[I was killing some time on Twitter and stumbled onto The Sporting News feed. As I scrolled back through the last few months, I saw a link to one of their stories from over the summer. It was on of their lists, “The 12 Worst No. 1 (MLB) Picks of All-Time.” I looked through it and found someone at the top that many people have never heard of. Obviously, this a list of busts, so it’s not a real surprise few people have heard of these guys. But it reminded me of something I wrote nearly exactly 4 years ago about the player sitting at the top of their list, Brien Taylor. It also reminded me how fleeting success can be and how precious our opportunities really are. We all have only so many pivotal times in our lives. Let’s hope we make the right decisions at the right times.]
Highway to Heaven
The Path of Brien Taylor
November 20, 2013
If you wrote a script for a new baseball movie based on the rise of a small-town player to the biggest stage of Major League Baseball, you could easily use Brien Taylor as the blueprint. Taylor is from Beaufort, North Carolina, a coastal town of about 4,000 residents whose most famous, or maybe infamous, former resident was a pirate nicknamed “Blackbeard.” Brien Taylor, while as a teenager created his own fame, and subsequently in just a few short years, his own infamy.
Taylor was born the day after Christmas in 1971 to Ray and Bettie Taylor, who would predictably remain his most loyal fans throughout his playing days and beyond. Taylor grew up in a trailer, which in Carteret County was not uncommon at all and graduated from East Carteret High School just down the road, where his senior year in 88 innings the left-hander struck out 213, usually doing so with his 95-99 mph fastball. For his overall high school stats Taylor struck out 476 batters in 239 innings, going 29-6 with a 1.25 ERA, an ERA that stands as the 11th best in North Carolina high school history.
There was no shortage of acclaim for the young southpaw. Mike Fox, head coach at the University of North Carolina, said of Taylor, “There are certain pitchers who come along every so often and you don’t know how to describe them. Well, you can describe Brien pretty quickly: No one could touch him.” His eventual agent, the ‘super-agent’ Scott Boras, took praise of Taylor up a level when he said, “I’ve been through 28 drafts and Brien Taylor, still to this day, is the best high school pitcher I’ve seen in my life.” Many experienced scouts began calling Taylor a left-handed Dwight Gooden, a hard-thrower who took the baseball world by storm just half a dozen years earlier. Expectations were lofty.
Following Taylor’s storied high school career and stellar senior season with pro scouts crowding behind the fence at nearly every game, there was much buzz leading up to the 1991 MLB Draft. It seemed like an endless stream of scouts were contacting Brien’s parents setting up meetings so they could see if the mental make-up and character matched the golden arm. Taylor’s mom lost count of how many times she gave directions to the Taylor’s trailer: “Just go past the Mount Tabor Baptist Church,” she would say, “and turn right down the 2nd dirt path.” That second dirt path would eventually become Brien Taylor Lane, the starting point of Taylor’s “Highway to Heaven.”
As expected, Taylor went high in the draft. He was actually the #1 overall pick taken by the New York Yankees who initially offered $300,000 as a signing bonus. Taylor or more specifically, Bettie Taylor felt that was a low-ball offer. Consequently, New York increased their offer to $650,000, then $850,000. Each time the Yankees were rebuffed. Taylor’s eventual agent, Scott Boras, only served to help Bettie dig her heels in against the Bronx Bombers. The stand-off lasted all summer and as Taylor was preparing to enroll at Louisburg College, Boras sent word to the Yankees that Brien will begin classes at the junior college rather than accept the new $1.2 million offer. The day before classes were to begin, New York tendered a $1.55 million offer, to that point the highest signing bonus ever and one Bettie Taylor finally felt worthy of her star son. Because of the holdout, Taylor would have to wait until 1992 to make his debut in the Yankee organization. Before even throwing a pitch, Taylor was already ranked by Baseball America as the best prospect in baseball.
Taylor would spend 1992 in the Florida State League. He threw 161.1 innings in 27 starts racking up 187 strikeouts while surrendering 66 walks and only 3 homeruns culminating in his selection to the Florida State All-Star Team. His velocity had lost nothing since his senior year at East Carteret touching 98 and consistently sitting at 95 mph. In 1992, Taylor’s prospect ranking dropped, but only slightly, to #2 behind the future Hall of Famer, Chipper Jones. Taylor was still on the tip of every baseball soothsayer’s tongue with many scouts already predicting a big league call-up at the end of 1992. Taylor’s 1993 stats at Double-A were similar but a little less impressive; still, nothing to dampen the Taylor-mania that was sweeping through the Yankee organization and fan base.
Taylor was promoted to Double-A Albany for the 1993 season. His results were mixed going 13-7 with a 3.48 ERA. His strikeouts fell somewhat and his walks rose somewhat. He did finish in the Eastern League’s top 5 in ERA and tied for 2nd in the league for wins. League managers voted him the #4 prospect for that year behind Cliff Lee, Manny Ramirez and Rondell White; but Taylor was ranked above all other pitchers. Baseball America tagged Taylor as the #18 prospect in baseball. While his accolades had cooled from his white hot status just 2 years prior, there was little doubt among baseball people in the know that Taylor was on track to becoming a Major League star. Scott Boras also knew that when it came time for Taylor to sign his first big league contract, the sky would very nearly be the limit.
