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Indians’ Cone begins pro career with friend in mind

Spokane Indians outfielder Zach Cone is the Rangers no. 1 pick. While playing for the University of Georgia last March, outfielders Zach Cone and teammate Johnathan Taylor collided leaving Taylor partially paralyzed. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Indians outfielder Zach Cone is the Rangers no. 1 pick. While playing for the University of Georgia last March, outfielders Zach Cone and teammate Johnathan Taylor collided leaving Taylor partially paralyzed. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

University of Georgia teammates Zach Cone and Johnathan Taylor were pursuing a line drive in the left-center field gap when a horrific collision ensued in early March.

Cone, who was playing left field, said it happened so fast it’s all a blur to him. Both players dove for the ball that was still in the air when Taylor’s neck struck Cone’s right hip.

Taylor suffered two broken vertebrae in his spine and is paralyzed from the waist down. Although he has some use of his arms and hands, he is considered a tetraplegic.

“It all happened so quick,” said Cone, the 37th pick overall by the Texas Rangers in the draft earlier this month. “He’s like my brother, one of my best friends.”

The majority of people with Taylor’s type of injury never walk again. But Taylor and his family are hopeful that he’ll defy the odds. And it’s Taylor’s goal to play baseball again.

If he does recover to the point of playing again, it very well could be with Texas. The Rangers, as a goodwill gesture, drafted Taylor in the 33rd round.

“That was pretty cool,” said Cone, who is off to a hot start with the Spokane Indians. “They (Texas officials) called me and woke me up and asked me if they drafted Johnathan if he’d take it the wrong way. They wanted to do something nice for him.”

Had Taylor not been injured, it was expected he would have been drafted anywhere between the seventh and 12th rounds.

Cone, a native of a suburb of Atlanta, keeps in regular touch with Taylor.

“He’s already made great progress,” Cone said. “He’s supposed to move home for the summer from the (rehabilitation center) soon. It’s supposed to be an 18-month rehab before things start coming back, but he’s already getting a lot back now.”

The incident, along with some other things, made for a difficult junior season for Cone.

“I just had a hard year,” Cone said. “There were a bunch of things I went through on and off the field.”

It was particularly noticeable at the plate. Cone’s average dropped from .363 as a sophomore to .275. He hit 10 homers and had 53 RBIs as a sophomore and hit just four homers and knocked in 35 runs this spring.

Cone admits the collision with Taylor affected his season.

“It had an impact,” he said. “It’s hard to deal with when it’s your best friend that got hurt.”

Somehow, Cone wasn’t distracted on defense, as he didn’t commit an error in 161 chances. He was named to the Southeastern Conference’s all-defensive team.

Cone didn’t arrive in Spokane until the day of the Indians’ fourth game. He made his debut the following night.

It didn’t take long for Cone to impress Indians manager Tim Hulett.

“He’s a five-tool guy. He’s got the complete package,” Hulett said. “We knew he had a down year and had some issues. So you wonder how he’s going to make the transition here. But he’s been impressive out of the gate.

“Most of the time there are things that they have to work on. He came in and was ready to go.”

Through 10 games, Cone was batting .326 (14 for 43), third best on the team behind Trever Adams (.395) and Guillermo Pimentel (.340).

Cone was drafted in the third round out of high school in 2008 by the Los Angeles Angels. He had already signed with Georgia. He considered signing with Los Angeles.

“I asked for a little more than they offered,” Cone said. “Georgia had just gone to the (College) World Series, so I just felt real confident with my decision to go there.”

Scott Boras, the well-known agent of many of the top professional players, is Cone’s agent. Drafted players represented by Boras have a tendency to let contract negotiations drag out through the summer. In Cone’s case he had some leverage because he could have returned to Georgia for his senior season.

Cone, though, knew what he wanted to do.

“My goal is to play in the big leagues and I wasn’t going to do that by sitting in my house all summer,” Cone said.

He knows that Spokane is a good place to start in the Rangers’ organization.

“I like being in an organization that develops its players and brings them along,” Cone said. “Texas definitely has that reputation.”

Hulett sees Cone rising precipitously through Texas’ system.

“He’s a real coachable, teachable guy who can process what you teach him and put it into play right away,” Hulett said. “I see him working his way through the system quickly.”

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