BEAUFORT, N.C. – As a gift to himself, Brien Taylor bought a black Mustang 5.0 when the New York Yankees gave him the largest signing bonus ever offered to an amateur. Taylor still drives that car, to work in the morning and by the ocean at night, around the sleepy backroads where he was born poor and the bourgeois streets downtown. He toyed with the engine and souped it up and now it's running at least 500 horses, and best of all, it's street legal, says his mama, proud of her son today as she was 15 years ago.
That's when Brien Taylor, a 19-year-old born with a left arm that launched baseballs like a Howitzer, changed modern baseball. Drafted No. 1 overall by the Yankees, Taylor, on the advice of his mama and his agent, kept refusing lowball offers and turning down more money than he could fathom. Taylor and his family lived in a trailer with one light bulb. He could buy a lot of light bulbs with what the Yankees were offering.
Pride intervened. Growing up impoverished, pride is currency. Pride is what got Taylor's bonus to $1.55 million and has since allowed hundreds of other obscene baseball bonuses, and pride is what slew Taylor's career, and pride is what brought him back here, back home, a year and a half ago.
Taylor moved to his parents' house, on Brien Taylor Lane, for the time being, at least. It's at the end of an unpaved road, past a clothesline where the afternoon wash dries, eight miles from the Piggly Wiggly. In the back yard, mosquitoes attack like kamikazes. There are three smashed-up cars, one with an open, rusted toolset on top – a job unfinished. Riding lawnmowers hide in the overgrown grass, and the wind chips more paint off an ATV, and the bottom of a boat that looks like it hasn't been used in years corrodes.
He's not here today, and he's not going to be, either.
"I'm sorry, says a woman answering Taylor's cell phone. "He's not interested in talking. He's having a family day today. Thanks."
Brien Taylor's mama named him after the lead character in "Brian's Song," which still, to this day, makes her cry. Maybe that is Brien Taylor's story, a sad one. Or maybe it's a cautionary one, of one decision and its consequences.
Or maybe, just maybe, it's a tale of fate and the way things always seem to end up like they should.
He was 6-foot-4 and not fat and not skinny. He looked like a man. He swaggered like one, too, when he was on that mound, all presence and intimidation and fear. Batters started the walk to the plate with a chrysalis in their stomach, and by the time they saw that fastball, it metamorphosed into a full-on butterfly. Lord, that fastball. They swear it tickled 85 when he was 12, and Willie "Ray" Taylor, his daddy and catcher, remembers the sting when it caught the mitt's heel. Like a thousand bees at once.
"I've been through 28 drafts," Scott Boras says, "and Brien Taylor, still to this day, is the best high school pitcher I've seen in my life."
Boras is the agent who got Alex Rodriguez a $252 million contract, and in Taylor, he saw a player just as transcendent. In his back yard, Taylor used to throw rocks that his mama, Bettie, swears would hit birds and kill them on the spot.
Word spread about the kid at East Carteret High, the school Bettie had integrated in 1965, and scouts started attending Taylor's games like a guilty man does church. They wanted to meet him. Just go past the Mount Tabor Baptist Church, Bettie told them, and turn right down the second dirt path. The street wasn't named Brien Taylor Lane then.
By the end of his senior season, though, Beaufort no longer was known as a weekend destination or a crabbing sanctuary. It was the hometown of Brien Taylor.
"There are certain pitchers who come along every so often and you don't know how to describe them," says Mike Fox, the head coach at the University of North Carolina. "Well, you can describe Brien pretty quickly: No one could touch him."
In his senior season, Taylor worked 88 innings, struck out 213 hitters and walked only 28. His fastball rested at 95 mph and often hit 98 and 99. Even if his curveball needed refining and his changeup didn't flutter like others', he still had that fastball, his meal ticket.
"He wasn't a good No. 1 draft pick," Boras says. "He was a great one."
Bettie Taylor's feet hurt. Diabetes stole her job, and now it constrains her travel. She spends most of the time at home with Brien's youngest daughter, Mia, a 3-year-old who's already learned to roll her eyes.
"I feel old," Bettie says. "It's like everything that happened took all my energy."
Fifteen years ago, Bettie was a star. Sports Illustrated wrote almost 5,000 words on her and Eric Lindros' mom, and "60 Minutes" devoted a segment to her. She popped up in The New York Times accusing the Yankees of racism, and she fought for her son from the moment the Yankees proffered their first insulting offer.
Now, $300,000 was more than Bettie and Ray had made in their lives. She picked the meat out of blue crabs and got paid by the pound, and he was a bricklayer. They never had too much, but they always had enough.
The offer was also $900,000 less in guaranteed money than Todd Van Poppel, the ballyhooed Texas right-hander, had signed for in the previous draft.
"They had the attitude that these poor black people from the South were stupid and didn't know any better," Bettie says. "And we were. But, let me tell you, we learn quick."
From June 3, the day the Yankees chose Taylor, Bettie drew the line of demarcation: Pay him Van Poppel money or he's going to college. The Yankees raised their offer to $650,000. She said no.
"When I went in, I told them what I wanted," Bettie says. "And I wasn't going to budge from that."
