'He completed our family': How a cardboard cutout kept Alex Cobb's promise to a fallen soldier's son

Major League Baseball's 2020 cutout craze was never intended to be anything more than a fad. Fun in the throes of a pandemic. Faces taped to ballpark seats so we could laugh instead of cry -- and be given something to think about besides the fact that we wanted to be sitting there ourselves.

But amid the images of celebrities, retired ballplayers and people's pets were faces with stories that went much deeper than the two dimensions of a Correx cutout. You just had to know where to look. Say, along the front row of the outfield at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. That's where you could have seen the likenesses of Michelle and Jake Taylor, a mother and her teenage son.

If you looked closer, you also could have seen a set of dog tags draped around the neck of the cutout of the boy with a photo attached to them. It was the smiling face of husband and father, Army Maj. David G. Taylor, who died nearly 14 years ago while serving in Iraq.

Big league pitcher Alex Cobb added the items to Jake's cutout, not letting the fanless season stop his annual visit with the Taylors since he became an unlikely adopted member of the family.

Cobb and the Taylors were connected by a shared loss, but they built a bond that has overcome grief, distance and, thanks to a couple of photo cutouts, a global pandemic.

'That familiar voice'

Jake Taylor was born in Tampa on June 28, 2006. The Taylors had a place in Germany, but Michelle had gone back to her childhood home to be with her parents in Florida for the baby's arrival. David rushed home from his station in Iraq to be there for the birth. Though the visit lasted only a few precious weeks, David worked hard to pack it with memories.

"He was there for Jake's baptism," Michelle remembers. "He videotaped himself reading books to Jake, so Jake would be able to have a memory of his voice. We thought, 'You know, it would just be a couple months.' I don't think he ever was doing it thinking he wouldn't survive. I think he just wanted Jake to have that familiar voice when he got back from Iraq."

David wore the infant's spit-up with pride on a uniform that was covered in decorations, including a Bronze Star. He came from a military family -- a great-grandfather who fought in World War I, a grandfather who was injured in the Battle of the Bulge and a father who served in Vietnam. Michelle's father also had been in Vietnam.

It's why David and Michelle agreed he should press on with his Army career, even with a little one at home. They also knew he wouldn't have long before this tour would be over. Once he returned from Baghdad, he would be moved to Germany, where Michelle and Jake would join him. They already had a place picked out, but they also knew the time in between would dangerous. David, by choice, had recently been moved from a cushy desk job in an Iraqi palace-turned-Army headquarters to a boots-on-the-ground frontline patrol assignment deep in the unpredictable streets of the city. He always felt guilty about manning a desk while his colleagues were spending their days in the line of fire, so he chose not only to join them but to lead them as a major.

On Oct. 22, 2006, Taylor was part of a four-vehicle convoy that was to travel north out of the city and meet up with another officer who was arriving at a nearby base. His driver was another Taylor, unrelated but a close friend after their time served together. Sgt. Brian Taylor had been Maj. Taylor's assigned driver since David moved down from the palace job. Over the course of four months, Sgt. Taylor and Maj. Taylor learned firsthand about the ever-present dangers of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), also known as roadside bombs. They had become such experts on the subject, it was set to be a big part of their talk with the incoming officers later that afternoon.

As he always did, Sgt. Taylor suggested Maj. Taylor follow the standard protocol for senior officers in convoys, taking a seat in the back of a vehicle at the rear of the line, a much safer spot than riding shotgun in the lead Humvee. But he also knew what the answer would be.

"I was used to Maj. Taylor taking the lead vehicle. He insisted on it. He wanted to be first," Sgt. Brian Taylor, known to most as simply BT, recalls. "It goes in with his nature. He wouldn't ask us anything he wouldn't do himself, and he believed that. As the leader of that mission, he thought he ought to go first. ... That's how he operated. He wanted to lead us and not follow us."

