28 October 2014

Oscar Taveras (1992-2014)

When I started this blog back in 2007, two of my ground rules were to try to talk about myself as little as possible and never to post anything written hurriedly. I’m going to attempt to violate both today (if the date at the top of this post is something later than “28 October 2014” then I failed on the second count). And going forward I may attempt to violate the first one a bit more often than I have in the past. When I first started blogging, I adamantly wanted to resist what I saw as a culture of narcissism and solipsism taking over both the online world and American society in general. I can’t say that the intervening years have shown my fears to be unfounded, but seven years is a long time, so perhaps a different approach is in order. First I found myself unable to continue writing about politics and hard news; lately I’ve found myself unable to write about much of anything at all. I’ve generally blamed this on the demands of grad school and fatherhood, but the real problem is that I’ve struggled to write anything that meets my own standards of being worth reading. It feels like every possible opinion about anything interesting is already out there on the internet somewhere, and if you don’t have an original take on something then what’s the point, right? Ugh, even the explanation sounds tedious and clich├ęd to me. The point is that inserting a bit more of myself into the blog might give me something to offer. Maybe it’s all I have to offer right now.

But this post isn’t all about me. It’s mostly about Oscar Taveras, a 22-year-old rookie outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals who was killed in a car accident Sunday in the Dominican Republic, his home country to which he’d recently returned following the Cardinals’ elimination from the baseball playoffs. The crash occurred about half an hour prior to the beginning of Game 5 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals, which led to the news breaking during the early innings of the game itself. Firsthand accounts described a bizarre scene at San Francisco's AT&T Park, with the media members gathered to cover the series staring at Twitter in stunned disbelief even as the fans all around them remained caught up in the excitement of the game. This account from Fox’s redoubtable Ken Rosenthal, who broke the news on the air at the start of the fourth inning, captures the mood among the reporters and players as the news of Taveras's death spread.

I didn’t see Rosenthal’s report when it aired. After a few minutes of staring blankly at my phone and futilely attempting to make some kind of sound, I went and sat by myself in a dark room for a while, not rejoining the game until the fifth inning, by which time the Giants had scored two runs. I watched the rest of the game with fitful interest, which was a shame because this has actually turned into a really good World Series. But some things you can’t just shrug off, and this was going to be one. It must have been the sixth inning before I realized that if the Cardinals had beaten the Giants, they’d most likely have been playing a World Series game that night in St. Louis and Taveras would still be alive, yet to return to a home country that happens to lead the world in the rate of car accident fatalities.

I haven’t written much about sports on this blog, which is odd as it’s one of the few things I know a lot about, particularly when it comes to baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals, my favorite team since childhood. But of course there are thousands of people writing about baseball much better than I ever could and…well, here we go again.

But this post isn’t about baseball—except that it is, of course. The easy, glib response here is that if Taveras hadn’t been a baseball player, no one outside of his family, friends, and acquaintances would care about his death, certainly no one in the United States. He’d just be a statistic to everyone else—if that, even. (I didn’t even know that tidbit about Dominican auto fatalities until today.) This is a good place to mention Edilia Arvelo, Taveras’s 18-year-old girlfriend who also died in the accident. I know literally nothing else about her, but her name should be mentioned at least once in a post like this one. It’s always sad when a young person dies. Why should I care so much about some ballplayer I never met?

But Taveras was a ballplayer and that matters too. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, sometimes short on tactical smarts but long on basic human decency, released a statement yesterday that hit all the right notes. (Both Matheny and Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak have since traveled to the Dominican Republic to visit with the Taveras family and attend today’s memorial service. At least two Cardinals players, Yadier Molina and Carlos Martinez, are also expected to attend the service.) Matheny rightly notes that the pain that he and his players are experiencing is nowhere close to what Taveras’s family is going through. That goes tenfold, a hundredfold, for fans who never even met the man. Yet the fans do care too, and rather than try to dismiss that lesser grief, perhaps it’s better to reflect on where it comes from.