Along came Boras, who Bettie had read about. She knew he wrangled the Van Poppel deal, and she was going to need help. Major League Baseball had sent in a representative to kindly ask the Taylors to accept the Yankees' offer. The scene resembled a mafia sitdown, and Bettie wouldn't have been surprised if a dead fish showed up on her windshield.
Single-handedly she was changing how baseball did business, empowering the players who, for so long, had been stunted by a rigid bonus structure.
"She's a mother who loved her son," Boras says. "And when I first saw her, I said, Mrs. Taylor, as a lawyer and an adviser, the only guarantee I can give you is the first contract your son signs.' "
August dawned, and Taylor enrolled at Louisburg College, a junior college near Raleigh, N.C. He was playing chicken, and he seemed content with crashing. The Yankees, hours before Taylor started school, offered him $1.55 million to be paid over two seasons. Taylor rushed back to sign the contract before the Yankees could think twice.
Bettie thinks about that day and laughs. Ray was getting cold feet. Brien really didn't know much better. It was her, alone, a pioneer just like in 1965.
"It was not about the money for me," Bettie says. "I told them what I expected, and it was a matter of respect and equality and pride."
In a North Carolina trailer park on Dec. 18, 1993, a blur of shoves and a tangle of arms ended Brien Taylor's career. He was sticking up for his older brother, Brenden, who had been beaten up by a local heavy named Ron Wilson. When Taylor went to Wilson's trailer, he tussled with Jamie Morris, Wilson's friend, and, when falling to the ground, dislocated his left shoulder and tore his labrum.
"I can remember [surgeon] Frank Jobe sitting me down," Boras says. "He said, This is one of the worst shoulder injuries I've ever seen,' and I believed it. The way he tore it was unnatural."
Taylor's first two seasons were magnificent. At Class A Fort Lauderdale, he struck out 187 in 161 innings and posted a 2.57 ERA. The next year, as a 21-year-old at Double-A Albany-Colonie, Taylor went 13-7 with a 3.48 ERA and struck out almost a hitter an inning. Baseball America had named him the game's best prospect, and Taylor could do no wrong on a baseball field.
Back in Beaufort it was different. The Taylors had always lived on their swath of land, just like Bettie's family, the Murrells, had lived on theirs, just like most families in the North River section of Beaufort did. Ever since Taylor signed with the Yankees, Bettie felt the stares from people, the vibes that emanated. When Taylor was injured, she sensed they were laughing.
Surgery did no good. Taylor returned missing 8 mph off his fastball, and he still couldn't get his curve over the plate. He never made it past Class A again. The Yankees cut him in 1998. Seattle signed him, then released him. Cleveland gave him a shot in 2000, and he gave up 14 baserunners and eight earned runs in 2 2/3 innings.
Taylor left baseball a beaten man. He moved to Raleigh and worked as beer distributor. He was near his first daughter, from a previous relationship, and lived with the four daughters from his relationship at the time.
"When it was over," Bettie says, "it was over."
"That's right," Ray says. "He's had some tough times and some happy times. And some more tough times."
Ray Taylor sits on the couch and fans his face. The Disney Channel is on, and he's too tired to change it. Masonry is hard. It's still about 80 degrees outside at dusk; in the afternoon, when the sun beats down, it feels damn near 100 and the bricks are like huge coals to the touch. Ray tugs at his T-shirt, riddled with holes. When he puts his hand on his thigh, a cloud of mortar dust puffs from his jeans.
He went to work with his son this morning. Brien's been laying bricks with his daddy for a while now. He used to do it when he was a teenager and wanted something fancy, like a new pair of Nikes, that his parents couldn't afford. Taylor moved back to Beaufort when his relationship ended, and he needed some honest work to help pay for his daughters.
"I've been doing it 40 years now," Ray says, "so I like it. For a man like him, it ain't a lot of excitement."
A pair of old fans spin off their axes, clackity-clacking in the background; Ray soaks in their current. He's 58 years old, his hair still black, his voice deep and warbling and unmistakably Southern.
"Do you play the lottery?" he asks.
He reaches into his pocket.
"I got a ticket today," he says. "Powerball. Big money. Don't buy them very often. I mean, what are the chances of winning the lottery?"
If this is a story of fate instead of sadness or caution, it is because Brien Taylor lays bricks just like his daddy, just like he would have had he blown out his shoulder as a sophomore or junior in high school and been Brien Taylor, nondescript kid and trade apprentice, and not a pawn in baseball's huge game where everything is success or failure, boom or bust and there's no in between.
Fate means Friday nights usually reserved for playing pool at the Royal James Cafe on Beaufort's waterfront instead of pitching for New York in Baltimore or Boston or at Yankee Stadium.
"He'll be home at 3 a.m.," says Jada, Taylor's 6-year-old daughter.
"How do you know that?" Bettie asks.
"Because we stay up when he's playing pool," Jada says, "and he gets home at 3 a.m."
Another daughter, Brittany, 8, nods.
Turns out Taylor, now 34, has other plans for the night. He doesn't show up at the pool hall, and he doesn't pick up his phone. Baseball, much as his bonus money, is in the past, and he wants to leave it there even if history refuses to.
"He seems to like it back here," Bettie says. "Well, I don't know. I mean, I can't say for sure. What I do know is, this is who he is."
A boy and a man, a son and a father, a baseball player and a bricklayer, pulling the black Mustang down a dirt road that's named after him.
- Brien Taylor