The major league baseball cutout madness for 2020 should never be more than a fad. Fun in the middle of a pandemic. Faces were taped on baseball fields so we could laugh instead of cry – and get something to think about, aside from wanting to sit there ourselves.
But between the images of celebrities, retired ball players, and people’s pets were faces with stories that went much deeper than the two dimensions of a Correx snippet. You just had to know where to look. Let’s say, along the front row of the outfield at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. There you could have seen Michelle and Jake Taylor, a mother and her teenage son.
If you looked closely, you could also have seen a series of dog tags draped around the boy’s neckline with a photo attached to it. It was the smiling face of husband and father, Army Major David G. Taylor, who died almost 14 years ago while serving in Iraq.
Big league pitcher Alex Cobb added the items to Jake’s clipping and didn’t let the fanless season stop his annual visit to the Taylors as he became an unlikely adopted member of the family.
Cobb and the Taylors were linked by a mutual loss, but they built a bond that overcame grief, distance and, thanks to some photo clippings, a global pandemic.
“That familiar voice”
Jake Taylor was born in Tampa on June 28, 2006. The Taylors had a place in Germany, but Michelle had returned to her parents’ home for the baby’s arrival to be with her parents in Florida. David rushed home from his station in Iraq to attend the delivery. Although the visit lasted only a precious few weeks, David worked hard to fill it with memories.
“He was there for Jake’s christening,” recalls Michelle. “He videotaped himself reading books to Jake so Jake could remember his voice. We were like, ‘You know, it’ll only be a few months.’ I don’t think he ever did because he thought he wouldn’t survive. I think he just wanted Jake to have that familiar voice when he got back from Iraq. “
David proudly wore the infant’s spit on a uniform littered with decorations including a bronze star. He came from a military family – a great-grandfather who fought in World War I, a grandfather who was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, and a father who served in Vietnam. Michelle’s father had also been to Vietnam.
So David and Michelle agreed that he should continue his army career, even with a small one at home. They also knew that he didn’t have long before this tour would be over. Upon his return from Baghdad, he would be relocated to Germany, where Michelle and Jake would join him. They had already chosen a place, but they also knew that the time in between would be dangerous. David had recently been voluntarily transferred from a comfortable desk job in an Iraqi palace being converted into an army headquarters to a frontline patrol on the city’s unpredictable streets. He always felt guilty for occupying a desk while his co-workers were spending their days in the line of fire, so he made up his mind to not just join them but run them as a major.
On October 22, 2006, Taylor was part of a convoy of four vehicles headed north out of town to meet another officer who arrived at a nearby base. His driver was another Taylor, not related, but a close friend after their time together. Sgt. Brian Taylor had been Major Taylor’s assigned driver since David retired from his palace job. Over the course of four months, Sgt. Taylor and Maj. Taylor learned firsthand about the ubiquitous dangers of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), also known as street bombs. They had become such experts in the field that it was to be a large part of their conversations with the incoming officers later that afternoon.
As always, Sgt. Taylor suggested to Major Taylor that they follow the standard protocol for senior officers in convoys and sit in the back of a vehicle, a much safer place than driving a shotgun in the leading Humvee. But he also knew what the answer would be.
“I was used to Maj. Taylor taking the lead car. He insisted. He wanted to be first,” said Sgt. Brian Taylor, known to most simply as BT, recalls. “It’s part of his nature. He wouldn’t ask us anything he wouldn’t do himself, and he believed it. As the head of this mission, he thought he should go first. … That’s how it worked. He wanted to lead us and not follow us. “
As the convoy rolled north from Forward Operating Base Falcon, the two Taylors talked about Jake and the diary David kept for his son – memories of his military service, explanations of his duties, and why he had chosen to attend in Iraq to be and not at home. They were in a good mood and had reason to be; they were less than two weeks from the end of this Iraqi tour. David’s reunion with Michelle and little Jake was only a few days away.
“The last thing I remember that day was talking about Christmas plans, what we were going to do, and then all of a sudden everything went black,” recalls Brian. “I passed out and woke up to a Humvee full of smoke and ashes with no idea what was going on. The vehicle was still moving. And I braked, obviously assuming we’d been hit and I could .. . don’t operate on my leg. “
It was an IED, a bucket-sized bomb filled with shards of copper to shred metal and flesh, that exploded when the Humvee passed an intersection. Sgt. Taylor heard screams behind him. It was the gunner of the vehicle, whose legs were now missing. He looked down and saw that a piece of metal had pierced his own leg and blood was flowing. Then he looked over at the passenger seat. David Taylor had collapsed.
“I knew right away that he was dead,” recalls Brian. “And that was my second thought: ‘Oh my god, he’s dead.’ I just couldn’t believe it. “
Maj. David G. Taylor was 37 years old.
“It was a Sunday and I just came out of church and was sitting in my bedroom. I was breastfeeding Jake and my mother came in and said I had to come to the door,” recalls Michelle on October 22, 2006. “As I walked down the hall I could see the notification officers. I knew in that moment I knew what I was. I tried to get the paper out of their hands, hoping that if I looked at it, it would would be … the wrong name. And I just said, ‘My baby, my baby.’ I’m fine, but what about Jake? “
The days, weeks and months flew by, so many lost in the fog of mourning. Michelle and Jake stayed in Tampa. The four other men who were in the Humvee with David all survived but suffered serious injuries.
“For years I struggled with the guilt of the survivors, especially with Maj. Taylor, his life, a woman, a child. At the time, I was only 20 years old. I cried myself to sleep for years, “says Brian Taylor Taylor now. “At that point the army was the biggest thing I had ever done, the most important thing in my life, so it would have been okay for me to die that way. But for him, with a child and a wife and .. With a family who loved him, it just felt unfair, to be honest, that it couldn’t be me instead. “
Brian lost his right leg in the explosion and had to learn to walk again. He tried to go to college but couldn’t concentrate. He stayed in constant contact with David’s family throughout the period.
