The Oldest rookie in major league baseball this season is also, not surprisingly, the happiest. After toiling for 14 years in the minor leagues without ever appearing on a big league mound, 32-year-old relief pitcher Billy Taylor was told on the last day of spring training by Oakland Athletic manager Tony La Russa that he had made the ball club. "Those were the sweetest words I've ever heard," says Taylor. "I felt like a thousand-pound load had just been taken off my back. Suddenly it was worth every bit of time it took me to get this far."
Taylor's almost endless quest for a big league job transcends mere perseverance. Compared with Taylor, Captain Ahab was a flibbertigibbet, Job a whiner. Oh, there were times, as he labored in obscurity, when, Taylor confesses, "I just wanted to say to hell with it and go home, but I kept telling myself that as long as I'm healthy, I still have a chance, and age should not be a factor."
Back in 1980 Taylor was signed by Texas out of his hometown of Thomasville, Ga., having starred as a ballplayer both in high school and at nearby Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. The Rangers set about converting his sidearm and three-quarter-arm motions into an over-the-top delivery, the better to take advantage of his 6'8" height. But Taylor was never comfortable throwing that way, and he languished in the lower minors for three years before reaching Double A Tulsa of the Texas League. There, as a starter and reliever, he finished the '83 season with a 5-8 record and an unsightly 6.87 ERA. He finally reached Triple A Oklahoma City in '86.
After going 4-8 at the start of the '88 season, Taylor underwent elbow surgery. The Rangers gave him his unconditional release, and that, by all rights, should have terminated any lingering career aspirations he entertained. He was 27 and had had winning records in just two of his nine minor league seasons. But San Diego took a chance, assigning him to Triple A Las Vegas of the Pacific Coast League. After only one season the Padres released him. When no team picked him up for the start of the 1990 season, even Taylor felt discouraged. He went to work on his father's produce farm back in Georgia, albeit harboring vague notions of a comeback. "I just hated to see it end that way," he says.
Without Taylor's knowledge his wife, Lisa, and a friend, Steve Kelley, a Thomasville lawyer, continued to make calls on his baseball behalf. Kelley got Taylor a tryout with the Atlanta Braves, who signed him to a minor league contract late in the '90 season. By then Taylor had gone back to his side-wheeling delivery, and, playing for Double A Greenville ( S.C.) in 1991, he led the Southern League in appearances (59) and had 22 saves and a 1.51 ERA. After two fine seasons at Triple A Richmond—he had 26 saves in 27 chances and a 1.98 ERA there last year—he was at last in demand, signing as a free agent with the A's after La Russa paid him a personal visit.
Taylor made his long-delayed major league debut in the A's season opener at Milwaukee on April 5, pitching a perfect inning in relief. He got his and the A's first save three days later, and as of Sunday he had not allowed an earned run in five appearances (although he was nicked for four unearned runs by Toronto on April 11).
Taylor is keeping a diary of his maiden season in the bigs. "You never know," he says. "Someday I may be able to write a helluva book." Maybe something Jules Verneish, like Twenty Thousand Leagues.