June is always a particularly fun month for baseball.
The weather is getting just about perfect. Kids are finishing up school for the year, so families start packing the ballpark every night. And as the NBA and NHL wrap up, more casual sports fans and media outlets start to notice, “Oh, right. Baseball.”
We hardcore fans? We get another treat too. Thanks to the particular silliness of the MLB collective bargaining agreement (have you ever tried explaining Super 2 to your dad?), June is usually the month teams twist the spigot marked PROSPECT PIPELINE and we all enjoy a new round of hotshot young ballplayers.
Screw off, Andy Williams. This is the most wonderful time of the year.
For many years as a Pirates fan, any Top Prospect Debut Day was actually one of the few fun events to which I could look forward.
Sure, we’re already 13 games under .500 and all is lost and baseball fandom is where your happiness is given concrete shoes and dumped in the river… but on the other hand, Jose Tabata!
It was Opening Day 2.0 for the hopelessly devoted fan. If the Home Opener was the day you could dream, “Maybe this is the Buccos’ year,” then Top Prospect Debut Day was the day you could dream, “Maybe this is the baseball savior to lead us out of the wilderness.”
We got prospect crushes on new flames like Sean Burnett, Paul Maholm, Brad Lincoln and James McDonald. These were the Littlefield and Soon-After-Littlefield years in which any half-decent young player was labeled a TOP PROSPECT! and saddled with unfair savior-y expectations.
Then, baseballers of actual quality began to show up from the minor leagues to Pittsburgh. Neil Walker can actually hit and play second base! Pedro Alvarez can murder baseballs even if his strikeouts make you rip off your fingernails! Alex Presley had his moments, I think!
Beloved radio postgame host Rocco DeMaro called this crew The Cavalry, no doubt because these were the men on horses riding in to save us from defeat. But none of the above were superstars or saviors.
Only one player from The Cavalry actually came in, blew us away and never stopped.
When I found out Andrew McCutchen would be making his big-league introduction at PNC Park on a weekday afternoon, I begged my mom to spring me from school early (it had to have been, like, the 3rd-to-last day of the year). I got the go-ahead, because my mom is better than your mom, took the bus to the North Shore and saw a future worth cheering for.
YouTube highlights show it was your typical partly-cloudy Pittsburgh afternoon but my memory, sitting there in the center-field seats, will be that the sun never shone brighter.
A few days later, McCutchen clobbered two triples in back-to-back at-bats. Remember how exciting it was the first time we saw blur in dreadlocks stretch a double into a triple? I wrote on Facebook that “Usain Bolt has nothing on Cutch!” And I think I really believed it.
That was 7 years ago today.
Okay, 500 words to get to Jameson Taillon. It was 6 years ago today that Neal Huntington drafted the No. 8 prospect in the draft, high school pitcher Stetson Allie, to join the No. 2 prospect Taillon.
Their two paths since then show, if nothing else, the folly of counting on pitching prospects.
Allie had a 100-mph fastball but with the control of Wild Thing Ricky Vaughn soon after leaving the California Penal League. He gave up 37 walks in less than 27 minor-league innings before the Pirates handed him a bat and a first baseman’s glove.
Meanwhile, Taillon was developing as promised, flummoxing hitters with that drop-off-the-table curveball and getting to Double-A by the end of his second pro season. At age 20, he was just a couple steps from big-league dominance.
Then? Elbow injury. Tommy John surgery. Hernia surgery. I probably scrolled through thousands of tweets with some combination of the words “Taillon” and “rehab outing.”
But 6 years to the day he was drafted by the Pirates, Taillon arrived for his welcome press conference at PNC Park — all smiles. The injuries and the surgeries and the rehab? That was just the scenic route to Pittsburgh.
Tonight, he’ll go toe-to-toe toeing the same rubber as Noah Syndergaard, a pitcher almost a year younger than Taillon who nonetheless already has a full-season of Major League innings, a Marvel superhero nickname and talk-show hosts who ask IS HE BASEBALL’S BEST PITCHER QUESTION MARK.
There’s nowhere in the world Taillon would rather be tonight, and he and I have that in common.
Pirates fans seen some pretty exciting prospect premieres over the past few years: Starling Marte, and Neal Huntington products Gerrit Cole and Gregory Polanco among them. But no longer do they, nor Taillon, need to pull a 100-loss roster out of ignominy and into the promised land.
We’re in the promised land. Somehow playoff contention has become the norm, the expectation for your Pittsburgh Pirates instead of some Tim Burton-esque dreamland. We’re spoiled, and we’re well-served in reminding ourselves that we have, indeed, moved on up to the East Side.
As Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Josh Bell show up in Pittsburgh over this next year or so, they don’t have to be The Cavalry. They don’t even all have to be great, though I and Huntington would quite like that result.
Instead, Huntington and Co. have built a team that can only needs these youngins to complement what is already on the field.
This is a good baseball team, and it doesn’t need a Savior. Top Prospect Debut Day is just another game in June, though for those of us following Taillon’s odyssey to the Majors, an exciting one.
And I didn’t have to plead to get out of school to go to this game.