‘He completed our family’ – How a cardboard cutout kept Alex Cobb’s promise to a fallen soldier’s son

‘He completed our family’ – How a cardboard cutout kept Alex Cobb’s promise to a fallen soldier’s son

On May 25th, 2015, the world lost a 21 year old young man who was serving in the US army. On May 28th, 2016, he died. He was Sergeant First Class Michael Malinowski. He was set to deploy to Afghanistan the next day, but he was killed in an attack.

How does a baseball pitcher keep a promise to a fallen soldier’s son? Alex Cobb, the pitcher of the Tampa Bay Rays, learned that lesson the hard way. He was thousands of miles away from his family when a devastating car accident left him badly injured in October 2012. Out of options, Alex and his wife, Rebecca, turned to a cardboard cutout. They placed the figure on Alex’s hospital bed and promised to care for him in his absence. The cutout, named “Alex”, became a fixture at Alex’s bedside at Martin Memorial Hospital in Stuart, Florida.

Major League Baseball’s craze for cut-out figures in 2020 was never just a craze. Pandemic fun. Faces glued to the chairs in the basketball park so we can laugh instead of cry – and have something to think about besides the fact that we’d like to sit there ourselves. But among the images of celebrities, retired baseball players and pets were faces with stories that went far beyond the two dimensions of the Correx disc. You just had to know where to look. For example, along the front row of the outfield at Tropicana Field, where the Tampa Bay Rays play. Then we saw the resemblance between Michelle and Jake Taylor, a mother and her teenage son. If you looked closely, you could see a row of medals worn around the neck of the sculpted boy, with a plate attached. It was the smiling face of her husband and father, Army Major David G. Taylor, who died almost 14 years ago while serving in Iraq. Major League pitcher Alex Cobb completed the Jake Cup and won’t let a fanless season keep him from making his annual visit to the Taylors since he became an unlikely supporting member. Cobb and the Taylors shared a common loss, but forged a bond that transcended grief, distance and, via a few cropped photos, a global pandemic.

