Former Athletics’ Closer Billy Taylor Ranks Third All-Time for Oakland Saves
There’s a saying in the minor leagues: “Persistence Can Change Failure into Extraordinary Achievement.”
After more than 14 years of riding minor league buses to away games, sleeping in B-rated motels on the road, and playing for little money, Oakland Athletics relief pitcher Billy Taylor had to be the happiest player after 1994 spring training closed when Manager Tony La Russa informed him he had made the major league club.
At the age of 32, with his entire career spent in the minor leagues since being signed in 1980 by the Texas Rangers, the 6’8” Taylor hit AAA in 1986 only to never “get the call.” After arm problems and being released by the San Diego Padres organization in 1990, Taylor was briefly out of baseball until he signed a AA contract with the Atlanta Braves late that season. After two seasons at AAA in Richmond, where he had posted 26 saves in 27 save opportunities with a 1.98 ERA, he was signed as a free agent with the Athletics after a visit by La Russa who was in search of a competent reliever for his then-struggling team who had years earlier been AL Champs three years in a row.
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Taylor made his long-delayed major league debut in the A’s season opener at Milwaukee on April 5, 1994 pitching a perfect 7th inning in relief, fanning Kevin Seitzer and Greg Vaughn and then getting Turner Ward to fly out. He got his first save three days later. In the 1994 season, Taylor got into 41 games as a setup man with 45 innings of work posting a 1-3 record with a 3.50 ERA for the Athletics. But, Taylor’s big league dream was threatened due to the 1994 Players Strike that shutdown the rest of the season on Aug. 12. In 1995, more jeopardy struck Taylor’s big league career hopes as he was out of baseball all of that year recovering from elbow surgery.
In 1996, the 34-year-old Taylor was once again in baseball purgatory pitching for the A’s AAA team in Edmonton. Three weeks into the new season, Manager Art Howe, desperately in need of a replacement for Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley, who had departed the Athletics via a trade for the St. Louis Cardinals to be with LaRussa, called up Taylor, who only had a partial season of MLB ball on his resume, to become the A’s closer. For the season, Taylor wound up saving 17 games in 19 chances and allowed only five of 34 inherited runners to score, the best percentage (14.7%) in the majors that year.
From 1996-1999, Taylor saved 99 games for the Athletics, who unfortunately were not much a threat in the AL. His best season came in 1998, where he had 33 saves (eighth in the AL), and a 3.58 ERA. On July 31, 1999, he was traded by the Athletics to the New York Mets for Jason Isringhausen who would become the A’s closer in subsequent pennant chases.
Taylor played for the Mets, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Pittsburgh Pirates before retiring from baseball in 2001. Overall, Taylor had pitched in over 800 professional baseball games, but only 317 were on the major league level. He ranks 3rd on the A’s all-time saves list, behind Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Eckersley, and was one of the most consistent closers in the game when with the Athletics.