Saturday, March 10, 2012

What If Brien Taylor Hadn't Gotten Into a Fight?

The rebirth of Otherwise Sports was inspired by a post in the blog "Bleeding Yankee Blue" (see link to the right), about the arrest of Brien Taylor.

Who? Let me refresh your memory:

It's June 1991. Last year, the Yankees finished dead last for the first time in 24 years, only the 4th time in the club's history. For once, they had the first pick in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.

The Yankees chose Brien Taylor. A 19-year-old lefthanded fireballer out of North Carolina who had just graduated from high school.

Superagent Scott Boras snapped Taylor up, and told the Yankee brass that if they didn't agree to his demands, he would go to college for a year, thus making him eligible for the next year's draft, which means the Yankees would have stood a pretty good chance of losing him to another team.

At the time, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was suspended, and not allowed to take part in any business dealings. The Boss sent a message to the media, that if the Yankees let Taylor get away, they should be "shot."

The Yankees agreed to Taylor's demands, including a signing bonus of $1.55 million. In 2012 money, this would be $2.58 million. A hell of a lot of money for a teenager, but a decent enough price for a pitcher who turns out to be a good one.

In 1992, pitching for the Fort Lauderdale Yankees of the Florida State League, Class A+, 3 steps below the majors, Taylor was 6-8, but his ERA was 2.57, his WHIP (Walks + Hits, divided by Innings Pitched) was 1.159, and his K/BB radio (strikeouts-to-walks) was 2.83 to 1. So far, so good. And he was only 20 years old.

In 1993, pitching for the Albany-Colonie Yankees of the Eastern League, Class AA, 2 steps below the majors, he was 13-7. His ERA had gone up to 3.48, not bad at all. His WHIP went up to 1.405, and his K/BB dropped to 1.47, not good signs. But he was only 21. Starting the next season in Double-A would probably have been the right way to go.

So far, Brian Taylor still looked like a future major leaguer.

On December 18, 1993, a week before Christmas, which was the day before his 22nd birthday, his world changed.

In a bar in Harlowe, North Carolina, Taylor's brother Brenden got into a fight, and suffered head lacerations. Once Brien found out, he and a cousin went to the assailant's trailer home to confront him. Brien, having apparently learned nothing from what happened to his brother, got into a fight, and fell on his shoulder. This resulted in a dislocated shoulder and a torn labrum, two devastating injuries for any baseball player, but especially for a pitcher.

Renowned sports surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe operated on Taylor, telling him he would miss the entire 1994 season, but would be back to his full velocity and control thereafter.

Jobe was wrong. Taylor gained 35 pounds, lost 8 mph off his fastball, and was unable to throw a curveball for a strike. He was only able to make 11 starts in the 1995 season, all in the Gulf Coast League, a rookie league. In 1996, '97 and '98, he made 30 starts, all for the Greensboro Yankees of the South Atlantic League -- Class A, the SAL or "Sally League," the level below the one at which the Yankees started his pro career. His ERAs for those 3 seasons were 18.73, 14.33 and 9.59; his WHIPs were 3.918, 3.074 and 2.053.

After the '98 season, the Yanks released him. He didn't pitch at all in 1999. The Cleveland Indians signed him for 2000, and he made 5 more starts in the Sally League, and got racked. And got released. He threw his final professional pitch at the age of 28.

One moment of madness, and it ruined his career.

Not just his career. His life.

He moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and worked as a UPS package handler. He then worked for a beer distributor, though not owning a distributorship like Yankee legend Roger Maris did in Florida after his retirement from baseball.

Taylor has 5 daughters -- 4 of whom he supposedly left alone for more than 8 hours in a 2005 incident, and for this he was charged with misdemeanor child abuse.

And then, just last week, at age 40, Taylor was charged with cocaine trafficking, after undercover narcotics agents purchased a large quantity of cocaine and crack cocaine from him over a period of several months.


Could it have been different? Let's say Brenden Taylor doesn't get into that fight. Or that Brien and their cousin meet the guy who hurt Brenden and they straightened things out without violence. Or even that Brien won the fight. Whatever the specifics, Brien Taylor wakes up on the morning of December 19, 1993, and his left shoulder is fine. He's about to turn 22.

