Thursday, January 3, 2019

Brien Taylor: Cardboard Rise and Fall

On the surface, it seems like an odd choice for me to be a Brien Taylor super-collector. First off, he was a Yankee – among my most despised of teams. Second off, why bother? He topped out at AA and is remember mostly as one of the biggest flops in Major League history. 

To the second point, the latter sentence informs the former. As for the Yankees thing, well, that only makes his story all the more interesting. In fact, I’d say that Taylor is easily among the most fascinating ballplayers of my lifetime, with a rise and fall that has few parallels. And for the card collector of my age – turning ten years old as Taylor-mania overtook the card world in 1992 – his cardboard carries an sense of import that can only be realized by those who lived through that era. 

Brien Taylor was nearly a perfect fit for carddom in the early 1990s. The rookie card craze of the 1980s had led to major changes in how card-makers approached their products. Upper Deck had the foresight to open their debut set in 1989 with a string of rookie cards – a significant symbolic move in a time when rookies were still mostly limited to the high numbers. That same year, in a rare bold move, Topps introduced the “#1 Draft Pick” subset, a series of ten top picks featured on Major League cards in their amateur uniforms. When Jim Abbott became that year’s stud rookie, Topps’ gambit proved worthwhile and the company issued ten more #1 Draft Pick cards in 1990. Score, in their 1990 release, topped Topps by issuing 22 first round draft cards and Upper Deck included a card of top pick Ben McDonald in their base set. 

For 1991, Upper Deck featured a number of top picks in their base set as well, including future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. Bowman was also into the draft picks game by now and collectors had shown themselves very eager to invest in players well before they had been able to prove themselves as professionals. 

And into this enter Brien Taylor, a dirt-poor North Carolina lefty who remains to this day one of the greatest amateur pitchers of all-time. And enter the New York Yankees, the most decorated team in MLB history, who had just puked up a 67-95 1990 season that landed them the first pick in the 1991 amateur draft. With Taylor the consensus for the top choice, it was a match made for maximum hype. Before he’d even signed his pro contract, he was being billed as the Next Great Yankee. When he held out for a record contract, the hype meter blew apart. 

Topps – just 11 years removed from having exclusive domain on baseball cards – was by 1992 in an ultra-competive marketplace. They’d finally ditched their grey card stock and introduced the first-ever parallel set in Topps Gold. And they would score a major coup in signing Taylor to a unprecedented exclusive contract, giving them the sole right to produce Major League cards of Taylor while he was still a minor leaguer. Just months after he signed with the Yankees, Topps announced that an autographed card of Taylor would be included in their ToppsGold factory sets, which immediately became brisk sellers at their $350 wholesale price. Dealers sold them to the collecting at $500 and could hardly keep in stock.

Taylor already had cards out on the market at this time, being included in a few late-year Classic sets in 1991. He had even signed about 5,000 cards for classic for insertion into random packs, a concept that was only a few years old at the time. In 1992, the Wall Street Journal reported that Score Board, Classic’s parent company, had paid Taylor $250,000 for the right to produce his 1991 cards. But many collectors, even those who has accepted Topps/Score/Upper Deck draft cards as legit rookies, were bit wary of Classic, who showed Taylor in his high school uni, or a blank jersey top, or even in street clothes. They wanted the REAL THING. And before the 1992 baseball season even started, Taylor’s Topps card – which was the first Topps draft card to show a player in his MLB uniform – was selling for $5. A Stadium Club card issued in a collector’s set early that year was selling for twice that. And his signed ToppsGold cards were selling for hundreds. 

So this was what was all around me as a ten-year-collector, hopelessly unable to afford any Taylor cards and not lucky enough to hit one in a pack. On the field, Taylor showed a lot of promise, fanning 187 batters in 191 innings at class A Fort Lauderdale with 2.57 ERA. But he had been burdened – especially in the card world where investors were expecting to make a fast killing on his cards – with hype that could only be realized by opening the 1993 season in pinstripes. Instead, he opened the year at AA and stayed there all season. He pitched well, especially for a 21-year-old, but Dwight Gooden already had a Cy Young and a World Series title at 21. The hype faded, his card prices sank, and – overwhelmed with product for a AA pitcher who was supposed to be the exclusive property of Topps (Fleer, Classic, and Upper Deck were all permitted to issue minor league cards of Taylor), collectors began to lose interest. 

Then, in December 1993, Taylor got into what must be the most infamous trailer park brawl in pro sport history. While the details on the case are still unclear, Taylor got into a fight defending his brother and blew out his shoulder in the melee. He missed the entire 1994 season, then lingered at A-ball for four more years before the Yankees released him. In those seasons he never had an ERA lower than 6.08 and never threw more than 40 innings. 

After a flurry of 1994 releases, Taylor’s only 1995 card was in the Bowman set. It shows him smiling in shorts and the classic Yankees jersey he seemingly only wore for photo shoots. The man who had driven the trading card market to the pages of the Wall Street Journal just three years prior would appear on just one card, a 1996 Norwich Navigators’ team-issue. He looks tired in the portrait photo. 

I started this Taylor collection without even realizing it, a few years ago, when I picked up one of his signed 1991 Classic cards for a dollar on eBay. I just couldn’t resist, knowing what that card would have meant to me as a kid of 10. This past year, bored of the latest rookie hype, I again went on eBay and scored one of the storied ToppsGold autographs. I paid about $4 for it. The buyer mailed me three of them. When I contacted him to see if this had been a mistake, he said it was not, telling me that he just wanted to get rid of them.
This was when I realized I had to go all the way on Brien Taylor. He is one of the few prominent players of the last 25 years who has an achievable number of cards in his overall library. Per the Trading Card Database, they are 106 different Taylor cards. The hardest to find will the minor league team issues and the spate of unlicensed weirdo cards – a trend whose peak seemed to match Taylor’s. There have been no retrospective cards or reissues in the years since his glum Norwich issue. No one seems to want to revisit his time in Yankees history. Taylor has personally mostly maintained his privacy since leaving the game. He’s done few interviews and has made news only when with his legal troubles. He did three years in prison for his role in a cocaine-trafficking scheme (he was facing 40), and hasn’t been heard much of since his release, save for MLB draft time when people run down the biggest busts in draft history. 

I currently have 37 Brien Taylor cards in my collection, with another ten soon to arrive in the mail. This gets me nearly to the half way point in a Taylor MASTER COLLECTION. And I think I’ll have fun trying to track down the rest. It’ll make a good binder to page through whenever I get a flustered with the thousand moving pieces that seem to make up my collection. As Thomas Gray once wrote, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”