THE YANKEES TOOK Brien Taylor first overall in 1991. When scouts looked at Taylor, a hard-throwing lefty who’d spent four years mowing down batters in a Carolina high school, they had visions of Dwight Gooden. The fact that he was a southpaw only sweetened the deal. The Yanks offered Taylor $300 000 and looked forward to having him on the mound in the Bronx in just a few years’ time. But then Scott Boras stepped in to “advise” Taylor and his family, and on the agent’s recommendation the young pitcher held out for Todd Van Poppel money. The Yankees relented and ponied up a million and a half. Taylor signed, and headed to the Florida State League to begin his pro career.
SOMETIME IN THE SUMMER of 1992, my parents and I drove south to visit friends in Virginia. My father was a naval officer, and Cliff Keaney, one of his Navy buddies, had been posted to Norfolk and put into a cushy residence there. We headed down to stay with him and his family, to see the sights (Colonial Williamsburg), to maybe make a sandcastle at Virginia Beach and dip our toes in the Atlantic.
The Keaneys had two boys, both older than me, but who I knew well. Navy families latch onto one another because you often see each other as you do the Victoria-Ottawa-Halifax posting circuit (my father’s naval postings had a big hand in determining the geographic circumstances of my family history; he and my mother met in Halifax, married in Victoria, had my brother and sister in Halifax, and me in Ottawa). Christopher was older than me by a several years, and was to my mind an adult, but Robert was only about a year older. We’d played together as younger boys, and still had interests in common (though I don’t now remember what those were).
After we’d cruised Virginia Beach, hit the mall, played minigolf, and watched a hundred hours of TV, we were kind of at ours wits’ end. Chris and Robert, tasked with entertaining me while our fathers played golf and our mothers caught up, played their last hand: a ball game.
I’d been wearing my Blue Jays jersey around. It was a staple of my wardrobe. This was, after all, 1992, and in a few short months the Marine Color Guard would march out onto the field at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium and present an upside-down maple leaf, and then Otis Nixon would try to bunt and Mike Timlin would field it cleanly and flip it to Joe Carter at first, and the Jays would mob one another in victorious celebration. Then I and several friends would walk the streets of our suburban Ottawa subdivision shouting and using noisemakers while passing cars honked at us in solidarity. This is all intended to say that I was then, as I am now, baseball mad.
THE TIDEWATER TIDES were the New York Mets’ affiliate in the AAA International League, their top farm club. They played their home games in decrepit Metropolitan Memorial Park, which was anything but metropolitan, but like Shea Stadium, its big league counterpart, was located near the end of a runway. In this way, I suppose, the Mets brass thought they were adequately preparing their prospects for life in the bigs.
It was a thick, sweltering evening when Chris, Robert and I rolled into the parking lot of the Met in Tidewater. I hadn’t yet read William Styron, so I didn’t have a literary grounding for the experience of being in that Virginia heat. I was 16 years old, very much still a boy, and everything looked and felt new to me. The parking lot was nearly empty, a vast expanse of asphalt and light stanchions. As we walked it felt spongy beneath my feet.
We bought tickets — they were smallish tickets from a roll, the sort of thing I associated with raffles and fairs, but not ballgames — and ventured inside. The ballpark was a simple concrete grandstand with an open concourse below. The concourse was dark, poorly lit. We were handed miniature binders with the Tides’ logo on them and plastic card sleeves inside. This was the height of the card collecting craze, of course, when every boy was certain that he was building his fortune by amassing a stash of prime Upper Deck and Fleer and Topps selections, and keeping them in binders or hard plastic sleeves. We understood little of economic theory, though, of supply and demand, and so couldn’t grasp that the long lineups of like-minded boys and men at card shows meant that everybody would have that same Frank Thomas rookie card, and it would therefore not pay for our early retirement. It was a lottery, was our thinking, and all those other suckers just weren’t playing it right.
After we got popcorn and drinks and found our seats on the third base line, beneath the cantilevered roof, I opened the small binder to flip through its plasticky smelling pages, and saw then that the people who’d paid for the promotion (the Upper Deck card company, I believe) had seeded the thing with one card: Brien Taylor. “Yankees Top Prospect,” it read, and in the image Taylor is posed, right leg cocked, staring over his right shoulder toward an imaginary batter. He’s in pinstripes. Over his head, the bright blue sky of what I assume is Florida is dotted with puffy white clouds, as if to say the sky’s the limit for an enormous talent like Brien Taylor.
