Taylor Learns the Hard Way

Brandon Taylor recently sits in the dugout at O'Brien Field, watching the Burlington Bees take their turn at batting practice. The starting third baseman for the Class-A Peoria Chiefs is smiling. He smiles even though two teammates are gone forever and in spite of the fact that right now, he hates baseball.

Taylor played college ball at BYU. After his sophomore year, the Cubs called and explained that they intended to pick him in the ninth round of the 2004 draft. That year, Taylor batted .309 with 14 home runs and 54 RBIs in 57 games. However, he "didn't feel quite ready" to play professionally by his own admission and thus turned down the Cubs offer.

Returning to college for his junior year, Taylor dominated the Mountain West Conference and earned Player of the Year honors there. He led his team with 20 home runs and 83 RBIs, hit .356, and racked up a hefty OPS of 1.136 in 58 games.

Despite his impressive numbers, Taylor slipped to the 17th round of last year's draft. This clearly was not a correlation to any slip in his play.

Rather, Taylor speculates that scouts and general managers often fall prey to an ailment shared by many of their counterparts in the NBA. He says they bounce in their seats, drool slack-jawed and clap their hands at the palms over youth, potential and upside, while fearing that more experienced and accomplished players have peaked and are rutted in a plateau.

"I was an older junior, turning 22 that draft, and I was 21 the draft before," Taylor explains. "And with baseball, they love getting kids, even if they're not as talented. They'll take kids as young as they can get them, because they think they can mold them. [The same with] big guys and strong guys. They think they can mold them into phenoms over the years, because it's the training they're giving them instead of a college.

"In my opinion, they shouldn't take anybody straight out of high school. They should make kids go to college just for the experience. They grow in different ways. In three years of college, you get a lot more one on one. That's my personal opinion. I think a lot of guys that have been to college versus guys that have [only] been to high school come out better ballplayers."

Last summer, Taylor played in the short-season Northwest League with the Class Low-A Boise Hawks. In 57 games, he posted seven homers and 30 RBIs and hit .262. He nabbed Northwest League Player of the Week honors in late July after hitting .400 with three home runs and six RBIs that week.

Taylor believes baseball is 95 percent mental and says that during his first year in Boise, he wasn't prepared enough mentally, but is improving now.

"This year, I still have a lot of work mentally, but I've got a better grasp on what I do," he notes.

True, Taylor has been somewhat erratic this year. He started the season in fine form and through the first five games had four RBIs, a homer, and was batting .300. Through 11 games, his average was at .262 and he had tallied nine RBIs. And then came a brutal 1-for-17 stretch last week that swatted his average down to .203.

Peoria manager Jody Davis agreed that Taylor's struggles are mental.

"He's struggling a little bit with the bat right now," said Davis, who anticipated Taylor would turn things around soon. "I think it's more mental than anything. He's putting a little pressure on himself. We're going to expect good things from him the rest of the season."

Just as Davis predicted, Taylor would break out of his slump Thursday night against the Dayton Dragons. All he needed to steady himself was a major-leaguer on the hill in rehabbing Cincinnati Reds right-hander, Paul Wilson, best remembered as sprawled feebly on his back and being soundly throttled by former Cubs pitcher and gentleman emeritus Kyle Farnsworth.

Taylor went 3-for-4 with two of his hits (including a double to deep left-center) coming off Wilson.

He remains confident and has lofty expectations for himself this season.

"By the end of this year, my goal is to have 18 or more home runs and over 100 RBIs," Taylor says. "I've got some pop for how big I am."

He was implying that his stature is modest at 6'1" and 200 pounds. In person, that stature would appear relatively modest for someone only 23 years old. Looking at his frame, it is clear that he has yet to fill out and has ample room to grow.

Taylor has a youthful confidence and optimism, but at the same time is self-aware, levelheaded and mature. He is already married and his wife, Aubrey, recently gave birth to their first child. She and the baby joined husband and dad Brandon this week and are moving into a fifth-floor apartment a few blocks from the Chiefs' home ballpark.

Taylor is an outdoorsman and plans on settling back in Utah, where he enjoys wakeboarding and skiing. In college, he studied exercise science with the intention of eventually advancing to dental school.