While I was in that dark room my thoughts kept circling back to former Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile and that awful Saturday in June 2002 when he was found in a Chicago hotel room, dead at 33 from a hereditary heart condition. I didn’t have cable in my St. Paul apartment and there was no MLB TV back then. The Cardinals-Cubs game scheduled for that day was the Fox game of the week and would have been the first Cardinals game I had watched that season. But then the game didn’t start on time for no apparent reason and it began to feel like something was very, very wrong. It fell to Cubs catcher (and current Yankees manager) Joe Girardi to break the news to the crowd and to tell us there would be no baseball that afternoon. Surely nothing like that would ever happen again, not to this franchise anyway, but then there was Josh Hancock, who died in a car accident at age 29 during the 2007 season. He was a transient player, a middle reliever who hadn’t been with the team long and wouldn’t have remained for much longer, but still. And now there’s Oscar Taveras, and in some respects this one feels the worst of all.

It’s always sad when a young person dies. It’s even more disturbing when it’s a young athlete, someone who appears more physically invincible than the rest of us. We know this. But there’s something else here, something that goes beyond even the psychology of fandom to the particular relationship that hardcore baseball fans have to prospects. As baseball writing has exploded on the internet over the past 20 years, fans have become much more knowledgeable about not only current major league players but minor leaguers as well. It’s now easy to track a player’s career from high school all the way to the big leagues. Fans of bottom feeders like the Cubs or the Twins can look ahead to a near future in which their teams might feature some of the top players in the game. Of course many, if not most, of these players will fail to meet the lofty expectations placed on them, but by that time there will be a new group of future stars to dream about.

On one hand, this phenomenon can be seen as part of our teaser culture, a privileging of the future over the present that I generally find obnoxious. Think about the frenzy around movie trailers, with high-profile films now seemingly rolled out frame by frame over the course of excruciating months. By the time a movie actually arrives in theaters, half the audience is already over it. But in another sense, all this obsessing over prospects speaks, in its own trivial way, to a basic human need, some primal hope, rationally founded or not, that the future will somehow be better than the present.

And now we’ve hit on it. Taveras had played in fewer than 100 big league games, but for a certain segment of baseball fans he had already been around a long time. Signed by the Cardinals in 2008 at 16 (the youngest age allowed under MLB rules), Taveras originally projected as a mid-level prospect. But after a breakout 2011 season in the low minor leagues, many analysts began to see him as a future star. The excitement about Taveras continued to build among the fan base over the following year. Here might be the next great Cardinals superstar, the heir to Stan Musial and Albert Pujols. It looked like 2013 would see his major league debut, but after a slow start in the minors, Taveras sprained his ankle, an injury that eventually led to surgery and a lost season. But that was okay, because he was still only 21 and had all the time in the world. Taveras finally reached the Cardinals this season, and his initial struggles at the big-league level only intensified the intrigue around him. Barring a blockbuster trade, he seemed destined to enter the 2015 season as the most talked-about player on the roster. Would this be the year he became a star? Would he turn out to be a bust? Something in between? Just two days ago, I was excitedly talking to a relative over the phone about Taveras, going over details of the offseason training program the Cardinals had planned for him. Hours later he was dead. We’ll never know what kind of player he would have become. He’ll be forever frozen at that moment of potential. His story will never have an ending, and it feels stupid and unfair and awful and heartbreaking.

Three memories of Oscar, and then I’ll stop:

1. May 31: Taveras hits a home run in his first major-league game off Giants pitcher Yusmeiro Petit (who incidentally may wind up starting Game 7 of the World Series tomorrow night). The future had finally arrived.

2. August 3: Taveras claps his hands together in excitement after hitting what turned out to be a game-winning single in a key game against the division rival Milwaukee Brewers. Even this little show of emotion was noteworthy on a 2014 Cardinals team that often seemed too staid in its collective demeanor. We would have seen so much more of this once he started having consistent major league success. I'll miss his personality as much as his swing.

3. October 12: The last hit of Taveras’s career came in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. Like the first, it was a home run against the Giants. It felt like the first of many big postseason moments for Oscar.

That’s all for today. Hopefully this was of interest to the coveted people-who-aren’t-me demographic, but maybe it’s okay if it wasn’t, just this once. I’ll have something on Killer Mike and Run the Jewels in the next few weeks and then the usual year-end stuff. I need to write.