longer Brien Taylor eroded him even deeper than that.

From One to Done — Ill-Fated Number One Drafts

Brien Taylor's may be only the saddest of stories involving baseball's number-one draft picks. Here are some others who didn't flower fully for assorted reasons:

STEVE CHILCOTT (catcher, 1966) — He was picked number one by the Mets, infamously, ahead of Reggie Jackson — possibly because the Mets' then-president, George Weiss, was discomfited by Jackson's dating an Hispanic woman at the time. Chilcott had a better than respectable first minor league season, but a shoulder injury finished him before he had a chance to advance.

DAVID CLYDE (pitcher, 1973) — Picked by a Rangers franchise desperate to save itself in Texas, the high school phenom (five no-hitters including a perfect game) was sent to a major league mound practically the minute after he graduated — and won his first two major league starts. The desperate Rangers then refused to farm him out for much-needed seasoning. Too valuable at the box office. Between inexperience and injury, Clyde was a mess. Later tried and failed in two seasons in Cleveland; left the game and eventually worked for his father-in-law's lumber company before becoming a high school pitching coach. Clyde now refers to his baseball career as the classic case of how not to handle young talent.

SHAWN ABNER (outfielder, 1984) — The Mets thought Abner couldn't miss. Except that he did, lumbering through their system for two years before going to San Diego in the package that sent Kevin Mitchell to the Padres in exchange for talented but indifferent Kevin McReynolds. He made a career as a reserve outfielder with a solid glove and a paper bat. A knee injury finished whatever major league career he had.

TODD VAN POPPEL (pitcher, 1990) — Van Poppel's problem was the major league contract he got in hand with that $1.25 million signing bonus: it kept the Athletics from seasoning him properly. Van Poppel proved to be a mediocre major league pitcher at best, though he did put up a season or two as a respectable if nothing fancy middle reliever.

MARK PRIOR (pitcher, 2001) — Two years after his draft, won eighteen games for the Cubs and, with the Cubs five outs from going to the 2003 World Series, threw the pitch Alex Gonzalez mishandled for a booted double play that let the Marlins score eight in the eighth to win the game. Then came the injuries, the further injuries, the comeback attempts, the recriminations over his mechanics and his overworking in '03, and finally his retirement last winter. Prior now works for the Padres' front office.

MATT BUSH (shortstop turned pitcher, 2004) — Hasn't played a game in the Show yet. The bottle wrecked him. Drunken assault once, twice, three times, costing him stints in the Padres, Blue Jays, and Rays organizations. Now sitting in federal prison in a hit-and-run DUI case, scheduled for release in 2016. The victim in the hit-and-run, Tony Tufano, a widowed motorcyclist whose helmet probably saved his life when Bush's car ran over his head, was quoted recently as saying he'd tell this to Bush if given the chance: "Look, you're a young man, it's unfortunate this happened. The good news for both of us is that I'm here. I don't know how good you are. You'll be 30 or 31 when you get out, and that's young as an athlete today. You may have a chance. But if you don't, do something positive."

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