With baseball season in full…um…swing, I just had to share this story about Johnathan Taylor. Known as J.T., Taylor played center field for the University of Georgia Bulldogs and dreamed of going pro. Then, during a game against the Florida State on March 6, Taylor and his team’s left fielder, Zach Cone, collided when they both dove for a line drive in the top of the third inning. Taylor fractured two vertibrae (C5 and C6) and bruised his spinal cord. ”JT’s a pretty special kid. There are not too many like JT,” said his coach, David Perno, immediately after the fateful game.
The Texas Rangers thought so, too. Yesterday, the organization drafted Taylor in the 33rd round of the 2011 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.
Kip Fagg, the Director of Amateur Scouting for the Rangers, explained his decision by saying that “taking Johnathan in the draft today…was something we felt was right.” On the Georgia Bulldog’s website Fagg is quoted in a selection of his official statement as saying, “We would have drafted him either way.” A video on the site shows Fagg explaining that the Rangers had known about J.T.’s ability since Taylor was in high school and had been impressed with him for years.
J.T.’s athleticism, after all, was impressive. Taylor boasted a career batting average of .312, and started in 91 of the 117 games he played. In 48 stolen base attempts, 36 were successful. Just as notable was Taylor’s capacity to balance sports and school. He made the SEC Freshman Academic Honor Roll in 2009 and was named to the university athletic director’s honor roll the following year.
While the gesture is sweet and moving, this raises a few questions: Who did the Rangers pass on to add JT to their roster? Beyond receiving accolades for being “champions of the human spirit,” why would they do it?
Yankee catcher Yogi Berra once said that half of the game is 90% mental. There’s more to sports than speed and slugging percentage. Taylor’s hard work and the mental approach that he’s shown in his personal life are desirable qualities on the diamond. Perhaps the Rangers recognize that these characteristics — determination and optimism, for starters — are qualities that they would like to be associated with. Maybe it was a way to validate J.T.’s skills and his long-standing relationship with the Rangers.
There are no guarantees that any drafted player will make it to the majors, but the draft pick was a hopeful symbol that might be motivating for Taylor, who said on May 14, “That’s my goal — to get back on the field and play baseball.”
Maybe he will. J.T. has made serious improvements over the past 3 months, including no longer needing a ventilator and leaving in-patient care for a Day Program. Since his spinal cord was never severed, there’s some cause for optimism.
If he plays ball again, he might be reunited with Cone, who was drafted by the Rangers in the first round. Cone, the 37th pick overall, was excited about the news about J.T. “This made my day,” he said. “It’s just awesome, and I’m so happy for him.”
UPDATE: After this was posted, I received an e-mail from Jerod Barlow at Newsy.com, telling me about a video that had been made about Taylor. The video shows reactions to the Ranger’s draft pick from around the sports world. You can watch the video here.
I’d also like to give some well-deserved kudos to the Houston Astros, who drafted Buddy Lamothe in the 40th round. Lamothe, who became paralyzed last month as the result of a diving accident, was a promising relief pitcher. I can only hope that this current spirit of compassion in sports continues. As James Holland put it when he covered the story for Yahoo, decisions like these are “a reminder that for every sports story that involves steroids, or drunk driving, or showboating, there are still those stories that make you smile.”