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On an Athlete, Dying Young

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Requiescat in pace, Oscar Taveras, 19th June 1992 -- 26th October 2014

Dilip Vishwanat

The time you swung and brought the rain,

The lines lined up to chant your name;

The red-clad faithful, cheering all,

And came the roar, the curtain call.

*******

The Cardinals turned on the right field bank of lights last night for Oscar Taveras.

*******

I was only a child when I first saw The Natural, it should be said. And while I was certainly a baseball fan in the mid-80s, I was a baseball fan in the way children are fans of things they don't understand; the way prom night sex is chased after, desperate and sweaty and ravenous, rushing blindly toward ecstasy, with none of the awe at the staggering majesty of connection that comes only with age and experience. I watched The Natural with child's eyes, and understood it in a child's way, clapping excitedly at the end, when the sparks came raining down. I do recall thinking, even then, that the uniforms were amazing.

I didn't see the movie again until I was in my teenage years, around fourteen or fifteen years old, by which time I was jaded and solipsistic as only a teenager can be, and I hated it. It was sappy, saccharine even, and I wanted grim, gritty realism. I wanted fiction to buttress my own dim view of the human condition, and Robert Redford running through an exploding scoreboard with the grandest of all possible fanfares blaring behind did not match that desire in the slightest. (In my defense, I still thought the uniforms were awesome.) Roy Hobbs's triumph was an affront to my sensibilities of the time, when it seemed to me everyone was wrong, and everything was destined to fail, and nothing could possibly mean anything in the face of such universal flaws.

I was 25 years old when I finally read the book. For those unaware, Bernard Malamud's novel has a completely different ending (actually, most of the story is quite different, really, though the ending is easily the most notable point of contrast), with Hobbs succumbing in the end to his vices, throwing his final game at the behest of a crooked owner to try and bank enough money to support an illegitimate child with a woman he's spent much of the novel denying due to her age. He strikes out at the end, his subterfuge is discovered, and he walks away from the game to a life of obscurity and disgrace. In short, the story was everything my teenage self wanted; proof positive even the greats among us are so flawed as to be doomed in the end.

And, of course, I hated it.

Where at fourteen I wanted flaws and misery, by the time I read the book I had seen enough real misery in my life -- and, more importantly, had seen enough of it with old and experienced enough eyes to understand, rather than take it on faith as fait accompli -- that the tale of Hobbs's failing was less valuable to me than his triumph. It was almost certainly a better story, sure; the downfall of a hero due to his flaws is classic Greek tragedy, and there's a reason those stories have remained relevant, even necessary, for so much of human history. But never mind the analogues to Aruthurian legend and the Fisher King, or the Celtic Wasteland of the Knights' failing fortunes, or the social commentary on life among the morally bankrupt in early 20th century America. To hell with all that. Life had taught me that it's alright to want a happy ending now and again. And that's exactly what I wanted.

*******

Like many of you -- perhaps even most of you, judging by the numbers of GIFs coming from the plate appearance in question -- my abiding memory of Oscar Taveras, the image I'll hold onto as life moves on and this tragedy recedes into the darkness of the past, will be his swing, in extreme slow motion, with the rain coming down around him. His second big-league plate appearance, it was, and it told us everything we could have hoped to know about the player he was, and the player he had a chance of becoming. The homer was dramatic enough on its own; seeing the kid with the big, violent swing and the big, infectious grin holding that finish that already felt iconic was more than enough to grant the moment a place in end-of-season highlight packages and the collected lore of the franchise. But the surrounding ephemera, the slivery streaks of rain in the replay, the throwback uniforms, the dugout moment when Taveras's teammates pushed him toward the stairs for his first big league curtain call as the realisation of the shaking stadium dawned on his face and washed away his momentary confusion, all combined to make the moment truly timeless, truly legendary, etched forever in the minds of those watching that day.

We thought at the time that home run would be the first of many. As it turns out, it was the first of only four, one of as limited an edition as could ever be conceived, and so different from the future we envisioned as to seem nearly impossible.

Oscar Taveras's Baseball-Reference page lists his rookie eligibility as still intact. I don't know why, but there's something about that thought, the knowledge he will always be a rookie, that conjures up a suspicious lump in my throat.

