Tonight marks a week since we heard the news.
Except when I think about it too closely, the initial shock has mostly worn off, and the melancholy is now intermittent. Soon, it too will recede.
And soon Viva EL Birdos will return to the usual off-season buffet of hot stove discussion, unpacking last season's performances, and fanciful dreams of trades that will never happen. But it's still not easy to talk about those things quite yet, and I certainly don't yet feel like writing about them. Maybe tomorrow. But for now, here's one more piece about Oscar Taveras.
I know it's been written again and again, but I feel I must presage this with acknowledgment that what any of us lost pales next to the real loss of Oscar and Edilia's loved ones and community.
This hit me pretty hard, and it took me a long time to figure out why. Of course it upset me, but the kind of waking in the night, walking in a daze, incoherent mumbling sadness I experienced was much deeper than anything I'd felt before over the loss of a public figure. His age was a part of it, as was the particular beauty of his swing and the hours I'd spent dreaming about what that swing would do for the baseball team I like, but the first of those reasons is very general, and the other two are superficial. This gloom was deeper and more personal.
For me, baseball at its core is an affirmation that the games we play as children and who we were when we were children are too important to leave behind. Baseball doesn't exist without childhood, and underneath the multi-million dollar deals, the year-round workout plans, the steroids, and all the other noise, lies a game of sandlots and alleyways, broomsticks and bottlecaps.
There's an inextricable bond between the baseball of our youths and the baseball we watch as adults. My favorite moments in baseball have always been the times when it looks like we can see that most clearly.
When I think back to the 2011 playoffs, and I often do, there are many specific moments I enjoy dwelling on. Chris Carpenter's face at the end of game 5 of the NLDS, Albert Pujols' brilliant and impossibly gutsy move to throw out Chase Utley during the NLDS, Octavio Dotel's dominance of Ryan Braun in the NLCS, David Freese's heroics and Lance Berkman's heroics, everything about game six, and the reactions of Tony La Russa and Jason Motte to the last out all remain touchstones in my memory, but the single most poignant image that has warmed me on cold nights since is Jon Jay looking at Allen Craig and grinning from ear to ear as the two friends from the minor leagues ran in from the outfield after Craig caught the last out.
In that moment, Jon Jay, already 26 years-old, revealed an expression of joy that looked like something we can usually only glimpse on a playground, but born of years of hard work and desire, and witnessed by millions collectively made happy by what made him happy, that moment of joy offered something even more enduring. That smile isn't the best smile. There are other, deeper things we feel as we go through life, but there was something elemental and pure and hard to access for us adults in that moment, and it was beautiful.
This last summer I pushed my son in his stroller around my old neighborhood in St Louis while visiting my folks. We came to my old school, and I was happy to see a group of boys and girls from the neighborhood playing baseball in front of the backstop in the school's field. My son was asleep, so we went a bit closer and I sat down in the grass and watched and listened to the kids playing for a while. I thought about my own time on those fields and I thought about how funny it is that they play this same game at Busch Stadium. Then my thoughts turned to Oscar Taveras and Carlos Martinez.
As I watched the children, I thought about Oscar and Carlos, friends and competitors since early adolescence, now playing baseball on the same big league team. Both gifted with extraordinary talent, their efforts had brought them to the major leagues where they could play out their dreams together. Through some mixture of awe at the unusual splendor of their baseball skills, the idea of two friends doing this together, and how the two baseball players looked and behaved -- the playful exuberance of one and the other with the smile like he couldn't believe this all was happening -- the players melted into all my ideals about the game, childhood, and the embodiment of the feelings those things represent.
That afternoon, I realized that Oscar Taveras and Carlos Martinez had become archetypal figures in my baseball-obsessed heart. The rest of the summer there were no players I rooted for harder, no successes or failures on the field I felt more acutely, and nothing in baseball I wanted to see more than their progression up the ladder of their careers. I marveled at their skills, but more than that, I felt deeply the story they were writing, or at least the story I was writing about them.
All of this is fictive. I didn't really know Oscar or Carlos, and there's no particularly good reason why they came to represent all of this so strongly to me while plenty of other young baseball players didn't, and looking backward nostalgically is much more a privilege than a universal human endeavor. But from afar, they fit into the role I'd been subconsciously drawing for years, and rarely have I been so enamored with the game as I was while watching them play this summer and fall.
And now that's gone. Young men with a boyish demeanor will still play the game. Watching one of them, Yordano Ventura of the Royals, pitch so well in a tribute to Oscar was a soothing reminder of that. And I can't wait to watch Carlos pitch next year, but when I do, it will be different, and tinged with sadness. And when I walk by the ball fields and watch children play at my old school next spring, that will be a little different too.