I wanted to do it justice, describing his home run swing with the absolute fitting description, for this is the column on the anniversary of his death.
Over and over, I watched the pinch-hit homer — “That’s hit in the air to right!” Joe Buck exclaimed on the broadcast. “Taveras, off the bench, has tied it!” — and I agonized over analogies.
And then, there it was. So simple, so perfect, so poignant:
His swing had such life.
When Oscar Taveras hit it — tying Game 2 of the 2014 National League championship series in the seventh inning — the Fox cameras followed the ball over the wall and then cut to the dugout. A wowed Adam Wainwright “wooooo’d!” The cameras caught the Cardinals pitcher spotting Mike Matheny. Waino waited until he locked eyes with the manager — and then stoically pointed an index finger at him, a moment within a moment.
“I pointed at Mike because he pinch hit Oscar there, and I do that sometimes when coaches make good decisions like on defensive positioning or pinch-hitting the right guy,” said Wainwright, one October later, via text. “And if I’m not mistaken, he called the homer. When I call homers sometimes I’ll go, ‘Great time for a home run.’ If I’m right, in that spot HE said, ‘Great time for a home run.’”
It was all just so wonderful. The Cardinals’ phenomenon of a prodigy — “El Fenómeno,” as they called him in the Dominican Republic — unleashed his swooping swing to tie a playoff game, which St. Louis would go on to win. He was only 22. Imaginations didn’t just run wild — they deliriously scampered.
Fourteen days later, the phenomenon was gone. And someone’s daughter was also dead.
HE WAS OURS
It’s hopeless, isn’t it?
People will always drive drunk, right?
Even if a St. Louis Cardinal dies in a drunk-driving accident — as Taveras did on this day a year ago — some St. Louisans will still drink and drive.
You do it.
You make justifications.
I trust myself.
I’m super-close to my home.
I’m not totally drunk.
“It” won’t happen to me.
Every drunken driver thinks “it won’t happen to me,” but it obviously still happens to some people, right?
If we don’t try to make a change, nothing will change, and someone’s son or daughter will die. Guaranteed.
Oscar Taveras’ legacy is complicated. You cannot mourn the loss of the Cardinals’ top prospect, the guy who homered in the NLCS, without acknowledging how it happened — by Oscar’s doing.
Oscar Taveras could have avoided killing Oscar Taveras. And Edilia Arvelo, his girlfriend.
And so, his legacy is in the lessons.
And his legacy is also in the images of his swooping swing, which we can watch on YouTube, over and over.
And his legacy is in how the Cardinals honor him, in how they carry themselves on the field and, yes, off.
And his legacy is in our imaginations, written by each one of us in mind-wandering wonderment.
What might have been? Who could he have been? In his six minor-league seasons, he hit .321. He was only 22. He was our town’s, he was ours.
‘LIFE’S TOO PRECIOUS’
Carlos Martinez didn’t use a finger to dab; he used a towel to wipe away all those tears, as he waited to start a game, while watching a highlight video of his dead teammate, whose number he then wore on his back.
Oscar’s first big-league hit was a home run. He swatted it so dramatically amid a rainfall, on May 31, 2014.
On May 31, 2015, the Cardinals honored Taveras at Busch Stadium. His family stood on the field. His best friend stood in the bullpen.
Memories are all we have now. And memories of memorializing.
The way the team honored Oscar this past season was pitch perfect.
And the perfect pitcher to carry his legacy was, and is, Martinez.
“We had a day-to-day reminder (of Taveras) in the way Carlos went about his business — it was like a living reminder,” Matheny said. “Carlos always had a pendant around his neck with OT on it. There was no denying that that was still a part of this club. Whenever any person or group loses somebody who is close to them, that’s not something that goes away this quick.”
We remember Cardinals gone, but how often do we remember why these Cardinals left us?
Oscar Taveras. Josh Hancock.
If a big-league ballplayer isn’t invincible, surely we aren’t.
And we remember snippets of news stories. Oh yeah, didn’t he once get a DUI? Gary Pinkel. David Freese. Tony LaRussa. Rob Ramage. And, of course, Leonard Little. We remember, and then we forget.
In 2012, the Rams’ Robert Quinn crashed his car while driving drunk. The late, great Bryan Burwell wrote in this newspaper, “Because this is St. Louis, sadly we all know exactly how these sports stories go. ... You know how it all ends, and I’m getting tired of writing about this. ... For the lucky ones, it ends with embarrassing arrests, punitive suspensions and awkward apologies. But far too often, it’s a tragic tale that comes to a disturbing halt with a heap of twisted metal, funeral processions, lawsuits, court trials, lives lost and reputations destroyed.
“I just don’t understand why it keeps happening.”
The Rams’ Quinn is now 25, a wise veteran. He’s well-respected for his perspective. At Rams Park last week, Quinn talked about second chances. He was one of the lucky ones who lived to get one.
“People say it all the time — ‘make plans, get a (sober) driver’ — but it’s easier said than done,” the All-Pro Quinn said. “But we’re all grown men playing this game, so when it comes to that, we should stop acting like children sometimes, be grown and get somebody to drive us — no matter if you don’t want to pay for (the service) or you’re worried about your car. Life’s too precious to think you can overcome it, because you’re this big guy or (think you’re) invincible.
“At the end of the day — how much do you love to live? You really have got to appreciate life.”