The familiar voice

David Taylor returned to Iraq for a new mission shortly after Michelle gave birth to their son Jake. The Taylor family Jake Taylor was born on the 28th. Born June 2006 in Tampa. The Taylors had a home in Germany, but Michelle returned to her childhood home to be with her parents in Florida when the baby came. David rushed back from his service in Iraq to attend the birth. Although the visit lasted only a few precious weeks, David did his best to fill it with memories. He was there for Jake’s baptism, Michelle recalls. He filmed himself reading books to Jake so Jake could remember his voice. We thought: You know, it’s only a few months. I don’t think he did it because he didn’t think he could. I think he wanted to give Jake a familiar voice when he got back from Iraq. David proudly wore the spit baby on his uniform, which was studded with awards, including the Bronze Star. He comes from a military family: his great-grandfather fought in the First World War, his grandfather was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge and his father served in Vietnam. Michelle’s father also served in Vietnam. Consequently, David and Michelle agreed that he should continue his career in the military, even with a young child at home. They also knew he wouldn’t be on this tour for long. After returning from Baghdad, he was transferred to Germany, where Michelle and Jake joined him. They had already chosen a place, but they also knew that the time in between would be dangerous. David has recently been transferred from his lazy job in an Iraqi palace that has become army headquarters, to patrol the unpredictable streets of the city. He always felt guilty sitting behind a desk while his colleagues spent their days in the line of fire, so he decided to not only join them, but lead them with the rank of major. The 22nd. In October 2006, Taylor was part of a convoy of four vehicles that left the city north to join another officer who had arrived at a nearby base. His driver was another Taylor, not a native but a close friend, who had served together. Sergeant Brian Taylor is Major Taylor’s designated driver since David quit his job on the farm. Over the course of four months, Sergeant Taylor and Major Taylor learned firsthand the ongoing dangers of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), also known as roadside bombs. They had become such experts on the subject that it must have been an important part of their conversation with the arriving officers in the afternoon. As he always did, Sergeant Taylor suggested to Major Taylor that he follow standard protocol for senior officers in column and take a seat in the back of the car at the rear of the formation – a much safer place than in the lead Humvee. But he also knew what the answer would be. David Taylor comes from a military family. His great-grandfather fought in World War I, his grandfather was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, and his father served in Vietnam. The Taylor family I’m used to Major Taylor taking the lead car. He insisted. He wanted to be the first, recalls Sergeant Brian Taylor, known to all as BT. This is consistent with its nature. He asked us not to do something he didn’t do himself, and he believed in it. As the leader of this mission, he felt he should come first. … That’s how he acted. He wanted to lead us, not follow us. As the convoy leaves Forward Operating Base Falcon in the north, the Taylor couple discuss Jake and the journal David keeps for his son: Memories of his military service, explanations of the service and why he chose Iraq over his country. They were in a good mood, and for good reason: They had less than two weeks for their tour of Iraq. David’s reunion with Michelle and little Jake was only a matter of days away. The last thing I remember about that day is that we were talking about our plans for Christmas, what we were going to do, and then suddenly everything went dark, Brian recalls. I passed out and woke up in a Humvee full of smoke and ash, not knowing what was going on. The car was still moving. And I slowed down because I clearly realized that we had been hit and I couldn’t control my foot. It was an improvised explosive device, a bucket-sized bomb filled with copper shrapnel designed to shatter metal and flesh, that exploded as the Hummer crossed the intersection. Sergeant Taylor heard shouting behind him. It was the shooter from the car, who had no legs. He looked down and found his own leg pierced by a piece of metal and bleeding from it. Then he looked at the passenger seat. David Taylor chuckled. I knew immediately that he was dead, Brian recalls. And that was my second thought: Oh, my God, he’s dead. I couldn’t believe it. Major David G. Taylor was 37 years old. It was a Sunday, I had just returned from church and was sitting in my room. I was breastfeeding Jake and my mom came in and told me to come to the door, Michelle recalls of her 22nd birthday. October 2006. As I walked up the hallway, I saw the officers briefing me. In that moment, I realized what I was. I tried to snatch the paper from their hands, hoping it would be the wrong name when I looked at the paper. And I just said: My baby, my baby. I’m fine, but what about Jake? Days, weeks and months passed, many lost in the fog of grief. Michelle and Jake stayed in Tampa. Four other men in the Humvee with David survived but were seriously injured. I have been struggling with survivor’s guilt for years, especially for Major Taylor, his life, a wife and child. I was only 20 years old at the time. For years I cried myself to sleep, Brian Taylor says now. At the time, the military was the best thing I had ever done, the most important thing in my life, so I would have been okay with dying that way. But for him, with a child, a wife, and a family that loved him, it honestly wasn’t fair that it couldn’t have been me. As a result of the explosion, Brian lost his right leg and had to learn to walk again. He tried to go to college, but he had a hard time concentrating. During this time, he remained in constant contact with David’s family. According to Michelle, he’s been looking for Jake all along. He wrote him a letter from Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center], where he was being treated for his injuries, and told Jake that he wanted to be there for him and promised to be there forever.

