By BEN SHATZMAN
On May 31, in his second at bat in his MLB debut, Oscar Taveras hit a home run. The homer did not come as a surprise to Cardinals fans. Widely regarded as a top prospect in all of baseball, it was only a matter of time before the Cardinals found a place for the 22-year-old outfielder on their roster. May 31 marked a fitting beginning of what was to be a legendary baseball career.
And then two weeks ago, in Game 2 of the NLCS versus the Giants, Taveras stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning, with the Cardinals trailing by one run. Again, Taveras delivered, launching a solo home run into the right field seats of Busch Stadium. The exuberant fans cheered for a curtain call, which Taveras accepted. Waving his helmet in the air was Oscar Taveras’ way of introducing himself to the loyal St. Louis Cardinals fans.
But on Sunday, in his native Dominican Republic, Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend passed away in a car accident. He was just 22-years-old. Conditions were poor when Taveras’ 2014 Chevrolet Camaro veered off of the highway, crashed, and reportedly killed the two instantly. The promise of a rising star ended forever — far, far too soon.
The people of St. Louis live for their Cardinals. They breathe baseball. My father, a St. Louis native, was raised a diehard Cardinals fan, and he raised me the same way that my grandfather raised him. My father grew up watching Stan Musial lead the Redbirds to multiple titles. I watched Albert Pujols do the same. And I had dreams of my children and I watching Oscar Taveras follow in the footsteps of the Cardinal greats.
Taveras’ potential was such that dreams of him being the “next Pujols” seemed realistic. For several years Taveras was rated as not just the Cardinals’ top prospect, but among the top in all of baseball. He dominated in the minor leagues, and by the time he was called-up in May, he was hitting .325 in AAA Memphis. He was a natural hitter with a smooth swing. No matter the potential, it is only a rare few – the Mike Trouts, the Bryce Harpers – who make it to the majors at such a young age. And even so, for Cards’ fans, Taveras’ call-up felt long overdue. Yes, he was only 22, but there was so much hype for three years, and Cards’ fans wanted to see their rising star immediately. The team traded right-fielder Allen Craig to the Red Sox, seemingly to open a spot for Taveras. Although he hit just .239 in his rookie season, Taveras showed flashes of brilliance, and created memories that will last forever in St. Louis – and in the entire baseball world. But his death leaves the unanswered question as to what could have been.
While baseball lost a budding superstar, the Taveras family lost a loved one. His parents lost a son; his best friends lost a best friend. While Oscar Taveras was a stellar baseball player to most, he was just a regular guy to many. It can be easy to forget that athletes — people we see so often on television, and people we look up to — are people too: baseball is simply an occupation. The loss of life at such a young age is an unspeakable tragedy no matter the person, and I am overcome with sadness for all who knew Oscar Taveras on a personal level.
Those who did know Taveras, like his teammates and his manager Mike Matheny, had only great things to say about the young man. His positive characteristics were evident through watching the television: the way he celebrated when a teammate hit a home run, the way he greeted the player with his contagious smile, the way his teammates celebrated his postseason home run, and so on. It was clear that Taveras was a guy who took baseball seriously and a person people wanted to be around. Mike Matheny said that the Cardinals “… loved Oscar, and Oscar loved us.”
The same day the Taveras was killed, the fifth game of the World Series was taking place in San Francisco. Giants’ catcher Buster Posey summed up the situation perfectly following the game: “I heard about it in the fourth and had a sinking feeling in my gut. My first thought though was, this game is not that important.” Baseball lost a rising superstar, but the world lost a 22-year-old man and his 18-year-old girlfriend. It is not just about Oscar Taveras the athlete; it is about Oscar Taveras the person.
We will never know how Oscar Taveras’ potential would have played out in the majors. I am happy to have been able to catch a brief glimpse of a player’s career that was cut way too short. It is comforting to know that with his curtain call in the NLCS, Oscar Taveras was able to say goodbye to the fans of St. Louis, and baseball fans around the world. I will never forget you, Oscar Taveras.