Brien Taylor facing up to 40 years

Far from the bright lights of the ballpark in the Bronx, rules prohibit cameras and other recording devices where the future of a former "can't-miss" pitcher is to be determined next Wednesday. Half a life after the pinnacle of his baseball career, Brien Taylor's sentencing is on the docket for a New Bern, N.C., courtroom.

A left-hander with an explosive fastball and potent curve, Taylor was the first pick in the 1991 amateur draft by the New York Yankees, received a then-record $1.55 million signing bonus negotiated by super-agent Scott Boras and seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of his new team's southpaw legends Whitey Ford and Lefty Gomez. Once touted by Baseball America as the sport's top prospect, Taylor never reached Triple-A.

His fate is now with U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan, who can sentence Taylor to five to 40 years after he pleaded guilty in August to distributing more than 28 grams of crack cocaine, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Eastern District of North Carolina. The federal public defender's office, which represents the 40-year-old Taylor, declined comment other than to confirm that the matter is scheduled for Wednesday.

Taylor was indicted June 5 by a federal grand jury on three charges of crack cocaine distribution, superseding North Carolina state charges for trafficking. At the time of Taylor's March 1 arrest, the Carteret County Sheriff's Office said its undercover narcotic detectives and those of the Morehead City Police Department had purchased "a large quantity of cocaine and crack cocaine" from Taylor over several months. The Beaufort, N.C., native and former pride of East Carteret High School has been incarcerated for the eight months since his arrest.

In his first two seasons after New York drafted him, Taylor started 54 games, striking out more than a hitter an inning for the Yankees' A and Double-A teams, while allowing a walk about every two innings. Then, in the offseason of 1993, the story goes, Taylor threw a punch during a fight involving his brother and the family of his brother's girlfriend. The punch failed to strike anybody, but Taylor caused serious injury to his pitching arm -- a dislocated shoulder and torn labrum, necessitating major surgery and more than a year away from action.

Renowned surgeon Frank Jobe reportedly described it as one of the worst injuries he'd ever seen.

When Taylor returned, longtime Yankees pitching instructor Billy Connors worked with him.

"He was struggling," Connors said by phone this week. "He had outstanding stuff, but he got wild and couldn't throw strikes."

Connors also says the 6-foot-3 Taylor seemingly lost his agility and ability to run well, field or bunt, although he had been a swift and gifted athlete, beyond his golden arm.

Over the next four seasons in the minor leagues, Taylor never appeared in more than 13 games and he walked more than double the number of men he struck out.

"He was unbelievable when he signed," Connors said. "But when he came back, he wasn't the same -- he worked like hell at it, but he just couldn't come back.

"His attitude was always great, he was a great kid and everybody loved him."

The Yankees released Taylor after the 1998 season and his attempt to come back two years later with a Cleveland Indians affiliate failed to produce better results. At age 28, Taylor was through.

With his signing bonus, Taylor built a home for his parents on tiny Beaufort's Brien Taylor Lane. And the man for whom the road is named came to live in the house, too. A father of five daughters, Taylor has held several jobs, but he's also had occasional legal troubles in the dozen years since his pitching days ended.

Rarely one to speak with the media since leaving baseball, Taylor has yet to respond to an ESPN interview request through his attorney.

Of his former pupil's bleak prospects two decades after his future seemed so promising, Connors said succinctly, "It's a terrible thing."