"I don't think I'm going to do that anymore," he now says. "My dad got his MBA from Harvard business school, so I think that's where I might go if baseball doesn't work out. Might go into business."

Taylor is a student of the game and has taken full advantage of his access to former big leaguers. At BYU, the bespectacled former Cubs third baseman Vance Law was Taylor's head coach. Taylor would sit next to Law on bus rides and prod him for baseball knowledge.

Now under the direction of Davis, Law's brief teammate on the 1988 Cubs, Taylor has not altered his approach.

"You get to pick his brain apart with asking him questions like, ‘What was it like? Who did you face?' "

In Boise, Taylor sensed a lack of camaraderie, particularly when compared to his collegiate experience. For the first time, baseball was a profession and he was taken aback by the individualist attitudes that he said resulted from it.

Does Taylor feel this Peoria team lacks camaraderie?

"With this team, no. With my Boise team, hell yeah," he stressed. "The camaraderie with this team is as close as you get to college."

Regardless, the self-interested frame of mind necessarily looms beneath the surface since after all this is the farm system, where players are grown for use in bigger, better and significantly higher-paying accolades. Despite this, the success of the team is still very important to Taylor.

"What I would absolutely love to do," said Taylor, "is to win the championship here and get myself a ring. If I don't make it to the big leagues but have that ring, it's like, ‘Hey, I was part of something special in pro ball.' That's very important to me. I hate losing."

And that's the thing about Taylor: one minute he talks about what type of major league pro he will be and what team he would love to play for, but the next he muses about the unlikelihood of ever making it and his back-up plan.

He is an optimist and idealist who at the same time is also a realist. It is perhaps this humility that renders him fearful enough to work as hard as he can while his assurance and competitiveness makes it seem he will be the exception; that he will make it.

"If there is a team of 30, a little bit more than one and a half of those guys will make it to the big leagues," offers Taylor. "Statistically speaking, you don't often make it to the big leagues with the team that drafts you."

Taylor hopes he is part of the statistical minority.

"If I could play for a team, I'd love to play for Chicago. I'd love it," he says before adding a realist postscript, "But you never know with trades."

Camaraderie and the realities of the callous, professional specter of minor league baseball intersected last week when two players were dropped from the Chiefs. The team issued a press release, in which the opening paragraph read:

The Peoria Chiefs in conjunction with the Chicago Cubs have announced that outfielder Kevin Collins and infielder Kyle Reynolds have joined the team from extended spring training. To make room for the two new players, the Cubs have released infielder Luis Rivera and outfielder Johnny Defendis.

The deadpan language of the statement and the order in which the information was presented reflects the business that is baseball, in which former employees have a fleeting temporary relevance that lingers only long enough to explain the inevitable repercussions of the arrival of newer employees.

Collins and Reynolds have arrived. That means two dreams are being discarded to clear space for two new ones, which odds are will ultimately endure the same fate. And Defendis and Rivera are slouching off ... somewhere to do ... something.

This is why Taylor has a contingency plan and tempers his optimism.

He has known Defendis, a fellow 2005 draft pick from Rutgers, since they played together in Boise last year. Says Taylor of Defendis, "Out of every person on this team, he was probably the best kid. Just a good guy. It was really sad to see him go."

And what does Defendis do now? "He starts his life," Taylor said.

Taylor continues by saying, "It puts a reality check on things. The bus showed up at six and they told them then. It was probably the worst day for everybody. Yes, they got released, so we're bummed for them. But at the same time, it's a slap in the face.

"It's a reality check that says, ‘Hey, baseball's not forever.' It made me think about a couple things: first, ‘Yeah, I'm getting paid.' I'm getting paid to play the thing that I absolutely love more than anything in the world: baseball, every day. That made me think about that and also about just having fun.

"But then it also makes you realize, makes me realize at least, that this last week, I've hated every second of baseball out of frustration. And after watching these guys be released, lets turn the channel a little bit, start playing with the intensity like you love the game with a different attitude and a different perspective that you are not going to play your whole life.

"It's going to end some time. Even if you play 20 years in the big leagues, it's going to end."

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