DURING THE EARLY INNINGS I ducked back into the depths of the stadium where I bought — with what money? had I been given some? I think this was near my birthday, which is in August — the Tides cap pictured above and a white t-shirt with the Tides script on the front and the Mets logo on the back. The cap was what we’d now call a trucker hat, though then it was simply a hat. A minor league team didn’t often offer fitted or official caps; the area of sports merchandising was decidedly less sophisticated in 1992. In time, the t-shirt faded and yellowed and the poly-cotton fabric became thin as paper. It’s in a landfill somewhere now, but the cap is still in my possession. It sits on a shelf, bracketed by other ballcaps, from other ballgames in other cities.
The cap on my head — a bad fit, though I spent many minutes adjusting and re-adjusting the plastic strap — I went back to the seats. There was an older man there, sitting near us. Looked to be a season ticket guy. Anybody would recognize him. Unimpressed. A worn seat cushion beneath his Hagar-clad rump. An ancient Mets cap atop his head. The skin of his face scoured by wind and darkened by sun. He bestowed the sense that the section in which we were seated was his living room, and indeed it may as well have been, giving the amount of time this man probably spent there.
“What’s in the book,” he growled at me, pointing a bony digit imprecisely toward the card binder.
“Baseball cards,” I said.
“Let’s see,” he commanded. I handed him the small, vinyl-wrapped book. He studied the cover, then opened it up and looked through his bifocals at the Brien Taylor card.
“That kid’s quite something, isn’t he?”
“Yeah,” I said, but the Keaney boys returned blank expressions. They had never heard of Taylor because they were not big baseball fans, though they were happy enough to be there, in a nearly empty ballpark on a warm summer night in Virginia, sweaty Cokes in hand, nowhere else they needed to be.
So season ticket man and I filled them in, spoke about the accolades heaped on Taylor, his can’t-miss designation, about his great stuff, though we’d never seen him throw a pitch. We pontificated and preached. I tried to match his wisdom, though of course couldn’t. But it was a wonderful way to pass an evening, and I was grateful to that man for talking to us. Sometime in the later innings someone hit a homerun for the Tides (D.J. Dozier?), and it lofted high into the thick night air, over the right field fence. It drew our attention to the giant Marlboro Man sign — a dusty, leather-chapped cowboy carrying a saddle on his shoulder, which rose high over the wall — and to the purpling sky there, and the lightning flashing in the distance behind it. By the time we drove home it had begun raining, a heavy, crashing rain that lasted all night.
I don’t remember if the Tides won that game. I don’t even remember who they played, to be honest. In past years I’d have found the answer in my cigar box of ticket stubs, but that was taken when somebody broke into our house in the early ‘00s. They took a television, a camera, some cash, and that cigar box. It is, you will understand, the only thing they took that I miss.
In the days that remained of our trip to Virginia, we went to the beach again, and possibly to a movie, and Robert let me drive his car on the freeway. I wore the Tides hat the whole time, and probably looked foolish in it. Then we drove home, my parents and I.
In the years that followed Cliff Keaney was appointed Admiral and took up residence in a very fine house on CFB Esquimalt, Victoria. Christopher moved to Vancouver and Robert came out of the closet. Our fathers are all retired now, the Navy and the life associated with it just a memory, though a fond one, to hear them tell it.
MAYBE YOU KNOW some part of the end of this. The following season the Tides moved out of the Met and into Harbor Park in downtown Norfolk. They took that city’s name and left Tidewater far behind. The Met was torn down, and picturesque Harbor set a new template of sorts for what the AAA leagues expected from their ballparks. Put a different way, you’d never find a top affiliate playing in a park like the Met these days. All those stadia have been replaced with newer, larger facilities, or the teams were relocated to communities eager to build them lavish new nests.
Robert came to my wedding, alone, and charmed everyone there, telling jokes, folding his napkin into the shape of a chicken. He later married his partner, David, and they opened a restaurant south of Ottawa. They live in nice house in the country. They bought a horse.
I got married and had three kids and now I write for The Barnstormer, in my basement office filled with old scorecards, pennants, jerseys, and ballcaps — including the Tides hat. The Brien Taylor card is probably down here somewhere, too, though I don’t know which box it’s in. I’ve never thrown away a baseball card. Hope springs eternal.
Our fathers still play golf together, and our mothers occasionally go out for lunch.
Brien Taylor never pitched a major league inning, for the Yankees or anyone else. In December of 1993 he tore his labrum defending his brother in a fistfight. Surgery and rehab failed to make him the pitcher he had been at 19, and though he hung around the minors for a few different organizations, he finally retired in 2000. He was only the second top overall pick to fail to reach the majors. As you’d expect for anyone who’d come so close to something so big, his life has been a bit uneven since. He was recently indicted on drug charges and is awaiting his day in court.
“Souvenir” is a new, semi-regular column which aims to explore memories prompted by a piece of sports memorabilia. If you have a written account of a time or place spurred by a jersey, cap, pennant, bobblehead, ticket stub or other such piece of sports-related ephemera, we’d love to read it. Send it and a photo of the thing in question to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.