Tracking down Brien Taylor

Pitcher's life turned upside down just before stardom

? A few times a week, often on his way home from work, the greatest pitching prospect the New York Yankees ever had pulls into a little roadside convenience store called In & Out Food Mart. It has cramped aisles and cheap gas, a cement box that sits forlornly across from a billboard that says “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” and a ballfield that once attracted big-league scouts by the dozens.

The prospect gets his gas, a soda pop or two, his 6-foot-4, 250-pound body coated with mortar and morsels of brick, the dusty detritus of a day’s labor. “He’s a nice guy, a quiet guy,” says Jimmy Quzh, the owner of In & Out. Then he’s on his way, driving north, just two miles up to the green road sign that may be the last sliver of fame he has left.

It was made by inmates at the state Department of Corrections. It’s in a semi-blighted community called North River.

“BRIEN TAYLOR LN,” the road sign reads.

Brien Taylor is 34 now, and he lives at the end of the road named for him, with his parents, Willie Ray and Bettie. The trailer he was raised in has been replaced with a two-story brick and frame home, the House that Brien Built with the record $1.55 million bonus he got from the Yankees. He also bought a black Mustang 5.0 back then, a car that is still on the road. Otherwise, evidence of his long-ago windfall is in scant supply on Brien Taylor Lane, where the cab of a tractor-trailer is sunk into marsh grass and vines, and the yard is strewn with old cars and a heap of rusted lawnmowers.

It has been 15 years since the Yankees made Brien Taylor the No. 1 pick in the 1991 draft, and 14 seasons since Baseball America rated him the top prospect in the country, ahead of Pedro Martinez (No. 10) and Manny Ramirez (No. 37). He had two superb years in the minors and he, his left arm and his 98 mph fastball were rocketing toward the Bronx, until it all came undone one night outside a ramshackle trailer.

“He’d be making $15 or $20 million a year now if he hadn’t gotten hurt,” says Gary Chadwick, Taylor’s former coach at East Carteret High School.

Richard Bailey is a football coach in Fayetteville, N.C. He caught Taylor when Taylor was 14 and already throwing 90 mph, with a motion as fluid as hot syrup, the ball not leaving his hand so much as getting launched from it.

“Brien was the most talented kid I ever saw,” Bailey says. “It’s a shame things didn’t work out the way they should have.”

Beaufort is a small town (pop. 3,771) that pokes off an island on the Carolina coast, a place where the well-heeled waterfront that teems with sprawling homes and yachts is but a 10-minute drive to North River, a back-country hodgepodge by a coastal marsh where the only things that sprawl are debris and deprivation.

Brien Taylor used to throw heat. Now he lays bricks, working with his father, earning $909 per month, according to financial records filed in a child-support application. He has five daughters and wants to live his life and prefers not to answer any questions, about then or now. When he finds out it’s a reporter calling, he hangs up.

“We’re out of the public eye now,” Bettie Taylor says. “Our lives are private and that’s the way we like it.”

‘On the phenom path’

Eight days before his 22nd birthday, Brien Taylor is spending a chilly December night at home. The temperature is in the 30s. It’s a week before Christmas, 1993. Taylor has just finished his second year in the minors, going 13-7 at Double-A Albany and striking out almost a batter an inning, showing savvy and off-speed stuff along with his gas. “He was on the phenom path,” says Giants GM Brian Sabean, then the Yankees’ head of player development, and the fans knew it, descending on him for autographs after every game.

A laid-back country kid, Taylor didn’t much like the fanfare. But he understood.

“You can’t complain about people loving you or cheering you because you don’t know how long it will last,” Taylor said back then.

Humble beginnings

Willie Ray Taylor went to school before integration made its way to Beaufort. Bettie was among the first students of color at East Carteret High School. They had no phone and one light bulb in their one-room trailer, but didn’t pay mind to what they didn’t have. Willie Ray worked as a mason, Bettie as a crab picker at the seafood plant down the road. She’d pick out up to 30 pounds of crabmeat a day, then go home and never get the smell off her hands.

Brien was the second oldest of four children, named (albeit with a misspelling) for the lead character in the movie, “Brian’s Song.” His athletic gifts were prodigious. His nickname was Smooth. He could run a 10.7 100 and dunk like a Jordan wannabe, but mostly folks were wowed by Taylor’s arm, and the sinewy strength in his 6-3, 195-pound body. Taylor worked in the kitchen of the Sanitary Restaurant during high school. Sometimes he’d go out back on the dock and fire potatoes at seagulls and knock them out of the sky. “He had the best aim I’ve ever seen,” kitchen manager Dave West says.

Big-league scouts would set up behind the plate at East Carteret High and watch their radar guns light up. In one game, Taylor’s first pitch was 93 mph and his last pitch was 94 mph. Five times during his senior year, Taylor hit 99 mph.

The Yankees drafted him No. 1 and offered him $300,000. Bettie Taylor knew it was a low offer, and the family hired Scott Boras to represent Brien, and Bettie wouldn’t budge until her son was hours from enrolling in Louisburg College, and the Yankees had quintupled their number – the richest amateur contract in history.

“He was the biggest thing we ever had around here,” Ron Wilson says. “He was our knight in shining armor. He represented black people to the fullest.”

Wilson is sitting in the office of Carteret County Sheriff Ralph Thomas Jr., wearing an orange inmate’s jumpsuit and shackles around his ankles. Just outside the window is a monument honoring the county’s Confederate dead. Wilson is in jail for intimidating witnesses and perjury, among other charges. Ask him about Dec. 18, 1993 and Brien Taylor, and he pulls on a cigarette and says, “Both of our lives changed forever that night.”