The 1994 season begins with Taylor still in Double-A, with Albany. Having had a solid spring training with the Yankees, he does well in April and May. Early in June, he is called up to the Columbus Clippers (Ohio) in the International League, the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate.

The opposition is better: Well over half the batters he faces either will be, or have been and could be again, major league players. The problem now isn't his control, but his command: How do you make good hitters miss your good pitches? Over the course of the season, his WHIP is good enough, but he gets hit hard a few times, so his ERA is too high. But, by August 12, he seems to have figured it out and settled down. The suggestions that he will soon be ready for the majors return. Only August 12 is the day the Strike of '94 begins. There will be no September callup for Brien Taylor, or for any other minor league player.

The strike is settled in April '95, and Taylor begins the season at Columbus. He pitches well. He's getting Triple-A hitters, including players who've been in The Show, out with consistency. He's 24 years old. The Clippers don't make the Playoffs. And so, on September 1, 1995, Brien Taylor is called up to the major leagues. He is a Yankee.

I've looked it up: The lowest uniform number neither retired (officially or, like Ron Guidry's 49 then was, unofficially) nor worn by a player or coach on the 1995 Yankees was 52. With CC Sabathia, the idea of a lefty power pitcher wearing Number 52 is hardly strange, although Taylor wouldn't have been nearly as, how shall I put this, unsvelte. So TAYLOR 52 T-shirts start to be printed up.

Does having Taylor available down the stretch make a difference for the Yankees in TTL-1995? No. Being a September callup, he wouldn't have been eligible for the postseason. So if you're familiar with the 1995 American League Division Series, and you think he could have been brought in to relieve an exhausted David Cone in Game 5, forget it. The Yankees still lose that series to the Seattle Mariners, and the Don Mattingly era, including the managerial reign of Buck Showalter, comes to an end; the Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera era, including the managerial reign of Joe Torre, begins.

In 1996, the Yankees had 4 main starters: Andy Pettitte made 34 starts, Jimmy Key and Kenny Rogers each made 30, and Dwight Gooden made 29. Cone was hurt most of the season. Until he came back, his spot in the rotation was taken by Ramiro Mendoza for 11 starts; between them, Scott Kamieniecki, David Weathers, Brian Boehringer, Mark Hutton, Wally Whitehurst and Ricky Bones made 17. Now, I realize it doesn't quite work this way -- Any of those guys could have made emergency starts in place of the regular starters, including the replacement Mendoza -- but, effectively, the "Cone spot" in the rotation made 39 starts.

Let's assume that Taylor becomes the 5th starter until Cone gets back. In RL, Mendoza went 4-5, ERA 6.79, ERA+ 74, WHIP 1.698. Surely, a 24-year-old with a 95+ MPH fastball and a good curve could have done better than that.

But when Cone comes back, whose place in the rotation does HE take? It's not clear: We think of Rogers as a very good pitcher for teams outside New York, but having been awful in it, first for the Yankees, then for the Mets; but neither Key nor Gooden had a particularly better season, statistically speaking -- Gooden's May 14 no-hitter notwithstanding.

Maybe it's not really important to figure this out. After all, the Yankees won the World Series anyway, right? Never mind the comment made by Jason Alexander as George Costanza on Seinfeld: "In six games." In RL, do you really think fans of the St. Louis Cardinals give a damn that they were down to their last out twice in Game 6 of last year's Series, and needed to go the full 7 to do it? Don't you think they value the memory of the 2011 Series more than they value the one they won in just 5 games in 2006, simply because of the drama? Face it, if Taylor starts Game 4 in 1996, maybe he doesn't fall apart like Rogers did, and the Braves don't jump out to a 6-0 lead, and we don't get the comeback completed by that Jim Leyritz home run...

So let's move on, to 1997, a season in which the Yankees did NOT win the World Series in RL. This time, only 8 pitchers started games for the Yankees: Pettitte 35, David Wells 32, Cone 29, Rogers 22, Gooden 19, Mendoza 15, Hideki Irabu 9 and Jersey City native Willie Banks 1. Rogers had easily the worst performance of the top 6, including the fact that he was the winning pitcher in only 1 of his last 8 starts, losing 3, with the Yankees winning only 2 of those last 8. But maybe Gooden is the one whose place Taylor takes: After pitching and winning on April 5, Doctor K got hurt and didn't pitch again until June 15. Maybe Taylor takes that spot in the rotation and runs with it, and Gooden gets traded.

