Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Oscar Taveras, RF, St. Louis Cardinals

There is a purpose to sports that stretches well beyond stats and a final score. It is a great diversion; a chance to let go the things that we experience day to day and live vicariously through the accomplishments of a favored team or player. In truth, sports run this country to a degree. So often the nation's attention is drawn to certain events in such a manner that it is nearly considered a holiday. Sports allow us to cheer and feel wide stretches of emotion all within a moment's fickle twist. On Sunday night, as the baseball world watched Madison Bumgarner's brilliant performance in the World Series, unthinkable news came down the wire. Twenty-two year old Cardinals top prospect Oscar Taveras, along with his girlfriend, had died in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. The loss of any human life is a tragedy, and in this case, the lives lost were especially tragic to the baseball community.


It was 8:29pm Indianapolis time, when I received a text from my friend Craig. He, a Cardinals fan down to the deepest parts of his being, had followed Taveras' ascension as a prospect since the team signed the touted sixteen year old in 2008. I was in disbelief. I thought immediately to the feeling that came over me when we lost Tony Gwynn earlier this year. But this was different. Tony had lived a somewhat full life. We had countless memories and statistics of the hall of fame rightfielder. Oscar Taveras was a rookie in 2014. He had only played in eighty games. He had struggled at times, but the tools were certainly there.

At six foot two inches tall and around two-hundred pounds, Taveras was built for power. This showed up in his first game on May 31st. It was in the bottom of the fifth inning against San Francisco. His first base hit was also his first home run, as he returned a Yusmeiro Petit pitch on a line drive shot to right. After rounding the bases, Taveras took a curtain call and saluted the hometown fans who had eagerly awaited his arrival. As a Cubs fan, I was worried at the prospect of this kid pummeling my team year after year. As a baseball obsessive, I could not have been more excited to see him develop into a premiere power hitter.

As fate would have it in some strange symmetry, his final at bat was also against San Francisco. The 2014 National League Championship Series began in St. Louis, and Taveras would finally see action in game two. In what will be remembered as the Kolten Wong walk-off game, Oscar would make an impact of his own. In the bottom of the seventh inning win one out, Taveras hit a solo home run to deep right field. for the moment, the game was tied at three runs apiece. Again, as he had back in May, Oscar Taveras took a curtain call to salute the Cardinals faithful. He would not get another chance at the plate until the eighth inning of game four. In a pinch hit spot, Taveras singled to left field. It was the last hit of his career.

His initial presence on the national scene was a now-infamous moment of broadcast television. In late spring training 2012, as rosters were trimming to their appropriate lengths for Opening Day, the Cardinals were still working through their top prospects. One such hitter made it to third base before a camera planted on him. Perhaps the production crew just had no clue who he was, or maybe it was a joke about his eventual status with the team, but the name graphic read only Minor League Guy. The image quickly spread virally over the internet, garnering awkward laughs throughout the baseball community. I had no clue who the kid was, and I doubt any parents would be so cruel as to name their child Minor League Guy. I later learned that he was not just some filler prospect likely to fight to make a roster someday, but in fact the Cardinals' top hitting prospect Oscar Taveras. Over the next two years, the Minor League Guy tag appropriately stuck, but there was plenty in store for the kid.

When a young life is taken, there is a unique form of sadness that looms overhead. People speak of how much potential the person had and how it is a tragedy they were never able to fulfill their destiny in whatever path they were on. In the case of Oscar Taveras, those of us who follow prospects closely understand this sentiment wholeheartedly. Taveras hadn't proved himself at the Major League level yet. But the key word there was yet. At twenty-two years of age, he was nowhere near his peak years of production. It is possible that he would eventually fill out into that superstar role that was laid out before him. Now, after a heartbreaking tragedy, we will sadly never know.

Death is strange. You would be hard-pressed to find an individual who has not lost someone close to their hearts far too young. For the families of Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend Edilia Arvelo, the surreal nature of the last few days is surely unbearable. There is no manner in which their lives can be given another chance to grow old. Baseball is naturally an afterthought in situations such as this, but so much of who he was can identify with the game. Oscar Taveras now lives on in eternal youthful joy with his love for the game.

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