Ex-budding major league star Taylor falls from phenom to convicted felon

By Anthony Rieber | Scripps howard news via newsday Published:

How big a deal was former New York Yankees prospect Brien Taylor? His address is 147 Brien Taylor Lane, Beaufort, N.C.

But that's not where he lives at the moment. Taylor, who was drafted No. 1 overall in 1991 and received a then-record $1.55-million bonus when he signed, is spending his days and nights at the Pamlico County jail in Grantsboro, N.C., while he awaits transfer to a federal prison.

Taylor, 40, was signed as a 19-year-old high school lefthander with a once-in-a-generation fastball. But he never spent a day in the major leagues after suffering a serious shoulder injury in a 1993 fight in his hometown.

"That incident was really unfortunate," former Yankees general manager Gene Michael said this past week in a telephone interview. "It made me sick to see that ability go down the drain like that."

Earlier this month, Taylor was sentenced to 38 months in prison after pleading guilty in August to distributing 28 grams or more of crack cocaine. The father of five has been in jail since March 1 after he was arrested for selling crack cocaine and powder cocaine to undercover agents from the Carteret (N.C.) County Sherriff's Department and Morehead City Police Department.

Taylor initially was charged with 15 counts and could have faced up to 40 years in prison if convicted.

"I made poor decisions," Taylor said at his sentencing. "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."

The judge who sentenced him, U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan, told the court: "He seemed completely unprepared for a life after baseball, which he was confronted with almost immediately."

Flanagan decided not to fine Taylor because he has children to support and lives on disability payments after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2010.

"You were viewed by many in your community as a hero because of your baseball career," Flanagan told Taylor, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh. "A hero dealing drugs is a very dangerous person."

It wasn't supposed to be this way for Taylor. At 40, he was supposed to be looking back at a stellar career. The bonus money would have been just the beginning as baseball salaries skyrocketed in the 1990s.

With George Steinbrenner suspended in 1991-92 -- he was disciplined for paying gambler Howie Spira to dig up dirt on star player Dave Winfield -- Michael began reshaping the organization. After years of losing, the Yankees went 88-74 in 1993 and were 70-43 when the players went on strike in 1994. Buck Showalter led them to the postseason in 1995, and we know what happened after that. And Taylor would have been added to the mix sometime in the mid-1990s.

When the Yankees picked Taylor first overall out of East Carteret High School in 1991, it was considered a no-brainer. So much so that the suspended Steinbrenner said team executives "ought to be shot" if they didn't sign him.

Of course, Steinbrenner being Steinbrenner, he later criticized team executives for the amount of the bonus.

"Never in my wildest dreams would I have paid that kid a million and a half," he said. "I never said, 'Go spend a million and a half.' No ---- way! On a high school kid? No way!"

Michael, who still is with the Yankees as a special adviser, said at the time: "Everyone in this organization said sign him. Everyone. There wasn't one who said no. They said, 'If it takes a million or more, sign him.' ... Our future would not be the same without Brien Taylor. Our future would be dimmer."

As it turned out, the Yankees' future was fine. It was Taylor's that was dimmed forever when he threw a punch that missed and wrecked his million-dollar shoulder after the 1993 season. Taylor was defending his brother, Brenden, according to Beaufort Mayor Richard Stanley; Brien suffered a dislocated left shoulder and a torn labrum.

In his first two minor-league seasons, Taylor struck out 337 batters in 3241⁄3 innings. He still was raw and could be wild -- he walked 102 in 163 innings in Double-A in 1993 -- but was on pace to reach the Yankees in 1994 or '95.

"I remember how he threw," Michael said. "He had the same exact arm angle as Randy Johnson -- real low three-quarters. He could throw up to 100.

"His first year of professional baseball, Brien Taylor averaged 95 miles per hour with his fastball all summer long. I asked Lou Piniella, who was with Randy in Seattle, 'What does Randy average? Can Randy average 95?' He said, 'He can do it for an inning.' I said, 'Well, we've got a guy who did it for the whole year.' "

After shoulder surgery, though, Taylor was never the same. His fastball topped out at about 90 mph and he had no control when he returned in 1995. In the next four seasons, all spent in the low minors, he walked 175 batters in 1082⁄3 innings. His combined ERA was 10.85. The Yankees released Taylor after the 1998 season.

He appeared in five games in A-ball for the Indians in 2000 and did not pitch again. He eventually went back to Beaufort, where the trailer he grew up in had been replaced by a two-story house he bought with his bonus money. On a street that still bears his name.

After baseball Taylor reportedly worked as a United Parcel Service package handler and later as a beer distributor.

Taylor's public defender, Halerie Mahan, did not return calls this past week seeking comment. At the sentencing, she told the court: "He is very regretful about what he has done and embarrassed where he is today."

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