Friday, July 16, 2010

Taylor T. and Tony C.

(Photo: Patrick Fraser )

An interesting thought came to me while listening to Taylor Twellman during last night's SuperLiga broadcast. No, it wasn't whether Jay Heaps, who typically handles the color duties for the Revolution broadcasts, was plotting a return to the playing field. It wasn't that, I promise.

Rather, it was something else. Something entirely different. It deals with premature endings to talented careers. Brilliance cut short. You see, it occured to me that Taylor's career has taken an eerily similar path to that of another Beantown legend.

Many Red Sox fans, young, old and in between, know about the tale of Tony Conigliaro, or "Tony C." as he was better known in and around the Hub. He was a young, supremely talented outfielder from nearby Swampscott, Massachusetts. The quintessential local kid who dreamed of playing for the hometown Sox. After thirteen teams tried to court him, his dream came true when he signed with Boston out of high school. Less than two years later, at age 19, he made his Major League debut.

It didn't take long for the Boston faithful to realize that a star was in the making. He hit 24 home runs that first year - the most by a teenaged player in MLB history. The following year, he led the league with 32 dingers, and by that point, Tony C. was becoming the most popular Sox player since Ted Williams.

By the time he was 22, he had already smacked 100 home runs , becoming the youngest American League player to do so. Life was good, real good for Tony C. As a ballplayer, his ceiling rose higher than the heavens. He appeared destined for greatness.

And so it went, until August 16, 1967. On a hot, sweltering New England night, with his team in the midst of an improbable pennant race, Tony C. stepped into the right-sided batter's box at Fenway Park. The Sox were playing the California Angels. Jack Hamilton was on the mound for the Halos.

Those in attendance say that a second after Hamilton's delivery, they could hear the sound of the ball exploding into Tony C's left eye socket. Teammate Rico Petrocelli said it resembled "the sound of a tomato...hitting the ground." The slugger lost consciousness on impact and fell to the ground. It would take over a year before he'd set foot inside the batter's box again.

In 1970, he came back, and posted decent numbers. Thirty-six home runs and 116 ribbies, strong enough evidence to earn Comeback Player of the Year. It was his best year as a major leaguer. But, it was an all-too-brief renaissance.

Sadly, Tony C. would never be the same. He joined the Angels in 1971 and became a part-time player out on the West Coast. He retired after the season. Four years later, he attempted a comeback with the Sox in 1975. But with his eyesight betraying him, he was forced to retire, once and for all, at age 30.

After his playing career, Tony C. took a broadcast job in San Francisco. Like his playing career, it was cut short after suffering a heart attack and stroke in 1982. After eight years of deteriorating health, Tony C. passed away in 1990.

Revolution fans will tell you that they knew from the start that the kid taken second overall in the 2002 SuperDraft was going to be special. And it didn't take long for him to prove it.

Taylor racked up a league-leading 23 goals that first year in Foxboro, at the tender age of 22. He was a runner up for league MVP, and became the first scoring champion in Revolution history.

There would be more moments of brilliance. He cracked 15 goals in an injury-shorted 2003 season. He won the MVP in 2005. He scored goals for the national team, and nearly earned a nod from Bruce Arena for Germany '06. The following year, he put together 16 goals. Taylor Twellman could not be stopped.

Then, on August 30, 2008, Taylor's career came crashing down to earth. Halfway through the first frame against David Beckham and the L.A. Galaxy, Khano Smith sent arching pass ahead. Taylor chased it down and as he approached the ball. So did Galaxy keeper Steve Cronin, who charged ahead to collect it. A fraction of a second later, Taylor bravely put his head on the ball. A fraction of a second after that, Cronin's fists met Taylor's forehead flush.

It was a rare moment where opposite reactions converge. You see, the ball bounced through for the goal. The crowd, of course, erupted. But seconds later, they saw their hero, the poacher, lying on the field and covering his eyes, writhing pain. And they quickly hushed to see if Taylor would get up and dust himself off.

He did, of couse, because Taylor is a tough, stubborn-minded individual. Nevermind that his lacerated forehead required stitches. Forget that he had sustained his fifth documented concussion. Taylor Twellman was going to continue on.

And so he did. He finished the game, and played in three more league games afterward, all the while battling post-concussion symptoms. But once the playoffs arrived, it was time to shut it down. His damaged brain needed rest.

He came back for a brief spell in 2009, scored a pair of goals, and was shelved for the season. A second comeback was attempted this season, but was cancelled before he could even train fully with the club. With time to kill and the World Cup on the American sports radar, Taylor became an in-studio analyst for a local sportcast.

At age 30, Taylor Twellman must wonder whether his career has reached its conclusion. He must look back at that fateful night two Augusts ago and ask how differently his career, nevermind his life, would have transpired had he arrived at that Khano Smith ball a split-second earlier, or later.

Maybe he could have dodged out of the way. Or maybe Cronin could have stopped his approach and retreated back to his line. There are endless variations of how that moment could have played out differently, and I suspect that Taylor's examined each of them.

One thing Taylor probably doesn't question is whether he should have chased that ball. He did. He had to. He ran to that ball as fast as his legs could propel him because that's what Taylor Twellman has always done. For him, it's always been full-tilt, full-time.*

(*I know the phrase is more famously attributed to former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, but anyone who's watched Taylor over the years absolutely knows that the same could be said of Taylor.)

Whether he returns to the pitch next year, or decides to hang up his boots for good, one thing is abundantly clear: we're left wondering the same thing about Taylor that we wondered about Tony C. We witnessed greatness cut short, and as a result, we will always wonder what could have been.

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