December 29, 2006

RED SMITH IS DEAD, YET THEY KEEP TYPING:

The Best Sports Columns of 2006 (CARL BIALIK AND JASON FRY, December 29, 2006, Wall Street Journal)

* The life of Brien: Bricks, back roads & broken dreams of a former phenom (WAYNE COFFEY, 7/02/06, NY DAILY NEWS)

A few times a week, often on his way home from work, the greatest pitching prospect the New York Yankees ever had pulls into a little roadside convenience store called In & Out Food Mart. It has cramped aisles and cheap gas, a cement box that sits forlornly across from a billboard that says "What A Friend We Have in Jesus" and a ballfield that once attracted big-league scouts by the dozens.

The prospect gets his gas, a soda pop or two, his 6-4, 250-pound body coated with mortar and morsels of brick, the dusty detritus of a day's labor. "He's a nice guy, a quiet guy," says Jimmy Quzh, the owner of In & Out. Then he's on his way, driving north, just two miles up to the green road sign that may be the last sliver of fame he has left.

It was made by inmates at the state Department of Corrections. It's in a semi-blighted community called North River.

"BRIEN TAYLOR LN," the road sign reads.

Brien Taylor is 34 now, and he lives at the end of the road named for him, with his parents, Willie Ray and Bettie. The trailer he was raised in has been replaced with a two-story brick and frame home, the House that Brien Built with the record $1.55 million bonus he got from the Yankees. He also bought a black Mustang 5.0 back then, a car that is still on the road. Otherwise, evidence of his long-ago windfall is in scant supply on Brien Taylor Lane, where the cab of a tractor-trailer is sunk into marsh grass and vines, and the yard is strewn with old cars and a heap of rusted lawnmowers.

It has been 15 years since the Yankees made Brien Taylor the No. 1 pick in the 1991 draft, and 14 seasons since Baseball America rated him the top prospect in the country, ahead of Pedro Martinez (No. 10) and Manny Ramirez (No. 37). He had two superb years in the minors and he, his left arm and his 98 mph fastball were rocketing toward the Bronx, until it all came undone one night outside a ramshackle trailer.

"He'd be making $15 or $20 million a year now if he hadn't gotten hurt," says Gary Chadwick, Taylor's former coach at East Carteret High School.

Richard Bailey is a football coach in Fayetteville, N.C. He caught Taylor when Taylor was 14 and already throwing 90 mph, with a motion as fluid as hot syrup, the ball not leaving his hand so much as getting launched from it.

"Brien was the most talented kid I ever saw," Bailey says. "It's a shame things didn't work out the way they should have."

* Shaq's free pass negated 'real' fun (Bruce Jenkins, January 12, 2006, SF Chronicle)

As a man given a lifetime free pass in the NBA, Shaquille O'Neal tends to toy with people. Certain things elude him, such as world championships (lately) and universal respect, but he's a Sherman tank in a world of Chevys and Mercedes. The notion never fails to amuse him.

Heading into the Arena at Oakland for Wednesday night's game against the Warriors, O'Neal knew he was going to have an in-the-paint field day against the vaguely familiar names of Diogu, Foyle and Biedrins. He decided against addressing the media before the game, but behind the scenes, his jovial nature was never more evident.

Most NBA heavyweights work out with weights, tightly wound tubing or massive exercise devices. Shaq gets down with humans. Summoning Bill Foran, the Miami Heat's solidly built strength and conditioning coach, Shaq lifted the man onto his back and lurched him into the air a few times. Then he effortlessly flipped Foran into a horizontal position and did a few curls with him. You figure Shaq's idea of a really good time is dangling refrigerators outside a second-story window, perhaps sipping tea with his free hand.

Dwyane Wade, merely the league's most priceless athletic specimen outside of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, was relaxing on a nearby table. Now in full hilarity mode, Shaq leaped over that table from a standing position -- fairly amazing for a man of his size. It could have gone so wrong. In fact, someone cried out in mock horror. But this was Shaq. He pulled it off, smiling all the while.

* Royals fan, hope is a good thing (JOE POSNANSKI, 3/15/06, The Kansas City Star)

A letter to a young Royals fan:

Thank you so much for your recent e-mail, which I happily received a couple of weeks ago while freezing in a cold tent in the Italian Alps and waiting for Bode Miller to come down from the mountain and make excuses.

Your letter and boundless love for the Royals brought me great joy. I was not in the right frame of mind then to answer your thoughtful questions because of the frostbite. Now, though, I have arrived at spring training, and I look over Surprise Stadium, and I can smell the cut grass. I spent 30 minutes listening to the Royals' 86-year-old scout, Dave Garcia, tell stories about Dizzy Dean, Babe Ruth and Bob Feller. People eat hot dogs all around me. Alex Gordon, the Royals' hope, just rifled a single to right field. I'm ready to tell you some things.

First, hang in there. You talk about how all your fourth-grade friends make fun of you because you are a Royals fan. Listen: Throughout history, there have been men and women like Galileo, Joan of Arc and Thomas More who were condemned and even executed for their views. And as brave as they were - you can ask your teacher about this - not one of them had the courage to admit being a Royals fan.

Yes, it is hard being a Royals fan in these troubled times. But, take comfort in this: You are doing the right thing. Yes, as you say, some of your Kansas City friends take the easy route and choose the Yankees or Red Sox or Cardinals as their favorite teams. My dear friend, you will run into these kinds of people all your life. They will cut you off on highways. They will go through the 12-items-and-under supermarket lane with enough food to feed the Three Tenors. They will push their airline seats all the way back into your pelvis on overseas flights.

You are different. You write, "I will love the Royals, no matter what." You are worth so much more than the kid who ran out to pick up a Chicago White Sox hat last year.

* Coping with the inevitability of defeat makes victories all the more sweet (Simon Barnes, 5/19/06, Times of London)

SOME will tell you that sport is all about winning. Have nothing to do with such people. Winning is not the only thing in sport. There is also, for example, losing. Losing is one of the most important things in sport, and people do it all the time, and in a thousand different ways. You can lose gloriously, dramatically, heroically, unluckily, abjectly, humiliatingly, defiantly, haplessly.

You can lose by a street, by a distance, a canvas, a short head, a knockout, on points. You can be hammered, trounced, beaten out of sight. You can be edged out, beaten by the narrowest of margins. You can be beaten and hang up your boots/gloves/bat/racket; you can be beaten and take a lot of positives from this.

But it all adds up to the same common experience of sport: not winning. And not winning was very much on my mind as I looked back on Arsenal’s jaunt to Paris and the miracle that never quite was. I was with Arsenal for their last three rounds in the Champions League and enjoyed the ride: the wonderful demolition of Juventus, the angst-ridden squeezing out of Villarreal, and the final in Paris against Barcelona on Wednesday night.

It seemed possible that this would be the most wonderful night in their history. Arsenal winners! Arsenal, the best team in the world! Arsenal glorious, Arsenal for ever one-up on Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal repeating the unlikely heroics of Liverpool the previous year and stealing the European Cup from beneath the noses of the great. But it didn’t quite happen.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 29, 2006 6:41 PM
Comments

oj: Thanks for posting baseball articles. It really helps this ole Cubs fan.

Posted by: Bartman at December 29, 2006 7:02 PM
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