Three years ago today, I did something I almost never do—I texted a friend of mine saying we had to go to the Cardinals game that afternoon. Normally, I’m passive about attending games, willing to go along with others but not the first person to suggest it. Occasionally, I’ll point out ticket prices on secondary markets and gently suggest that maybe it would be a good idea to go. This time, not attending wasn’t an option. I wasn’t going to miss Oscar Taveras.
“Oscar Taveras” was a name that casual baseball fans knew, but for those of us who care far too deeply about the St. Louis Cardinals, we had spent years fantasizing about him coming to the Major Leagues and taking over. In his age 19 season with the A-ball affiliate Quad Cities River Bandits, he carried a remarkable .386/.444/.584 triple-slash line, good for a 190 wRC+. His teammates Kolten Wong and Greg Garcia had wRC+ of 158 and 110. At age 20, with AA Springfield, his wRC+ was 159, once again easily leading the team.
Taveras’s 2013 was plagued with injuries, but optimism and excitement remained high. ESPN’s Keith Law still ranked Oscar Taveras as the fifth best prospect in baseball, sandwiched between present-day superstar shortstops Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor. Law likened Taveras to a left-handed version of Vladimir Guerrero, one of the greatest bad-ball hitters in the history of the game.
Taveras opened 2014 in Memphis, and following an injury to Matt Adams, he was promoted to St. Louis. He was immediately inserted into the lineup on May 31, 2014, as the starting right fielder. Taveras made an out in his first plate appearance, as well as in his third and final plate appearance of the day, but it was what happened in his second trip to the plate, with heavy rains approaching Busch Stadium, which now lives in Cardinals lore.
Oscar Taveras’s transition to Major League Baseball was largely a struggle. His 67 wRC+, combined with shaky defense and base running, however, do not tell the story. No, Taveras was not a particularly productive player, but if you watched the games, even if you were not aware of his prospect pedigree, you could see flashes—moments which could make even the most hardened cynic believe that there was something magical about this player, who would surely be a mainstay in the middle of the Cardinals lineup for years to come.
Aside from his rain-soaked heroics against the San Francisco Giants in his debut, Taveras hit three more home runs in 2014 while with the St. Louis Cardinals, each thrilling in its own unique way.
On July 31, hours after Allen Craig was traded to the Boston Red Sox, paving the way for Taveras to become an everyday starter, Oscar launched one over the right field wall at Petco Park. Dan McLaughlin, typically energetic but usually not one to offer timely opinions about personnel decisions, exclaimed what many Cardinals fans had been thinking: “Play this man!”
His next home run came against the Milwaukee Brewers in September. Note in this clip the level of energy in Dan McLaughlin’s call. Not to try reading too deeply into the thoughts of others, but this sounds like a man who recognizes a corner being turned.
Oscar Taveras was in the middle of months-long conversation about who should start in the outfield, along with Matt Holliday, and four players were left to fill two spots: Jon Jay, Randal Grichuk, Peter Bourjos, and Taveras. The former two got most of the playing time, and Taveras was largely relegated to pinch-hitting duty. This extended into the postseason, and with the Cardinals trailing by one run in the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, Taveras hit the most important home run of his life. It would be his final Major League hit.
Twenty-two year-old men aren’t supposed to die. Men like Oscar Taveras aren’t supposed to die. Oscar Taveras was supposed to be a part of our lives going forward, and he was supposed to have the opportunity to live out his dream, to fulfill the promise that he had exhibited at times in his first season in St. Louis.
It feels selfish, of course, to think of Taveras simply as a baseball commodity. He was a son, a father, and a friend, and most of us never met him. But this does not mean that we were wrong to feel sadness. Players on the Cardinals are a like a family to those of us who watch them every day, but like family that we see more often than most of our actual families. If a player is traded, a family member relocated across the country for business, but if a player dies, he is gone. Just like that.
Carlos Martinez inherited the #18 jersey that Oscar Taveras donned in his rookie campaign, and he has become one of the most dynamic young pitchers in the game ever since. He was already popular with fans, and his transformation from competent swingman to sterling starter was inevitably going to raise his profile, but that he carried Taveras’s legacy onward, not only with his uniform number but as the living embodiment of his friend’s spirit and love of baseball, has made him one of the team’s most beloved stars.
I didn’t really have much of a feeling on November 12, 2014, when the news broke that Oscar Taveras was legally drunk, five times over the legal limit by blood-alcohol content, when he crashed his car on the slippery roads of Puerto Plata, killing himself and his 18 year-old girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo. Obviously, Taveras had done a horribly irresponsible thing, and had he survived the accident, there would have been legal ramifications for it, but he had already paid for his crime with his life. What was the point of litigating it in the court of public opinion?
But sometimes I wonder if the circumstances of Oscar’s death made it easier for us to forget about him, when the opposite should be true. Scrolling through the St. Louis Cardinals Twitter timeline, admittedly not the most nuanced metric but a quick snapshot, as of the time I started this post, Oscar Taveras has not been mentioned since October 9, 2015, as a statistical aside (that Tommy Pham’s pinch-hit home run in Game 1 of the 2015 NLDS was the first Cardinals pinch-hit postseason homer since Taveras’s Game 2 shot).
It’s painful to discuss Oscar Taveras’s death for all of the obvious reasons, but we need to discuss it. Less than two years after Taveras, Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez was killed in a boating accident; he, too, was intoxicated. In January, a few months after Fernandez, Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in the Dominican Republic after being thrown from his car; we do know that Ventura was not wearing a seat belt, itself dangerous, though his toxicology reports have not been made public.
Nor is there any real reason for them to be—what happened was tragic regardless. But in the United States alone, nearly 10,000 people were killed in alcohol-related accidents in 2014, the year in which St. Louis said hello and goodbye to Oscar Taveras. Impaired driving is a huge problem of a magnitude so large—think of how many rarer causes of death get far more attention as an epidemic—that it makes people less sad to push it aside.
I encourage everybody to remember everything about Oscar Taveras. Those highlights of his Ken Griffey Jr.-like swing. Those pictures of his million-watt smile. And remember why he’s gone. It will hurt, no question, but remember what was lost and how great it was and tell yourself, individually and as a member of society, that you don’t want to go through that great of a preventable loss again.