As the convoy rolled north out of Forward Operating Base Falcon, the two Taylors talked about Jake and the journal David was keeping for his son -- remembrances of his military service, explanations of duty and why he chose to be in Iraq and not at home. They were in a great mood and had reason to be; they were less than two weeks away from the end of this Iraqi tour. David's reunion with Michelle and little Jake was only days away.

"The last thing I remember on that day was us talking about Christmas plans, what we were going to do, and then all of a sudden everything went black," Brian remembers. "I passed out, and I woke up to a Humvee full of smoke and ash and had no clue what was going on. The vehicle was still moving. And I went to brake, obviously taking in that we had been hit, and I couldn't operate my leg."

It was an IED, a bucket-sized bomb filled with copper shards designed to shred metal and flesh, which detonated as the Humvee passed through an intersection. Sgt. Taylor heard screaming behind him. It was the vehicle's gunner, whose legs were now missing. He looked down to discover his own leg had been pierced with a piece of metal and was pouring blood. Then he looked over into the passenger's seat. David Taylor was slumped over.

"I knew immediately he was dead," Brian recollects. "And that was my second thought, 'Oh, my God, he's dead.' I just couldn't believe it."

Maj. David G. Taylor was 37 years old.

"It was a Sunday, and I had just come from church and I was sitting back in my bedroom. I was nursing Jake and my mom came in and said I had to come to the door," Michelle recalls about Oct. 22, 2006. "When I stepped into the hallway, I could see the notification officers. I knew at that moment, I knew what I was. I tried to get the paper out of their hands, hoping if I looked at the paper, it would be the wrong name. And I just said, 'My baby, my baby.' I'll be OK, but what about Jake?"

The days, weeks and months clicked by, so many lost in the fog of grief. Michelle and Jake stayed in Tampa. The four other men who were in the Humvee with David all survived but suffered serious injuries.

"I struggled for years with survivor's guilt, especially with Maj. Taylor, his life, having a wife, having a kid. At that point, I was only 20 years old. For years, I cried myself to sleep," Brian Taylor says now. "At that point, the Army was the greatest thing I'd ever done, the most important thing in my life, so to die in that way would have been all right to me. But for him, with a child and a wife and with a family that loved him, it just felt unfair, to be honest with you, that it couldn't have been me instead."

Brian lost his right leg in the blast and had to relearn how to walk. He tried going to college but struggled to concentrate. Throughout it all, he stayed in constant contact with David's family.

"From the very beginning, he reached out to Jake," Michelle says. "He wrote a letter to him from Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center], where he was being treated for his injuries, and said to Jake that he wanted to be there for him, and he promised to be there for him forever."

'We were all at the ballpark together'

After moving to Tampa in 2013, Brian Taylor was invited to attend Rays spring training as a guest of the Wounded Warrior Project.

A group of military veterans, all battling through various injuries, got a tour of the ballpark, took to the field during batting practice to shag flies and sat in the dugout to chat with Rays players. The chattiest of the bunch was Alex Cobb, who met Taylor during pregame activities. Taylor asked Cobb if he would mind giving him his glove, a gift for the son of a friend with whom he had served in Iraq. Cobb obliged, but he asked Taylor to tell him more about this kid and his family. So, the soldier told the pitcher what had happened to him in Baghdad, about David, Michelle and Jake.

Cobb went on to share his own family's experience with the dangers of war. On Sept. 2, 2008, Cobb's older brother, R.J., was an Army platoon leader stationed in northeastern Iraq. He was in a Humvee with four others when their vehicle was struck with an RKG-3 anti-tank grenade. Like the IED that ripped through Taylor's vehicle two years earlier, the explosion filled R.J.'s Humvee with hot copper shrapnel. R.J.'s face was scarred by the searing metal. R.J. and the other four passengers survived the frightening close call, but the news rattled the then-21-year-old Alex, who was still reeling from having lost his mother to a stroke three years earlier.

Taylor was taken aback by Cobb's willingness to share his family's story, a story he shared with Michelle and Jake when he delivered the glove that evening. Jake wrote and mailed a thank-you note to Cobb.