I know at times like this we're all supposed to take note of how small the game of baseball is in the grand scheme of things, how human tragedy puts it all into perspective, but, personally, I'm okay with remembering Oscar Taveras as a ballplayer only. He was a son and a friend to those in his personal life, of course, and their grief is their own, and unique, larger than any those of us who merely admired him from afar will conjure up. But he was a ballplayer, not just a ballplayer, and that should have enough import for anyone. The things we devote our lives to are what give them meaning; just think of how many people in this town are buried wearing Cardinal caps, bestowed on them by family and friends so that the universe may know, forever and ever, that this was important to this person. That no matter how small and silly this game might seem when confronted with the infinite, it still mattered enough, the passion was strong enough, for this person to want to have a piece of their beloved with them always.

Oscar Taveras devoted untold hours of his young life to the game of baseball, and to trivialise that, even in the name of perspective, is a mistake. He was a son and a friend and a lover and a young father, yes, but he was also a baseball player, and that matters. He was a baseball player the way we're all baseball fans, and I would just imagine that more than a few of our own eulogies will include at least one or two fond stories of what the game meant to us. Of standing in lines for tickets, or braving thunderstorms in the hope it will blow over and the game would resume, or the bobblehead collection no one quite knows what to do with now, or just the conversations about the game with the people around us.

Our lives are defined by the things we give our love to. Oscar Taveras loved baseball; it was obvious in the way he played, the time he put in to make it to the game's highest level, the zest for life he displayed with every swing of the bat. His family and friends will remember him as so many other things we can't understand, of course, but to us he was a ballplayer, a St. Louis Cardinal, and it's okay to remember him in just that way.

*******

It would not surprise me if, in the coming days, we learn that Taveras was doing something reckless and foolish when he died, that the rain-soaked conditions were not the only contributing factor in the accident. Why would it not surprise me? Because he was 22 years old, and driving a bright red sports car through his old stomping grounds -- a place which, you have to think, occasionally seemed a prison, if only because our hometowns sometimes feel that way to all of us, even when we came from far easier circumstances -- with his girlfriend in the passenger seat. I won't be surprised because I was once 22 years old, and I can remember, just a little, how it felt. When you're 22, it's easy to still be in love with your own immortality. I'm sure Oscar himself was at least a little in love with his own seeming immortality as he drove a material sign of the brilliance of his future toward the place he began. I won't be surprised if he was reckless, and while I'll be sad, I won't be disappointed or call out to anyone to heed the warning. You cannot teach the young they will not always be young. It's one of the best things about being young, really.

I wonder if Oscar was in love with his own immortality that day in May in the rain. I wonder if he felt, rounding those bases for the first time of many times, that it would last forever, that the fans would always be screaming, and the jersey on his back would always be so clean and bright. And the answer is yes. Of course. Of course he was in love with his immortality that day. We all were. Watching a boy of 21 come to bat at the highest level of his chosen profession, carrying on his shoulders the weight of anticipation, the expectations of greatness, the hours put in hitting bottlecaps with a bat, and for that single shining moment exceeding any and all hopes we might have had, of course we were all in love with the glimpse of immortality we caught that day. This was a future legend we were watching, rounding the bases in the rain, holding that finish that seemed already destined for a bronze statue outside the stadium someday.

And now, he's gone. That digital, statistical record of his fleeting career will always claim he's a rookie, always at the beginning, even when he's only a memory. He takes on a different kind of immortality now; the timelessness of a player frozen at the apex of the Great Could-Have-Been, the legend of his talent and our hopes for him destined to forever be just slightly out of reach, but caught in a photograph or a slow-motion video clip, proving to those who might doubt that yes, he really could have been something special. The shame is we'll never know just how special.

For Oscar Taveras, it will always be the end of May, and it will always be raining. Yusmeiro Petit will always throw a hanging breaking ball, and Oscar's swing will always be sudden and beautiful, and the ball will always be streaking out skyward to right field, destined to travel over everything, to land in some far off place where Taveras was the legend we all believed he could be, a place where that home run was not one of four but the first of many, and that moment in the rain, as Hobbsian as any moment could have ever been, was only the beginning of something magical, rather than a fleeting reminder of the tissue paper fragility of everything around us. Oscar Taveras will always be posing, holding that finish, and there will always be a curtain call waiting when he gets back to the dugout.

And to hell with everything that isn't part of that happy ending.

The Baron's Playlist for the 28th of October, 2014