“He reached out to Jake from the start,” says Michelle. “He wrote him a letter from Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center]where he was treated for his injuries and told Jake that he wanted to be there for him and promised to be there for him forever. “
“We were all together in the ballpark”
After moving to Tampa in 2013, Brian Taylor was invited to Ray’s spring training as a guest of the Wounded Warrior Project.
A group of military veterans, all grappling with various injuries, were given a tour of the ballpark, went to the field to hit flies during punch training, and sat in the dugout to chat with Rays players. The most talkative of the group was Alex Cobb, who met Taylor during pre-game activities. Taylor asked Cobb if he would mind giving him his glove, a present for the son of a friend with whom he had served in Iraq. Cobb obeyed, but asked Taylor to tell him more about this child and his family. So the soldier told the pitcher what had happened to him in Baghdad about David, Michelle and Jake.
Cobb went on to share his own family’s experience of the dangers of war. On September 2, 2008, Cobb’s older brother, R.J. an army platoon leader stationed in northeast Iraq. He was in a Humvee with four others when their vehicle was hit by an RKG-3 anti-tank shell. Like the IED that was ripped through Taylor’s vehicle two years earlier, the explosion filled R.J.’s Humvee with hot shards of copper. R.J.’s face was scarred from the glowing metal. R. J. and the other four passengers survived the terrifying scarcity, but the news rocked Alex, then 21, who was still stumbling from losing his mother to a stroke three years earlier.
Taylor was stunned by Cobb’s willingness to tell his family story, a story he told Michelle and Jake when he delivered the glove that evening. Jake wrote and sent a thank you letter to Cobb.
“There was a letter on mine [clubhouse] Chair, which is weird, “says Cobb.” We usually have a mailbox that we go in and get things. I still don’t know how it got there. Michelle wanted to know if there might be a way to get the glove signed. “
Cobb texted Michelle saying he would do a lot better. He wanted Jake to pitch the first game, get the VIP tour, meet Rays – it works. Across town, Michelle couldn’t believe the timing of the text. It was August 11th, David’s birthday.
“Such things have happened over and over again throughout our relationship,” says Cobb. “Where it looks like Dave is, you know, smiles down and gives us little indications that he’s there.”
Jake and Michelle came to the trop and received red carpet treatment. After the kid smoked the first pitch, the Taylors and Cobb posed for a photo. Jake, now almost 16, remembers what Cobb said to him that day: “I said it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And then Alex said, ‘No, it wasn’t anymore’ as if he really wanted to stay in my life. “
He has. Cobb and the Taylors have stayed in constant touch since that day – nearly a decade of birthday wishes and encouragement from Cobb, from Little League Homers to great testimonials. And at least once every baseball season they have a face-to-face meeting at the trop to snap a picture. They never missed that date for seven years, even after Cobb joined the Baltimore Orioles in 2018.
At one of these meetings, Jake and Michelle gave Cobb a number of dog tags. On one side was David Taylor’s smiling face; on the flip side, a popular Taylor family motivational mantra often used by avid runner David and his military relatives: Don’t stop when things go uphill.
“For us, it’s just a reminder to keep going,” explains Michelle. “This life is going to be tough, but you just have to keep working and pushing and eventually you will reach the top of the hill where you can take a break because you can run.”
When the Orioles pitching rotation had him on the hill on Memorial Day 2018, he wore his David Taylor dog tags around his neck and made sure he had them on whenever he saw the Taylors on their visits to Tampa.
Then came 2020 and COVID-19. There would be baseball, but it would be played without fans. Michelle and Jake realized that there would be no Rays games for them this summer, but when they heard about the fan cutout program, they took the chance. They got a first-class seat in the front row of the outfield. Michelle snapped a photo in her Rays jersey while holding an American flag embroidered by a friend that read “In Loving Memory Major David. G. Taylor Jr.” held in hand. Jake also wears a Tampa jersey, but a bright orange shirt underneath; it’s his Alex Cobb Orioles jersey.
“I also have the ball for the first field and my glove, which he signed,” says Jake of his Correx portrait. “We knew exactly where they were and we were excited to see a ball hit that way. Every few games we got text messages that they’d seen our cardboard clipping on TV.”
The Orioles made only one trip to Tampa during the shortened season, a two-day visit on August 25th and 26th. Cobb knew what he was going to do. He planned to find the Taylor clippings and take a selfie to send them to keep their photo – Op Streak alive. A couple of nights before the trip, he was rummaging through a bedside table drawer looking for something when suddenly the dog tag appeared. He is convinced that David has once again set an example – and certainly an idea.
On August 25, Michelle and Jake’s phones were buzzing. There was a text with a photo attached. Cobb posed with their cutouts in the outfield of Trop, but this time another face had joined the trio.
“I was so happy he sent the picture, but when I looked more closely and saw the dog tags, I just tore it up,” says Michelle. “It felt like Alex brought Dave there too. It was like completing our family. Me and Jake, we sat out there with our clippings, and Alex went and brought Dave out with us. We were all at the ballpark “together.”
They stayed in the front row together for the remainder of the 2020 season when the three Taylors watched the Rays make their unlikely run to the World Series over a long list of walk-off thrillers.
The Taylors will resume their personal visits to Cobb next month when his new team, the Los Angeles Angels, visit Tampa this last weekend in June. The family without a father. The pitcher that almost lost a brother. The soldier, still struggling to survive, found peace in the knowledge that he had brought them together.
“It just reminds me that we’re all together,” says Jake. “We’re all in this together. We all go through the same things and we need to remember that we’re not alone.”