Let's presume for a moment that whoever the Yankees got for Gooden turns out not to be a factor, but Taylor does. By my definition and by my count, Gooden had 10 bad starts from July onward. The Yankees won the AL Wild Card, missing the AL Eastern Division Title by 2 games to the Baltimore Orioles, whom they'd beaten in the previous year's AL Championship Series.

Suppose Taylor matches Gooden's performance in all but 3 of his starts, and turns those 3 starts from Yankee losses to Yankee wins. The Yanks win the Division by 1 game, and instead of getting eliminated by the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS, get revenge on the Mariners for 1995, instead of having to wait until 2000 and '01. In the RL-1997 ALDS, the Yanks lost to the Indians in 5; but in the TTL-1997 ALCS, it would be best-of-7, the Yanks would have home-field advantage, and instead of Gooden, who only made it to the 6th inning, starting Game 4, which turned out to be the pivotal contest thanks to Sandy Alomar's home run off Mariano Rivera, Taylor pitches into the 8th, meaning Torre doesn't have to call on all of Graeme Lloyd, Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, Rivera and Mendoza -- he probably only needs Nelson in the 8th and Rivera in the 9th. In Game 5, the Yanks close it out.

This leaves a 1997 World Series starting rotation, based on who started when in the Playoffs, of Cone, Wells, Taylor and Pettitte, all fairly well-rested, against the surprising Florida Marlins. The Marlins won that Series in 7 games, including the calamitous Game 7 when Jose Mesa melted down in the 9th for the Indians. The Marlins won the Series odd-numbered games, the Indians the even-numbered ones. In Game 3, the Marlins exploded for 7 runs in the 9th... and the Tribe pulled 4 back, but the Marlins won, 14-11. You think Mariano Rivera, relieving Taylor (and probably Stanton and Nelson), would allow 7 runs in the 9th? Not likely. The Yankees thus take Game 3, go up 3-games-to-1 in Game 4, and Game 5? The Marlins scored 4 in the 6th in RL, but if Cone (whose turn it would have been) got into trouble, Stanton could have bailed him out before handing off to Nelson and Rivera. Ballgame over, World Series over, Yankees win, theeee Yankees win, Title 24, titles back-to-back-and-a-belly-to-belly.

Presuming Taylor doesn't get hurt, or suddenly lose all control, the 1998, '99 and 2000 seasons remain the same: 5 straight World Championships, just like in 1949-53.

2001? In the RL-WS, against the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Yankee starters were Mike Mussina for Games 1 and 5, Pettitte for 2 and 6, Roger Clemens for 3 and 7, and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez for Game 4.

Hey, wait a second, you may be thinking. If Brien Taylor pans out, maybe the Yankees don't go after Clemens. And if they do, and Taylor is still contributing by the end of 2000, they don't go after Mussina.

Maybe they do: El Duque started to decline in 2000. Maybe, instead of Taylor's place in the rotation, Moose take's Duque's.

At any rate, Taylor would now be 29, almost 30, and would be in his 6th full season in the majors, and probably have around 80 major league wins. Maybe if he, rather than El Duque, starts Game 4, we don't have those incredibly dramatic home runs by Tino Martinez and Derek Jeter: 2-1 Arizona going into the bottom of the 9th becomes 1-0 Yankees going into the top of the 9th, and the Yankees won the game anyway... but we can't really fault Duque here, because he only allowed 1 run before Stanton relieved him in the 7th. So even if Taylor relieves a battered Pettitte in Game 6, and keeps the Snakes down to, say, 7 runs instead of the 15 they actually scored, it doesn't matter, because the Yanks only scored 2. Is Taylor going to make a difference this time? No: The Yankees still lose this one.