Trailer-park tragedy

It’s 11:30 p.m. on Saturday night, but Ron Wilson isn’t going out. He’s on parole, and a curfew goes with it. He’s watching TV in his trailer on Laurel Road, trying to calm down after fighting earlier with Brenden Taylor, Brien’s older brother. Wilson’s mother, Patricia, had been involved in a heated argument with Brenden, whose longtime girlfriend, Anna Wilson, is Patricia’s sister.

There was pushing and shoving. Ron Wilson says Brenden knocked his mother to the ground. Ron punched Brenden hard in the face. Brenden fell and hit his head on a rock. He got up with the rock in his hand, and Wilson punched him again. Brenden and Anna drove off. Ron didn’t know where they were going.

Minutes later, someone is pounding and cursing outside Wilson’s door. Ron looks out and sees Brien. Wilson can’t believe it. He and Brien have been tight for years. “Practically family,” Wilson says. Brien was told that Wilson and another man had jumped Brenden, cheap-shotted him. Brien is enraged.

“C’mon out,” he screams at Wilson.

“I don’t want to fight you, Brien,” Wilson says. “You and me, we don’t have no problem.”

Brien – accompanied by his cousin, Donnell Johnson – doesn’t seem to hear anything Wilson says. Wilson keeps urging him to come in, calm down. Taylor demands Wilson come out and fight.

“It was like he couldn’t even think,” Wilson says.

Jamie Morris, a cousin of Wilson’s, hears the ruckus and tells Taylor and Johnson to leave Wilson alone. Johnson rushes him and gets Morris in a full nelson. Taylor, getting angrier by the moment, balls up his left fist – his throwing fist. For years, accounts of this night have varied wildly, talking about barroom brawls and Taylor getting jumped from behind and the prodigy falling backward and wrecking his shoulder on an oil drum. This is what really happened, Wilson says.

Taylor draws back his left arm and brings it forward, hard and fast, with all his immense power, aiming for Jamie Morris.

Morris manages to arch backward. Taylor’s punch misses everything. An instant later, the most prized left arm in baseball is dangling by his side. Everything is a blur now. A scuffle breaks out and Wilson tries to grab Taylor and Taylor screams, “Let me go, my arm hurts.” He curses at Wilson and threatens to pay someone to kill him. Deputy Sheriff Sonny Rose pulls up in an unmarked Crown Victoria. Taylor is already in an EMS vehicle, on his way to the hospital. Wilson has already fled, terrified he’d blown his parole.

“If Brien didn’t have all that money, nobody would’ve cared. It would’ve just been another fight between two black guys in the ‘hood.”

Boras tells reporters the injury is a bruise, no big deal. Famed surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe examines Taylor, who has in fact suffered a torn capsule and torn labrum. Taylor has surgery the following week. “Just tell everyone I’ll be fine,” Taylor told a reporter from his hospital bed.

Jobe later calls it one of the worst injuries he has ever seen.

The final curtain

Some friends wondered why Taylor came home in the offseason. Sabean says the mild-mannered Taylor was the last guy he’d expect to be involved in such a situation. Taylor missed two full seasons and was never close to being the same. His fastball topped out at 91 mph and his control was gone. He pitched three more years in the Yankee organization, winning one game, never having an ERA under 9.50. The Mariners gave him a look and he made a brief comeback in the Indians’ system in 2000. He had nine walks and seven wild pitches in 22â3 innings for the Single-A Columbus (Ga.) RedStixx. At 28, his baseball career was over, and other means of employment beckoned.

Taylor worked briefly as a UPS package handler in the Raleigh area, and reportedly had a stint working for a beer distributor. He moved around a lot, apparently had a series of relationships and liked to move fast; his collection of speeding tickets includes one for doing 91 mph in a 45 mph zone in March 2003. There was a more serious brush with the law in January 2005, in Wake Forest, N.C., where police charged Taylor with misdemeanor child abuse for allegedly leaving four of his children – ranging in ages from 2 to 11 – alone for more than eight hours. According to a law-enforcement source, Taylor said he was out shooting pool and thought the children were with their mother. He didn’t show up for his court date. There are four outstanding warrants for his arrest, Wake County records show.

Fifteen years after he was the greatest sensation ever to hit Carteret County, Brien Taylor rides the back roads of North River, living on a street that bears his name. He and his father often stop at the Piggly Wiggly for a bite of breakfast before work; there’s a counter in back with $1.89 omelettes on the grill and tacky drawings of lighthouses on the wall. At night, Taylor sometimes shoots pool at the Royal James Cafe in downtown Beaufort, a no-frills place with $1.50 drafts. It’s named for a pirate.

Friends say he seems content enough, and that he doesn’t devour himself with regret.

Levar Fisher, a free-agent linebacker who has played with the Saints and Cardinals, grew up in Beaufort, worshipping Taylor.

“What happened to him changed my whole perspective,” Fisher, 26, says. “He worked his whole life to get drafted, and one incident took it away.”

Ron Wilson, who became as infamous as anyone in the county after his altercation with Taylor, ran into Taylor at a strip club last winter. They hugged. Wilson told him how sorry he was about the events of Dec. 18, 1993.

“I don’t blame you for any of that,” Taylor told him.

In his orange prison suit, Wilson gets another cigarette from the sheriff. He lights up. Tears begin to roll down his face. “I see Brien sometimes and think about where he is and where he could’ve been, and I think that everything that happened to him is my fault,” Wilson says.

Behind the register at the In & Out Food Mart, Jimmy Quzh hasn’t seen Brien Taylor all day. “He’ll probably be in tomorrow,” Quzh says. Across the road, the East Carteret High ballfield is empty. There is no game, no fuss, no gaggle of scouts, and as dusk slips over the Carolina coast, the last thing you see in the fading light is a gray gravel mound, and the beautiful, flickering memory of a left arm and a lithe body, and the greatest pitching prospect the Yankees ever had.