Taylor was handling the instant rise to fame to this point relatively well. His only financial splurge being a black Ford Mustang 5.0 that he bought for himself in 1991 and the house he paid to have built for his parents replacing the trailer. After the end of the 1993 season, Taylor headed back to Beaufort for an off-season he hoped would help prepare him for an eventful 1994 season, which would potentially include a big league call-up just 3 years following his drafting. It would, in fact, be an eventful off-season…one that would definitely impact not only the upcoming season but the rest of his life.
On the evening of December 18, Brenden Taylor, Brien’s older brother, came to the Taylor home to get a gun before storming back out. He had gotten into an argument days earlier with a local guy already on parole for another crime (Ron Wilson) and on this night he was planning to continue the dispute. Once finding out where his brother was headed, Brien took off to Wilson’s home to assist. Despite being restricted by a curfew, Wilson eventually came out to confront Taylor. Brien threw a full swing punch that missed its target completely, the most costly wild pitch of his career if you will, leading to his intended victim and another guy tackling Brien to the ground. After the skirmish had cleared and Brien had returned home, he knew he had hurt his shoulder, yes his throwing shoulder; but he had no idea how extensively.
The missed punch and subsequent dog pile had virtually ripped Taylor’s left arm out of socket. His shoulder was dislocated and both his labrum and capsule were torn. Renowned specialist, Dr. Frank Jobe, claimed it was one of the worst shoulder injuries he had ever seen. Taylor would obviously require surgery forcing him out of the entire 1994 season and sending him, in terms of his baseball career, back to square one. Luke Decock of the Raleigh News & Observer may have summed up the bazaar incident the best: “The can’t-miss prospect threw a punch and missed.”
Once he finally made it back on the field, halfway through the 1995 season, Taylor had lost 5 to 8 mph on his fastball. He went 2-5 in the Gulf Coast League with a 6.08 ERA in 40 innings striking out only 38 while giving up 29 hits and walking 54. No one expected him to be 100% sharp but the significant drop in velocity worried everyone, including Taylor. All hopes that Taylor would rediscover the magic in that arm were soon dashed. Over the next three seasons (1996-1998) Taylor threw a total of 68.2 innings at the lowest levels of baseball. His numbers were abysmal. The magic was gone. The Yankees were ready to move on. Former Yankees General Manager, Gene Michael summed up the organization’s feelings: “That incident was really unfortunate. It made me sick to see that ability go down the drain like that.” After the 1998 season, Taylor was officially released. He managed to get signed by Seattle during the off-season, but they too let him go prior to Spring Training. Cleveland then decided to take a chance but after just 2 2/3 innings and 8 runs surrendered, Taylor was released for the last time. His career stats since being baseball’s #1 guy just 8 years prior were unimpressive: a record of 22-30 with a 5.12 ERA and 352 walks in 435.2 innings. Taylor became just the second #1 draft pick in the history of baseball not to make it to the Major Leagues. He returned to North Carolina expectedly dejected and totally aimless. He was not prepared to do anything but pitch. The only other skill he had, thanks to his father, was laying bricks. Whether he chose masonry or not, Taylor had lots of rebuilding ahead of him. It was a critical point in his life and those of his daughters.
When Taylor returned to North Carolina he lived in Raleigh where he began work as a UPS package handler. He would soon be driving a beer truck before deciding to move back home to Beaufort. Everyone can imagine what that may have been like. The town’s favorite son moving back after failing to do what he was seemingly born to do. Brien, however, seemed to be dealing with the disappointment better than some in his own family and hometown. While certainly disappointed with the outcome of his baseball career, he was, at least publicly, at peace with the decision he had made back in December of 1993:
“If I’d been doing things that were stupid and didn’t make any sense, I would have felt a lot worse about it. I feel that what happened with me is a family thing and I was there for my family, but I don’t feel bad about it for one day because the reason it happened is not because I was being stupid out there.”
Once back in Beaufort by 1996, Taylor began helping his father as a mason. He settled into as normal of a life as was possible. The pain from the residue of his shoulder injury was compounded by the hard manual nature of his new occupation forcing Taylor to become more and more reliant on pain killers. This reliance eventually evolved into an addiction. His livelihood and that of his 4 daughters depended on it, so he felt he had no choice. Unfortunately, an addiction to painkillers was only the beginning of his real life problems. In January of 2005, he was charged with misdemeanor child abuse when he allegedly left his 4 daughters (ages 2 to 11) alone for more than 8 hours. He probably could have straightened the situation out, but he chose to miss his court date. At one point, Taylor had 4 outstanding warrants for his arrest. Problems were beginning to mount and Taylor’s life was beginning to sink.
