Monday, September 5, 2011

A family's long, tough haul from the Comox Valley to baseball's major leagues

Taylor Green golfed a low change-up into right field at Miller Park in Milwaukee for his first hit in the major leagues. Green is the first big leaguer to hail from the Comox Valley. Photograph by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 5, 2011


Taylor Green, 24, a professional baseball player, got called into the manager’s office.

He was greeted by grim-faced coaches and a manager with bad news.

You’ve flunked a drug test, he was told.

The young athlete’s career flashed before his eyes. Must be a mistake.

“No way,” he insisted, heart pounding. “How is that even possible?!”

He was told his punishment was greater than a 25-game suspension. Worse even than a 50-game suspension. The punishment, his manager said, maintaining a straight-face, was a one-way ticket to Milwaukee.

There was no failed drug test. Instead, the Milwaukee Brewers of the National League had use for a left-handed hitter and Mr. Green was about to be rewarded for years of hard work, including recovery from two serious injuries. He was being promoted to the major leagues. To The Show.
Taylor Green at age 5

A few days later, he was called upon to pinch hit.

His parents, Jacqueline, a teacher now on disability, and Bill, an elementary-school principal, scrambled to get from the Comox Valley to Milwaukee. His mother needed a wheelchair to navigate the stadium. They sat in box seats 20 rows up behind home plate.

Brewers fans have anticipated Green’s arrival. Before he arrived, he was hitting so well in the minor leagues that some rooters launched a “Free Taylor Green” campaign to encourage the Brewers to promote the prospect.

Last week, when his name was announced as a pinch hitter, the stadium rose in a standing ovation, a tribute before he had even taken a swing.

The at-bat brought to an end a long journey from the sandlots of Courtenay to a community college in California where he was scouted, drafted and signed by Milwaukee. A minor-league odyssey lasted five seasons as he played for the Helena (Mont.) Brewers, the West Virginia Power, the Brevard County (Fla.) Manatees, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the Huntsville (Ala.) Stars, and the Nashville (Tenn.) Sounds, whose manager, Don Money, himself a former major leaguer, fooled him into thinking he’d failed a drug test.

Along the way, he overcame a broken left wrist, as well as a beaning to the face. A pitch hit the bill of his batting helmet, ricocheting flush onto his nose, which was shattered. Being hit in the face by a pitched ball has ended more than one baseball career, as sometimes a hitter loses nerve, an affliction upon which pitchers will prey by throwing one inside fastball after another. After recovering from reconstructive surgery, Mr. Green forced himself to face pitches without flinching. With a teammate feeding baseballs into a pitching machine, he donned a catcher’s mask and deliberately had ball after ball strike him on his protected face until he knew he had the fortitude to return to the batter’s box.

Those tribulations, testing as they were, diminish when compared to what his mother has faced.

On Valentine’s Day, 1996, Jackie, a popular teacher, was felled by a massive stroke.

She needed two emergency surgeries, spent six weeks in a coma. When she awoke, the only word she could manage was “no.” She spent arduous weeks at the G.F Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver.

Though she could not speak words, she could sing them. Sometimes, husband and nine-year-old son sang O Canada with her.

One of the friends who rushed to her side was Kim Cattrall, the actress known best for playing the libidinous Samantha in Sex in the City. Ms. Cattrall, who was raised in the Comox Valley, served as maid of honour at the parents’ marriage. She now includes stroke charities in her fundraising efforts. "Whatever I accomplish, I share with Jackie," she has said.

On his debut in Milwaukee, Mr. Green golfed a low pitch into right field for a single. Time was called and the ball was lobbed into the Brewers dugout as a souvenir.

Remarkably, the crowd gave the rookie infielder a second standing ovation, seeing in his modest accomplishment the promise of future contributions.

Behind home plate, his mother was helped to her feet to join in the ovation.

“We’re in awe,” Bill Green said afterwards. “We’re shocked. We’re happy. We’re relieved.”

Two days later, in his next appearance, he slashed another hit as a pinch-hitter, starting a rally that led his team to victory.

On Saturday, he got his first start. In his first at-bat, he rapped his third consecutive single. In a sport in which failing at the plate two times out of three is considered brilliance, the prospect began his career with a perfect 1.000 batting average.

After his debut, his new teammates presented him with a ball purported to be the one he had slashed into the outfield for his first big-league hit. It was scuffed and scratched. Obscenities had been written on it. Another baseball prank.

The real ball was encased in plastic with an engraved plate with details of the hit. It can now be found on a kitchen counter of the Comox Valley home of two proud parents.

Tough road to The Show

Taylor Green is the first player born in the Comox Valley to make a major-league roster, earning a spot in the Baseball Encyclopedia between Shawn Green and Hank Greenberg.

He is only the fifth player born on Vancouver Island to make The Show in the 135-year history of major-league baseball. The others, all born in Victoria, are outfielder Mike Saunders and pitchers Steve Sinclair, Steve Wilson, and Rich Harden, who is with the Oakland A’s.

It is a tough journey that demands skill, luck and timing. Vince Perkins, a fireball-throwing pitcher from Victoria, spent a decade in the minor leagues without ever getting a chance to play in the big leagues. His greatest achievement was pitching for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. Mr. Perkins, who turns 30 later this month, was released earlier this season by the Toronto Blue Jays, who owned his rights. The son of a firefighter, he is now completing paramedic and firefighter training in Florida.

CHEK News of Victoria followed this column with a report on Taylor Green.

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