"There was a letter on my [clubhouse] chair, which is odd," Cobb says. "Usually, we have a mailbox that we go in and grab stuff. I still don't know how it got there. Michelle wanted to know if maybe there was a way to get the glove signed."

Cobb texted Michelle and said he would do way better than that. He wanted Jake to throw out the first pitch for a game, get the VIP tour, meet the Rays -- the works. Across town, Michelle couldn't believe the timing of the text. It was Aug. 11, David's birthday.

"Things like that have kept happening throughout our relationship," Cobb says. "Where it seems like Dave is, you know, smiling down and giving us little signs that he's there."

Jake and Michelle came out to the Trop and received the red-carpet treatment. After the kid smoked the first pitch, the Taylors and Cobb posed for a photo. Jake, now nearly 16, still remembers what Cobb said to him that day: "I said it was such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And then Alex was like, 'No, it wasn't. We will do this more,' like he wanted to actually stay in my life."

He has. Cobb and the Taylors have stayed in constant contact since that day -- nearly a decade of birthday wishes and encouragement from Cobb, on everything from Little League homers to great report cards. And at least once every baseball season, they have an in-person meetup at the Trop to take a photo. For seven years, they never missed that date, even after Cobb joined the Baltimore Orioles in 2018.

At one of those meetings, Jake and Michelle gave Cobb a set of commemorative dog tags. On one side was the smiling face of David Taylor; on the other, a favorite motivational mantra of the Taylor family, used frequently by avid runner David and his military kin: Don't quit on the uphill.

"For us, it's just that reminder to keep going," Michelle explains. "That life is going to be hard, but you just have to keep working and you keep pushing and eventually you will get to the top of the hill, where you can take a break because you can walk."

When the Orioles pitching rotation had him on the mound on Memorial Day 2018, he wore his David Taylor dog tags around his neck and made sure to have them on whenever he saw the Taylors during their Tampa visits.

Then came 2020 and COVID-19. There would be baseball, but it would be played without fans. Michelle and Jake realized there would be no Rays games for them that summer, but when they heard about the fan cutout program, they jumped at the chance. They got a prime spot, on the front row of the outfield. Michelle took a photo in her Rays jersey while holding an American flag stitched by a friend with the inscription, "In Loving Memory Major David. G. Taylor Jr." Jake also is wearing a Tampa jersey, but with a bright orange shirt underneath; it's his Alex Cobb Orioles jersey.

"I've also got the first-pitch ball and my glove that he signed," Jake says of his Correx likeness. "We knew exactly where they were, and we got excited and we saw a ball hit that way. Every couple of games, we'd get someone texting us, saying they saw our cardboard cutout on TV."

The Orioles made only one trip to Tampa during the shortened season, a two-day visit on Aug. 25 and 26. Cobb knew what he would do, planning to find the Taylor cutouts and take a selfie he could send them to keep their photo-op streak alive. A couple of nights before the trip, he was rummaging through a nightstand drawer looking for something when the dog tags suddenly appeared. He is convinced David was once again sending a sign -- and certainly an idea.

On Aug. 25, Michelle's and Jake's phones buzzed. There was a text with a photo attached. Cobb was posing with their cutouts in the Trop outfield, but this time, the trio had been joined by another face.

"I was so happy he sent the picture, but then when I looked closer and I saw the dog tags, then I just teared up," Michelle says. "It felt like Alex brought Dave there with us too. It was like he completed our family. Me and Jake, we were sitting out there with our cutouts, and Alex went and put Dave out there with us. We were all at the ballpark together."

They stayed together in the front-row seats for the remainder of the 2020 season, as the three Taylors watched the Rays make their improbable run to the World Series via a long list of walk-off thrillers.

The Taylors will resume their in-person visits with Cobb next month, when his new team, the Los Angeles Angels, visit Tampa the final weekend of June. The family without a father. The pitcher who nearly lost a brother. The soldier, still struggling with his survival, finding some peace in knowing he brought them together.

"It just reminds me that we are all together," Jake says. "We're all in this together. We're all going through the same types of things, and we need to remember that we're not alone."