They are emotional lightning strikes, as painful for their permanence as for their initial shock. Now and then, we’re reminded — in the most dreadful manner possible — that our sports heroes are all too human. When Oscar Taveras died with his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, in a car crash Sunday in his native Dominican Republic, the world not only lost a 22-year-old man still in what should be the dawn of his life. The world also lost the prettiest swing to grace ballparks in the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system since Albert Pujols’s meteoric rise at the turn of the century. The ache of this tragedy is intensified because Taveras’s face had become the face of the future for an already proud baseball franchise. Oscar Taveras had not yet become what is . . . he was still what might be. And now, no more. Ever.
Taveras was not the perfect baseball player, as some breathless scouting reports would have us believe when he first arrived in Memphis to play for the Redbirds in April 2013. If a ball player is measured by the fabled “five tools” — abilities to hit, hit with power, run, field, and throw — Taveras had mastered but one. He was a hitter. But what a pure, effortless hitter he seemed to be, his lefthanded stroke delivering the meat of his bat to the heart of a baseball, one at-bat after another. “Squaring the ball” it’s called. And it remains the single hardest skill to master in all of sports. (Consider the irony: There’s nothing remotely square about a baseball or a baseball bat.)
Memphis fans were merely teased by Taveras’s talent in 2013, the outfielder limited to 46 games by an ankle injury that lingered and only worsened when he attempted a mid-summer comeback. Entering the 2014 season, Taveras was forced to compete for a roster spot with St. Louis, let alone a regular place in the batting order, the Cardinals’ outfield cluttered with more accomplished players like Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Shane Robinson, and the newly acquired Peter Bourjos. Assigned to Memphis again to start the season, Taveras hit .318 in 62 games before finally being promoted to St. Louis where he made his major-league debut at Busch Stadium on May 31st.
In his second at-bat, Taveras unleashed that mighty brushstroke of a swing and homered off the San Francisco Giants’ Yusmeiro Petit, just before the skies opened up with rain, as if Mother Nature was brought to tears by the confluence of potential and present. The run was all the Cardinals needed in a 2-0 win.
The rest of the season was a struggle, really, as Taveras battled through more regular plate appearances, even after the trade of Craig to Boston in late July. In 80 games, he hit .239, about 100 points lower than those same breathless scouts would have forecast for the kid originally signed by the Cardinals five months after his 16th birthday. But then in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series on October 12th at Busch Stadium, Taveras delivered again, drilling a pinch-hit homer off the Giants’ Jean Machi in the seventh inning that tied the game for St. Louis. His former Memphis teammate Kolten Wong followed two innings later with a walk-off homer of his own. Imagine how Cardinal fans would have cheered that night had they known Taveras had two weeks to live.
I didn’t get to visit formally with Oscar Taveras during his time at AutoZone Park, his English being just a bit better than my Spanish. But I’ll not forget the way Oscar bound out of the Redbirds’ dugout last March on media day, ready to have his picture taken, and shake hands with the reporters and photographers he hoped to, very soon, leave behind on his rise to stardom in The Show. He smiled brightly, and walked with a bounce, not the kind of stride that suggested he favored a lingering ankle injury. That’s the Oscar Taveras I’ll keep in my memory bank, a young baseball player ready for the next game, and all that life had to give him.