Five seasons of pro baseball in independent leagues has led to Taylor Oldham playing everywhere from desert towns to the suburbs of Cincinnati — and the 27-year-old isn’t ready to hang it up yet.
Taylor Oldham was done.
After being cut by two independent professional baseball teams before the 2013 season had started, the former local standout and son of CFCA coach Larry Oldham was ready to call his brief professional baseball career quits. Being cut twice was discouraging — as was making phone calls to other clubs that were not returned and sending letters likely not read.
“It really wasn’t clicking for me,” Oldham, now 27, recalls. “I told my dad I was done and I flew home.”
There was one team that did call, though — the Taos Blizzard, a former team in the Pecos League. Oldham had a change of heart — he was just 23 and it felt early to give up completely on his dream — and signed with the Blizzard.
It was a unique experience, to say the least. The Pecos League operates in desert mountain cities in the Southwestern United States. But, it kept him in the game.
Three years later, after completing his most successful season to date with the Florence Freedom of the Frontier League — Oldham led his team in hits (107), RBIs (65) and home runs (14) this summer — the Southwest Orange native is appreciative of the season he spent with the now-defunct franchise.
“That (season) saved my career,” Oldham says frankly, adding, “It was good to finally see it pay off this year.”
'It's pro ball'
Oldham grew up in Dr. Phillips and was home-schooled in high school, playing his varsity baseball for Dr. Phillips as a freshman, CFCA as sophomore and finishing his at The First Academy.
After playing collegiately for Covenant College and Tennessee Wesleyan — where he won a national championship in 2012 — Oldham went undrafted out of school. That’s when independent baseball — or professional baseball unaffiliated with Major League Baseball or its minor leagues— first popped up on his radar.
“I got a call from the Washington WildThings of the Frontier League,” Oldham recalled. “I show up and it’s a beautiful stadium seating 3,000 fans. … I’m like ‘okay — it’s pro ball.’”
Oldham found that, while less glamorous, independent ball is real professional baseball. The teams are competitive, many of the stadiums are impressive, the fans show up and care — and the checks cash.
“People go ‘oh, is that semi-pro?’” Oldham said, describing conversations with friends unfamiliar with the leagues he has played in. “As I get older it doesn’t insult me, but when I was younger it bothered me. People definitely underestimate, but people don’t believe things until they see it.”
Most people also wouldn’t believe how tough it can be to make it. Unlike in the minor leagues, where players are there to develop and improve so they might one day contribute to an MLB club, a job in independent ball is purely performance based.
“It’s a very cutthroat environment in independent ball — they’re not going to let you sit there and hit .200 because they want you to develop,” Oldham said. “That was the biggest adjustment for me — you’re not competing against guys you see. You’re competing against guys you don’t see. If you’re not performing, they’re going to go find someone that is.”
The independent life
Navigating a career in the various leagues — from the lower-tier Pecos League on up to the Atlantic League, which is regarded as a top independent league — can mean having to market yourself.
Pay can be low — as low as $600 a month in some leagues, higher in others — but it has the potential to create a nice living for some players.
“There’s a living to be made if you can get up there to that level,” Oldham said.
Then, of course, there’s the pursuit of the dream. Players get inspired when someone like Stephen Cardullo, now on the roster for the Colorado Rockies after independent stops that included Florence, makes it to “the Show.”
“I think it’s kind of like a drug. We’re all kind of like ‘oh, it’s possible,’” explains Oldham. “It happens and it drives people to want to keep going forward.”
Players are expected to interact with fans and sign autographs, and sometimes the gimmicks to get people out to the ballpark can be fun or just plain funky: Oldham has seen dog races, odd performances and even had Pete Rose coach third base for his team as a stunt.
'I can’t say I’ve ever been unhappy since I started playing professional baseball.'
— Taylor Oldham
There’s also plenty of moving around and living with host families — things that can cramp the style of a young man in his mid-20s.
“It’s different — you definitely give up certain things,” Oldham admitted. “It’s not easy to have that perfect relationship you would have with a girlfriend or a wife.”
Luckily, Oldham says he has had a strong support base back here in Southwest Orange, anchored by his father.
“My dad has been my main support,” Oldham said. “He was always behind me. He’s definitely been my life coach in that area.”
Oldham has loved playing professional baseball, but has also considered hanging it up several times.
Most recently, Oldham had told himself that 2016 would be his last season — unless he met a certain criteria that would make sense for him to keep going. As his breakout season checked off every box on that list, Oldham realized he wasn’t done just yet.
“I think it’s God telling me I need to go for another season,” Oldham said.
In two weeks, Oldham will leave for Barranquilla, Colombia, where he will play winter ball. In the spring, he plans to upgrade to a team for either the American Association or the Atlantic League.
One day, he knows, he will have to get what most folks would call a real job. In that regard, he has a degree and an interest in finance. For now, he’s happy to keep living in the moment and seeing just where baseball will take him because, for every person wondering what he is thinking, there is another who will tell him how cool it is that he is living his dream.
“That really sticks with me — I look forward to having zero regrets whenever I finish playing,” Oldham said. “I can’t say I’ve ever been unhappy since I started playing professional baseball.”