We were all together at the ballpark

Sergeant Brian Taylor (right), who served in the Army with Major David Taylor, remained a friend of Jake (front photo) and Michelle. He met Alex Cobb at the Wounded Warrior Project event at Tropicana Field in 2013. The Taylor family After moving to Tampa in 2013, Brian Taylor was invited to the Rays’ spring training as a guest of the Wounded Warrior Project. A group of military veterans, all with various injuries, were given a tour of the stadium, went onto the field during batting practice to do pitching drills, and sat in the dugout to talk to the Rays’ players. The loudest of all is Alex Cobb, who met Taylor at pre-game events. Taylor asks Cobb if he will give him his glove, a gift for the son of a friend he served with in Iraq. Cobb agreed, but asked Taylor to tell him more about the child and his family. The soldier then told the pitcher what had happened to him in Baghdad, about David, Michelle and Jake. Cobb went on to describe how his family dealt with the dangers of war. The second one. In September 2008, Cobb’s older brother, R.J., was stationed in northeastern Iraq as an Army platoon leader. He was in the Humvee with four other people when their vehicle was hit by an RKG-3 anti-tank shell. Like the explosive that destroyed Taylor’s car two years earlier, the blast filled RJ’s Humvee with glowing copper shrapnel. RJ’s face was covered in scars from the glowing metal. R.J. and the other four passengers survived the horrific accident, but the news came as a shock to 21-year-old Alex, who was still suffering from the loss of his mother, who had suffered a stroke three years earlier. Taylor was overwhelmed by Cobb’s willingness to share his family’s story, which he shared with Michelle and Jake when he took up the gauntlet that night. Jake wrote and sent a thank you note to Cobb. There was a letter on my chair [at the club], which is weird, Cobb said. We usually have a mailbox where we go to get things. I still don’t know how it got there. Michelle wanted to know if there was a way to get an autographed glove. Regardless of which MLB city Alex Cobb lives in (he currently plays for the Los Angeles Angels), he hasn’t failed to bond with Jake Taylor and his family since they met in 2013. The Taylor family Cobb texted Michelle and said he would do much better. He wanted Jake to throw the first ball during the game, get a VIP tour, go see the Rays – the whole riot. Across town, Michelle couldn’t believe the news was still going on. It was the eleventh. August, David’s birthday. This kind of thing has happened throughout our relationship, Cobb says. Where it feels like Dave is smiling at us and giving us little signs that he is there. Jake and Michelle went to the Trop and got the red carpet. After the kid hits the first pitch, the Taylors and Cobb take a souvenir photo. Jake, now almost 16, remembers what Cobb said to him that day: I said this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And then Alex said: No, it isn’t. We’ll do it more often, like he really wants to stay in my life. It does. Since that day, Cobb and the Taylors have been in constant contact. For nearly a decade, Cobb congratulated them on their birthdays and encouraged them for everything from victories in the Little League to outstanding school records. And at least once a baseball season, they meet in person at the Trop to take pictures. They’ve never missed that deadline in seven years, even after Cobb was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in 2018. At one of these meetings, Jake and Michelle Cobb presented a set of commemorative medals. On one side the smiling face of David Taylor, on the other a popular motivational mantra of the Taylor family, often used by David, an avid runner, and his military parents: Don’t give up the climb. For us, it’s just a reminder to keep going, Michelle says. This life will be hard, but keep working, keep pushing, and eventually you will reach the top of the hill where you can take a break because you can walk. Alex Cobb’s older brother, R.J. (right), survived an IED explosion while serving as a platoon leader in northeastern Iraq in 2008. The Cobb family When Orioles pitchers took the field with him on Memorial Day 2018, he wore a David Taylor badge around his neck and made sure to wear it every time he saw the Taylors on their visits to Tampa. Then came 2020 and COVID-19. There will be baseball, but it will be played without fans. Michelle and Jake knew there would be no Rays game for them this summer, but when they heard about the fan exchange program, they seized their opportunity. You have the best seat in the front row on the field. Michelle was photographed wearing a Rays jersey and holding an American flag sewn by a friend that read In Memory of Major David. Г. Taylor Jr. Jake is also wearing a Tampa jersey, but with a bright orange shirt underneath; it’s his Alex Cobb Orioles jersey. I also have a first-pitch ball and my glove that he signed, Jake said of his resemblance to Correx. We knew exactly where they were, and we were excited when we saw the ball go that way. Every few games we got a text message saying we had seen our cardboard character on TV. The Orioles made just one trip to Tampa during the season shortened by lockouts, a two-day visit on the 25th and 26th. August. Cobb knew what he was going to do: He planned to find the messed up Taylors and take selfies to send to them to save their photo series. A few nights before the trip he was rummaging in the drawer of his nightstand, looking for something, when suddenly the chips appeared. He is convinced that David has given another sign – and an idea. The 25th. August, Michelle and Jake’s phone rang. A message came in with a picture attached. Cobb posed with his Trop Field clippings, but this time a different face joined the trio. I was so happy he sent a picture, but when I looked closer and saw the signs, I had to cry, Michelle says. It seemed that Alex had taken Dave with him as well. It’s like he’s been added to our family. Me and Jake sat down with our models and Alex went over to Dave and joined us. We were all together at the stadium. They stayed together in the leadoff spot until the end of the 2020 season, as the three Taylors watched the Rays improbably reach the World Series – and in a long line of thrillers. The Taylors will meet Cobb again in person next month when his new team, the Los Angeles Angels, visits Tampa the last weekend of June. Fatherless family. The pitcher who almost lost his brother. The soldier, still struggling to survive, finds solace in reuniting them. It just reminds me that we’re all in this together, Jake said. We’re all in this together. We are all going through the same thing, and we need to remember that we are not alone. With fans not allowed to attend games in the 2020 MLB season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Alex Cobb continued his tradition of meeting the Taylor family by taking a photo with their cardboard silhouettes at a Rays game….. The Taylor family… …and Cobb put a picture of Major David Taylor around the neck of Jake, who was cut open. The Taylor family

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