TAMPA, Fla. — Speaking recently on Zoom, Jameson Taillon took time to credit a manager he never played for.
"It kind of reignited my passion," Taillon said.
He was referring to Derek Shelton, a former Yankees farmhand whose coaching career began in the late 1990s with the organization and who now is in his second season managing the Pirates.
Shelton showed an intense interest in Taillon in spring training last year even though he knew that Taillon would not pitch in 2020 as he recovered from a second Tommy John surgery.
"Having your manager come watch a rehab or throw [with you] and having your new pitching coach [Oscar Marin] watch literally every single throwing session, that's really important to a rehab guy," Taillon, 29, said during that Zoom session on Feb. 26. "So that kind of reignited my passion. And then once I started making the mechanical changes, I started falling back in love with pitching again."
Speaking earlier in the week by phone from Bradenton, Florida, Shelton sounded surprised about Taillon's comments.
"I think my reaction to that is I'm extremely humbled that he would say that and that had an impact on him," Shelton said of Taillon, who allowed two hits and a walk but struck out four in two scoreless innings Saturday afternoon in his second exhibition start, a 3-2 loss to the Pirates in Bradenton.
Shelton, 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 — quickly pivoted to make it about Taillon.
"Quite honestly, my involvement with him, even though we knew he wasn't going to pitch for us last year, was probably more important than anything because he was a team leader here," Shelton said. "He was someone that, when I got the job, every single Pirate I talked to talked about J-Mo and talked about how he was as a person and that he was a big part of that clubhouse and anything we were going to do culture-wise he should be a part of."
Gerrit Cole, who was with the Pirates' organization from 2011-17, was thrilled to see his new team land Taillon via a trade during the offseason.
"I just spoke to the character of the player and how well I think he’s dealt with adversity and overcome challenges," Cole said of what he told Brian Cashman when the general manager called and asked about Taillon.
Taillon, whom the Pirates chose second overall in 2010 and who had Tommy John surgery in 2014 and August 2019, has overcome more than those elbow reconstructions, no small task in itself. There also was a sports hernia that likely cost him a chance to crack the big leagues in 2015 and, most famously, beating testicular cancer in 2017.
"Leadership comes organically, and players will tell you who the leaders are," Shelton said. "That was something that really stood out when I got the job is that people deferred to him. I mean, he's been through now two Tommy Johns and he’d been through cancer and [been] someone that always persevered and always took the outlook that things were going to be better. And it speaks to what he did with his arm path in terms of changing it [after the second Tommy John surgery] and adjusting it and just always an attempt to make himself better. I think that really stood out to his teammates and that's why he was such a big part of their lives and in the clubhouse culture."
Taillon’s exhibition debut came March 1, a perfect seven-pitch inning against the Tigers in which he struck out the first batter he faced, Daniel Pinero, with a curveball.
After the Pirates played to a 2-2 tie with the Blue Jays in Dunedin the same day, Shelton went to Twitter.
"I scrolled through because I knew he was throwing," Shelton said. "I talked to some of our guys about it. They still communicate with him and I actually shot him a text and just told him I was happy for him. That's a long road to recovery."
In December, when Taillon still was a Pirate and routinely sending Shelton videos of his throwing sessions, the manager was quoted in an AP story saying, "If you’re the Pirates' manager and watching J-Mo throw, it definitely makes you smile."
Was it Taillon’s stuff that made Shelton smile or was it the pitcher at last appearing to be healthy?
"I think it was a combination of both," Shelton said. "To know how hard he worked to get back, that he had repatterned his arm and the ball was coming out of his hand clean and he was healthy. Those were all things that at that time [made me smile].
"And even for me personally now, I mean, I'm rooting for him. You root for the person and you root for the kid. I’m excited for him. I hope he has a great year. When you make decisions like this . . . we made a decision that makes both organizations better. But in the grand scheme of life, I'll always cheer for J-Mo."