SOSUA, Dominican Republic • On the night before his friend’s death, Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez said he pleaded with Oscar Taveras, urged the rookie outfielder to come to a nearby resort, stay with his family, stay safe.
Rarely one to refuse his closest teammate, Taveras declined.
“He never said ‘no’ to me but he did once,” Martinez said Tuesday. “I called him and told him to come stay with me. I begged him. ‘Come stay, I’ll get you one of these VIP bracelets and you will have a good time with us.’ I had a premonition that something was going to happen to Oscar, something was going to happen.”
Tears came to Martinez’s eyes as he retold that story at a restaurant just a few blocks from where a visitation was being held for Taveras. He was sitting with family members, who were staying with him at the nearby resort, where he purchased a time-share condo and, yes, had a VIP bracelet. He’s staying there this offseason, in part, because he is following his own advice.
Taveras, the Cardinals’ 22-year-old rookie outfielder, and his girlfriend were killed Sunday in a single-car accident not too far from his hometown of Sosua. Martinez was one of the first people to learn of the wreck when a local reporter called to tell him Taveras was injured and unconscious. He received a text message a short time later that identified Taveras and told Martinez his friend, his closest friend in the Cardinals’ clubhouse, had died.
“It’s a reminder for me, an example that I have to keep doing the right thing,” Martinez said, speaking in Spanish. “Maybe God is giving me a sign and reminding me to stay on my path in baseball. It’s a lesson for all of us.”
It is a lesson the Cardinals intend to share with their young players.
General manager John Mozeliak, who estimated he has been coming to the Dominican Republic for two decades as a scout, said the club would expand the education of its young players, especially those from the Dominican and other Latin countries, about the temptations and dangers they may face. Mozeliak referred specifically to the sports cars young players are driving and the frenetic traffic and slim roads that connect the Dominican towns. Taveras’ car was traveling at an excessive speed, officials said, when it lost traction in a rain storm and hit a tree.
“You see what the traffic patterns are. You see all the scooters. You see how people drive,” Mozeliak said Tuesday to Dominican reporters at the site of Taveras’ visitation. “It is something of a concern. The cars these players are bringing over, do they fit? We do see this as opportunity to educate our players. It is a tragedy. It is something that other young players will learn from and in terms of what we can do — education is the only thing that we have.”
Martinez and his agent offered Martinez as an example.
Martinez, who grew up in nearby Puerto Plata, the main city in the province of the same name, said he has known Taveras since they were adolescents. They grew up together, in baseball, on baseball fields. Taveras signed with the Cardinals in 2008, before Martinez could, but Martinez had a swifter ascent to the majors. The 23-year-old pitcher made his debut in May 2013, a year before Taveras, and it was Martinez who offered advice to Taveras as he neared and then reached the majors.
Taveras, the agent said, was drawn to a more reckless style of living when away from the ballpark. Not with substances, but with cars and crowds. Agent Brian Mejia called Taveras and Martinez “running mates” many times, but added that at times Taveras was the one to run “with a faster life.”
“We talked like brothers and we shared ideas like brothers,” Martinez said. “I’d tell him about being in the big leagues and acting like a professional all the time, but it didn’t stick. He would listen to the advice. He just wouldn’t take it into practice. People knew that and it ended tragically.”
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Martinez said this sitting at a table at Bailey’s, a restaurant in Sosua by an area that used to be barns and stands to sell hay, molasses and horsefeed. He sought a nearby restaurant before the funeral because after spending most of Monday at the funeral home and Tuesday morning there as well, grieving, he was reminded he had not eaten for several days.
A flamboyant personality on the mound, Martinez has had his missteps off it as a professional, often on social media. During spring training the team admonished him for having explicit pictures on his Twitter feed where the public could readily see them. But he and Mejia both added that he has made changes over the past year, understanding that performing on the field is only part of succeeding in the majors. He must also act responsibly and represent the team off it. There are few moments at home where he doesn’t have to do that.
Even as the funeral procession passed Martinez as he quietly watched Tuesday from across a two-lane highway, many young boys came up to him to ask for a picture. He posed for photo after photo, smiling as best he could.
That’s part of being a pro, too.
Asked Tuesday if he had given thought to being in a dugout without Taveras, to playing a season without him, Martinez paused, tears welling. He explained they had their handshakes. They brought style to high fives.
“That’s over. (It’s) going to be difficult not having him there,” Martinez said. “He hit a home run and I would be there. I would make a good play and he would be there. It’s going to be hard without him. Very hard.”