PITTSBURGH — Jameson Taillon knew little of the new Pirates manager for 2020, but the manager knew plenty about the pitcher.
Including Taillon’s love of bourbon.
Derek Shelton, a former Yankees farmhand who began his coaching career in the late 1990s with the organization, was named manager of the Pirates on Nov. 27, 2019. As he talked to people in the organization, it didn’t take him long to recognize Taillon’s standing in the clubhouse.
At the time, Taillon — who will try to improve on his 9-1 record when the Yankees open a series against the Pirates on Tuesday night — was in the early stages of recovering from his second Tommy John surgery. That made it unlikely that he would throw a single pitch in 2020, but Shelton felt the need to reach out.
Shelton’s research quickly discovered the myriad reasons for Taillon’s clubhouse status. Among them was the adversity he had overcome and was still trying to overcome.
There was the first Tommy John surgery in 2014 and a sports hernia that cost Taillon a chance at making his big-league debut in 2015. He beat testicular cancer in 2017. And if that wasn’t enough, there was the second Tommy John surgery in August 2019.
Shelton was a catcher in the Yankees’ system in 1992 and 1993 (he was teammates with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera on the 1993 Class A Greensboro club) and an overall grinder when it came to the game. He found that he and Taillon shared not only a passion for baseball but a passion for bourbon.
“It’s a pretty cool story,” Taillon said Sunday morning.
Shortly after being hired, Shelton sat Taillon down.
“He hands me this bottle of Angel’s Envy Cask Strength Bourbon, this very rare release in this cool case,” Taillon said.
As a bourbon aficionado, the righthander very much appreciated the gesture, but there was more.
“He said, ‘Do you notice anything with that?’ ” Taillon said. “I was like, ‘It’s a super-rare bottle. You can’t find it anywhere.’ And he said, ‘That’s a 2016, the year you debuted. I want you to hang on to that, and when you get your first victory after rehab, I want you to pop it open and have a glass.’ ”
That, of course, didn’t happen until May 1, 2021. By then, Taillon — who was drafted second overall by the Pirates in 2010 — was a Yankee, having been traded in January 2021.
And when he returned home from the Stadium after recording that first victory against Detroit, he followed Shelton’s instructions.
“I had a pour, took a picture of it and sent it to him,” Taillon said.
By coincidence, the Pirates followed the Yankees to St. Petersburg last month for a series against the Rays. Taillon left two bourbons in the visiting manager’s office at Tropicana Field — a bottle of Blanton’s Single Barrel and a bottle of Eagle Rare.
An act of reciprocation, yes, but the bottle of Angel’s Envy signified much more to Taillon than being the recipient of a quality bourbon.
“I’m a rehab guy at this point. I didn’t contribute anything to the team that year as far as on the field,” Taillon said. “He always went out of his way to make me feel important. Any bullpen I threw, he was there. Any live BP, he made sure he was there and the entire coaching staff was there. Players would come out. He played catch with me a bunch. Little things like that go a long way with rehab guys.”
Taillon continued: “I have my second TJ, wasn’t feeling 100%. I’m like, ‘Hey, am I ever going to be able to do this again?’ Then when you have people that show interest in you and believe in you, it sounds corny, but it gives you reason to show up every day, it gives you a reason to push forward. You keep putting together good days, and before you know it, it’s like . . . I feel great. I can do this.”
In an interview during spring training regarding Taillon, Shelton said: “Even for me personally now, I mean, I’m rooting for him. You root for the person and you root for the kid . . . In the grand scheme of life, I’ll always cheer for J-Mo.”
Taillon has performed well for the Yankees, going 16-3 in his last 19 decisions dating to 2021. On Tuesday night, he will be trying his hardest to beat Shelton’s team. But a bond initially formed over high-end spirits won’t be broken anytime soon.
“We stay in touch. We talk about it [bourbon recommendations],” Taillon said. “I text with him once in a while. After a good start, he’ll just say, ‘Hey, I see you threw well.’ Just a genuinely good guy.”