On Opening Day 2002, Taylor is 30, and if he's still in the rotation, here's where he begins to make a bit of a difference: If he's in, Ted Lilly is out; if Taylor is there instead of Lilly, the Yanks don't trade Lilly for Jeff Fucking Weaver because Weaver isn't necessary. Taylor doesn't make much of a difference yet.

But in 2003? The Yankees win the Pennant over The Scum on the Aaron Boone homer, and in the World Series... Taylor, approaching his 32nd birthday and now the 5th starter in the regular season, relieves Nelson (who had relieved Clemens) in the 9th, and is still pitching in the 12th, and gets "the other Alex Gonzalez" out, instead of him hitting that walkoff home run against Weaver. With the Yanks up 3 games to 1, Wells' back acts up, he can only pitch the 1st in Game 5, but Jose Contreras, having not pitched at all instead of throwing 2 innings in Game 4, is fresh, and gets to the 7th, and the Yankees win Game 5 and take their 28th World Championship.

Now comes the fun part. It's October 2004, and, with Clemens having followed Pettitte to Houston, in RL there's no lefty in the rotation. In TTL, there is Taylor. And, after the Red Sox have come back from 3 games to 0, who starts Game 7? Not Kevin Brown. Brien Taylor.

Top of the 1st. Manny Ramirez on 1st with 2 out. David Ortiz up, lefty against lefty. Taylor strikes him out to end the inning. No homer for the big fat lying cheating bastard.

In RL, the next 5 Boston at-bats were as follows: Jason Varitek grounds back to the pitcher, Trot Nixon grounds to 2nd, Kevin Millar singles, Bill Mueller and Orlando Cabrera draw walks.

In TTL, these are the same, with the exception that, instead of Varitek's groundout ending the 1st, it leads off the 2nd, so Damon comes to bat with the bases loaded not with 1 out, but with 2. And not against the rightanded Javier Vazquez, who relieved Kevin Brown-out, but against the lefthanded Taylor. Nasty curveball. Alex Rodriguez catches a harmless popup. Going to the bottom of the 2nd, and instead of 6-0 Boston, the game is scoreless.

The Sox threaten again in the 4th, but, again, Taylor gets Damon out, so that 2-run homer never happens.

The rest of the game happens as we remember it, which means... final score, Yankees 3, Red Sox 2. Despite blowing a 3-games-to-none lead, the Yankees win their 41st Pennant. They go on to do what the Red Sox did, sweep the Cardinals, for their 29th World Championship.

From this point onward, I don't really care what Taylor does. It's not that I'm grateful to him for 1997: It's that I'm grateful that he spared me Jeff Weaver in 2003 and Kevin Brown in 2004.

So, let's say, in 2005, at 33, Taylor loses his effectiveness, and "history reasserts itself": The Yankees win the Division in 2005 and '06, and the Wild Card in '07, but don't win a postseason series on any of those occasions; miss the Playoffs in '08, win the Series in '09, lose the ALCS in '10 and the ALDS in '11.

Taylor's Yankee contract runs out after 2005, and he is not re-signed. He goes elsewhere, and, here, in March 2012, at age 40, with 7 rings and a career record of 160-130 or so, he gets one last chance, from a team that can't pay him a whole lot... becoming the latest in a fascinating line of players who've played for both the Yankees and the Mets.

He won't make the Hall of Fame. He probably won't even have a Plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. And, in TTL, not knowing what happened in RL, he'll never know just how much agita (to use a favorite word of our old friend Phil Rizzuto), he has kept Yankee Fans from feeling.

Not to mention how much agita he has kept Alex Rodriguez from feeling. Can you imagine how differently A-Rod would be viewed if he'd just gotten that one ring in 2004, before getting his 2nd in 2009? (Which, in TTL, would be the Yankees' 30th.)

On the other hand, that might have prevented Lisa Swan, the better half (in so many ways) of the blog Subway Squawkers (see link to the right) and I from getting into it over whether A-Rod is "a real Yankee" that, just maybe, I never would have responded by creating this blog and Uncle Mike's Musings; they would never have happened.

You know what? I think I'd make that trade.

As Tug McGraw might say, you gotta believe that Brien Taylor would make that trade.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting.

    How about this one as a post: What if Jackie Robinson had failed in MLB?