In 2010, Taylor was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, which forced him to stop working and to go on disability. He was living with his parents, who helped him raise his daughters but the roughly $900 a month he was collecting in disability would not go very far to help provide Taylor with any future independence, nor would it allow him any sustainable opportunity to support his family. Taylor was surely feeling the pressure. These are often the times people resort to desperate means.
In early 2012, a joint narcotics task force consisting of agents from the Carteret County Sheriff’s Department and Morehead City Police Department conducted a series of drug transactions using undercover officers. One of the individuals from whom agents were able to purchase a large amount of crack and powder cocaine was Brien Taylor. In all he was caught distributing more than 200 grams of crack and about 100 grams of powder. They finally made their move and arrested Taylor on March 1. Unable to afford defense, the former #1 pick once represented by Scott Boras now put his future, or at least the next 40 years of it, in the hands of Halerie Mahan, a federal public defender.
Taylor entered a plea of guilty and seemed to take full responsibility for his actions. According to court testimony during the sentencing hearing, Taylor had begun dealing drugs in 2003, about 7 years after returning to Beaufort. At the sentencing, Taylor issued an apologetic statement: “I just want to say I’m sorry for all the harm I caused to individuals and their families. I’m sorry to my children for letting them down…I made poor decisions.” Mahan told reporters how regretful her client was about the decisions that he had made and that he was…“embarrassed where he is today.” On November 7, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Louise W. Flanagan, sentenced Taylor to 38 months in federal prison and an additional 3 years of supervised release. Thomas Walker, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina issued a statement to ESPN that effectively summed up everyone’s sentiment: “This is a tragic story—all too often our professional athletes spiral into criminal activity after an athletic disappointment or injury. I think all of us hope that Mr. Taylor, like many others who have gone down this road, will put their activity behind them and move to a better place in their life.”
Judge Flanagan made several interesting comments to Taylor during the sentencing hearing including a warning to be on his best behavior and to pay careful attention when choosing people with whom to associate after his release. Flanagan reflected that “[Taylor] seemed completely unprepared for life after baseball, which he was confronted with almost immediately.” The federal judge also addressed his former stature in the community: “You were viewed by many in our community as a hero because of your baseball career. A hero dealing drugs is a dangerous person.”
The hero had come full circle. He fully realized what he had done and he knew why he did it. Many family and friends were worried that the situation would not be any different once released from prison. Nevertheless, he received sympathetic support from most in his hometown. His parents were left to care for his daughters and one can only imagine the pain felt by his loving mother. She told a reporter soon after the sentencing, “We will always love Brien, and stand by him. If it wasn’t for my faith in God, I don’t know how we would be getting through this.” The “Highway to Heaven” took a detour to Butner Federal Correctional Complex just north of Raleigh. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Taylor may not be paroled but he may have his sentence reduced due to good behavior; behavior opposite of what got Taylor there to begin with.
Today, you can visit 147 Brien Taylor Lane. The 2nd dirt path just past Mount Tabor Baptist Church is now paved but you can still see the house he had built for his parents. His parents still live there. Brien Taylor will not be there…at least not until September 14, 2014, his scheduled release date. You will probably see his black Ford Mustang he bought in 1991 as you turn around in front of the Taylor residence. You have to turn around in front of their house. For you see, Brien Taylor Lane is a short, dead-end street. Some find it convenient to compare it with Taylor’s career, and while that may be accurate from a baseball perspective, it is still Brien’s “Highway to Heaven.” It is to where he will eventually be able to return and find his parents and his daughters. It is where he spent his childhood dreaming about a glamorous life and where he will have to rebuild what is left of it.
• Luke Decock—Raleigh News & Observer
• Wall Street Journal
• George Vecsey—The New York Times
• Mike Valerio—WCTI 12 News
• Associated Press
• Wayne Coffey—New York Daily News
• Willie Weinbaum—ESPN.com
• Richard Webster—The Examiner
• Anthony Rieber—Newsday
• Jeff Passan—Yahoo Sports
• Baseball Reference (.com)
• North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA)
[Taylor was actually released on September 12, 2015. As you look back over his life to this point, most of his problems resulted from decisions that Taylor felt were “necessary” at the time and even, in some situations, were ones he didn’t necessarily regret and he indicates he would do again. From taking up for his brother to taking care of his daughters, he could always justify what he did no matter how badly it may turn out or how illegal it was to begin with. It’s so easy to justify at the time instead of thinking about the possible effects. Life can get going out of control so fast. That’s when we need God and Godly people around us to help slow it and us down. It’s too easy to judge but one wonders how Brien’s life would have turned out if he would have turned to God or if someone had stepped in on God’s behalf to help guide him during those handful of pivotal times in his life. Jeremiah 29:11 tells us:
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
While God may know the plans he has for us, He gives us free will to make decisions. What we do with our opportunities is up to us. God has a hopeful future in store for Christians. However, the decisions we make can and will influence that future. The proverbial ‘fork in the road,’ the point at which we have to make a choice that may or may not affect the rest of our lives, is a powerful moment. We must have the wisdom, self-control and faith to make the right decision. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we will get another chance, sometimes we won’t.]