Oscar Taveras had a flair for drama. He memorably homered at Busch Stadium in his first major-league game, making the skies open and the rain come pouring down seconds after his majestic, high-arching shot landed in right field.
Standing on a dugout step, manager Mike Matheny turned, looked up and smiled at Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, who was watching upstairs from his box. Matheny's reaction spoke for everyone in the place: Can you believe the kid just did that?
And in the final game he'd ever play at Busch, Taveras homered again — in what turned out to be his final at-bat in front of the home fans, a timely pinch-hit shot that tied Game 2 of the National League championship series.
Taveras toured the bases, the applause cascading around him. It was undoubtedly one of those moments that Taveras dreamed about as a boy growing up in the Dominican Republic. The postseason stage was big, and this is exactly where he wanted to be ... at the center of a spectacular October moment.
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After the Cardinals clinched the NL Central title and celebrated in the visiting-team clubhouse at Arizona, Taveras posted a photo on his Twitter account.
It showed Taveras getting doused by champagne — a look of unrestrained joy on his face.
“Thank you, God!,” Taveras wrote that day. “My first postseason!”
And now OT was going around the bases after ripping a Jean Machi changeup for the tying homer in Game 2, with the sea of red at Busch Stadium rejoicing.
We knew that this wall of sound that would be heard at Busch Stadium many times again, as the precocious Taveras matured and developed and reached his immense potential as a major-league hitter.
So much was expected from a prodigy that batted .330 with a .536 slugging percentage in the minors, putting up the kind of offensive numbers that prompted Mozeliak to place Taveras in the same sentence as Albert Pujols.
Taveras hadn't even arrived in the bigs yet, but already Cardinals fans had bestowed the rare one-name status on him. All you had to say was “Oscar” and Cardinals fans knew who you were talking about.
As we know, there was plenty of frustration and disappointment between Oscar's first and the last homers.
The manager and the GM wanted him to be more passionate about playing defense, and get in better shape. Teammates weren't thrilled when Mozeliak traded their pal, the veteran Allen Craig, to get more at-bats for a struggling phenom.
Taveras was only 22 — and a young 22 at that. He was immature, but not in a way that caused anyone to disdain him.
I've used this analogy before, and I mean it in the fondest, most affectionate way: Oscar was the oversized puppy dog that would bark too much, scratch at the door, run around and bump into things, jump on the furniture, and romp when it wasn't the right time to play.
I'm sure Oscar probably annoyed the more serious Cardinals' veterans at times. But understand this: he came around, and they came around, and the other players couldn't help but like him. That smile, alone, made it impossible to dislike him.
According to one Cardinal teammate I recently talked to, Taveras began following shortstop Jhonny Peralta around, and the steady, low-key Peralta became a positive influence. Center fielder Jon Jay took it upon himself to engage Taveras, to get on him when needed, and talk to him about the value of hard work.
Matheny's message was plain for all to see: at this level, playing time must be earned, and not given. Taveras was extra sensitive to Matheny's criticism, but took to it. The non-guarantee of playing time motivated Oscar. Matheny's heart was in the right place. Humility can be a powerful thing, and that applies to all of us.
It isn't that Taveras was lazy. It's just that the game had always come so simple to him. See the ball, hit the ball, and cruise into second with a stand-up double. Taveras relied on his natural talent, and tore up minor-league pitching, and assumed that his skill would transfer to the major-league level without a hitch.
It doesn't always happen that way. And according to the teammate, Taveras had never really gotten into a formal strength-and-conditioning routine. As a kid, he was just sort of winging it. And Taveras had to learn, the hard way, that success in the majors can require a significant investment of training, video study, and focus.
Taveras was learning all about this, starting to learn it quickly. And teammates began to see him another way, and they came to embrace him. Veteran players are skeptical of hotshot prospects that get the rock-star hype and treatment before they've proven themselves in the majors. So Oscar had to win his teammates over.
All of this — the kind support, the tough love, the nudging from the manager and the GM — was making a difference. And though Taveras had a modest rookie season, you could sense that things would change, and that 2015 would be better … and 2016 would be better than that … and that the young man would become a reliable veteran over time, leading the Cardinals to many more winning seasons and doing his part to uphold the winning tradition.
In the dream scenario, Taveras would grow old as a Cardinal. He would do great things with a bat in his hand. And through all of this greatness he would evolve even more. We would watch him as he aged, and as flecks of gray appeared in his hair. And we would see him hobbling with a strained hamstring, or a sore calf muscle, as his body got older. A baseball career would play out over the years. Good and bad, ups and downs, the hot streaks and slumps, the controversies and the triumphs. That's the way it was supposed to be.
In a perfect career sequence, Oscar would go on and put his name with some of the most distinguished hitters in Cardinals history. He'd become one of the cherished figures wearing the red jacket, smiling and waving to the adoring crowd on Opening Day.
The death of Oscar Taveras hits home and strikes the heart in so many ways it's impossible to adequately express the sadness, the feelings of raw anguish that we feel today ... and will feel for a long, long time.
It hurts to think about the suffering of their families, and their friends over the coming days, and weeks, and months, and years.
Our deep pain also comes from the terrible realization that Oscar Taveras was cheated of the life and the brilliant career that awaited him. And that he died at a time when he was just starting to figure everything out, and win the love and the respect of teammates that were willing to invest in him, and help him attain all of his dreams.
“It’s one of those things that it’s going to leave a hole,” said Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter, to MLB.com. “It’s going be a hard thing to get over."
Carpenter spoke for everyone there.
I hope you don't mind, but I'd like to share a brief passage from Proverbs:
“Good men must die. But death cannot kill their names.”
That name will live forever with the Cardinals, and their fans. It will live forever with anyone who was charmed by his smile, captivated by his sweet swing, and who anticipated a full and rewarding life and a prestigious baseball career.
His journey was just beginning.
We're left with the warm memory of Oscar's first home run that opened the sky. The homer in the first game that he played at Busch.
We cling to the vision of Oscar's last home run that parted the sea of red, setting off the exhilaration of an entire ballpark filled with fans, in the final game he played at Busch.
And we will think about what might have been … what should have been.
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