DeCock: The fall of former baseball star Brien Taylor

ldecock@newsobserver.comNovember 8, 2012 

— Once, not so long ago, Brien Taylor stood on the mound and looked down at hitters who quivered in fear at what his left arm was about to deliver. Wednesday morning, he looked up at a federal judge, awaiting her delivery of his prison sentence.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 1991 baseball draft by the New York Yankees out of East Carteret High School, Taylor hadn’t thrown a pitch in 13 years, his career fizzling after he tore up his million-dollar shoulder in a penny-ante fistfight after only his second pro season. He was on disability for a heart condition and addicted to painkillers, according to evidence presented in court Wednesday, when an undercover cop bought crack cocaine from him in Morehead City three times in October 2011.

Taylor, 40, pleaded guilty to one charge of distributing 28 grams or more of crack and arrived in court Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan for sentencing. Six members of his family sat behind him in the courtroom.

So talented, so humble, Taylor appeared destined for stardom in the Yankees’ pinstripes. Wednesday, he was destined for prison in the horizontal stripes of the Pamlico County Jail.

Taylor grew up in a trailer outside Beaufort. His family never had much money, but it was rich in other ways: His mother Bettie Taylor helped integrate East Carteret, and her second son had a left arm no money could buy. Scouts by the dozens would take up positions behind the backstop, radar guns locked on every pitch in the mid-to-high 90s.

The Yankees had the No. 1 pick in 1991, and Taylor was a no-brainer: a once-in-a-generation talent who would sign autographs after games for every kid who wanted one.

“He was the best high-school pitcher I ever saw,” said Russ Frazier, who spent four decades as the baseball coach at Louisburg College. Taylor planned to play there if he didn’t sign with the Yankees. Only hours before enrolling, he agreed to a $1.55 million bonus, a record at the time.

“He could throw hard, way harder than anybody,” Frazier said. “He was left-handed, and his ball would move. His little catcher, he couldn’t handle him. The ball would come in and zoom right by his head.”

Taylor was once a client of mega-agent Scott Boras, but he was represented by public defender Halerie Mahan on Wednesday. Taylor’s pro baseball career, and its eventual unwinding, figured prominently in her argument.

“He is very regretful about what he has done and embarrassed where he is today,” Mahan said. She outlined Taylor’s role in raising his children, his health and the support of his family. (Mahan and the Taylor family declined to comment Wednesday.)

Because of his cooperation and guilty plea, Mahan asked for leniency and a sentence of 36 months.

“He seemed completely unprepared for a life after baseball, which he was confronted with almost immediately,” Flanagan said, after listening to Mahan.

The prolonged contract negotiations kept Taylor from pitching in the summer of 1991, but over the next two summers he established himself in the minor leagues as he was groomed for major-league stardom.

In December 1993, Taylor got involved in a fistfight with an old friend in Beaufort. The can’t-miss prospect threw a punch and missed, and the force of the errant blow tore his pitching shoulder apart.

He missed the entire 1994 season recovering from surgery, and while he kept pitching until 1999, he was never the same. Out of options, he returned to North Carolina – first to Wake Forest, and then finally home to Beaufort.

Taylor drove a truck and helped his father, a bricklayer, until he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and started collecting disability in 2010.

He has five daughters and raised four of them on his own, without their mother.

‘A very dangerous person’

According to Wednesday’s testimony, Taylor first dealt drugs in 2003 and 2004, then again in 2011. The U.S. Attorney’s office said Taylor was responsible for distributing approximately 208 grams of crack and 100 grams of cocaine.

“I just want to say I’m sorry for all the harm I caused to individuals and their families,” Taylor said in court Wednesday. “I’m sorry to my children for letting them down.”

Flanagan pronounced the sentence: 38 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. The Taylor family exchanged looks of resignation. Moments later, two U.S. Marshals led Taylor away.

Before that, Flanagan delivered what may have been the final statement on Brien Taylor, the baseball player: “You were viewed by many in your community as a hero because of your baseball career,” she said. “A hero dealing drugs is a very dangerous person.”

Eight years after Taylor, Josh Hamilton was picked first overall out of Athens Drive High School, only to disappear into a blind alley of drug addiction. Hamilton was able to rescue his career and became the All-Star he was supposed to be. Taylor never could.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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