Last night, as fans focused on baseball's biggest stage, the tragic news about Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, spread across the Internet. Driving together in their native Dominican Republic, the couple was involved in a car accident that left both of them dead. Details are sparse, but the central, most important point was undeniable: Baseball had lost one of its bright young lights, and two families lost their treasured children.
We didn't really ever get to know Oscar Taveras. I mean that in every sense. He was only 22, and had just 80 games in the majors under his belt, and in that brief time didn't hit like the player we knew he was destined to become. We, and by we I mean the vast majority of fans, never got to appreciate his talent or his personality. He simply had played too little and been in our lives for too short a time. For too many of us, he was a scouting report, a number on a prospect list, or a potential trade target. Of course Taveras was more than that, and it is so very sad that we will never get the chance to see that.
Here's what we do know about him. Taveras signed with the Cardinals for just $145,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2008 when he was just 16 years old. He rose steadily through the Cardinals system, putting up extremely impressive numbers despite consistently being young for his level. He won the MVP of the Double-A Southern League in 2011 by hitting .321/.380/.572 with 23 homers when he was just 20 years old. According to Baseball America, he was the third best prospect in the game before the 2014 season began. In June, with Matt Adams suffering an injury, Taveras was promoted to the majors. At the time, John Sickles reported that Taveras was, "the type of hitter who will win batting championships and become a frequent All-Star. Not bad for a $145,000 investment." He earned generous comparisons to a young Vladimir Guerrero for his aggressive approach at the plate and his ability to hit even bad balls hard.
Everyone was excited to see the young phenom, and he exploded onto the stage by homering in just his second major-league at bat:
The rest of his season would not go as smoothly. Struggling with the transition to major league pitching, the rookie hit just .239/.278/.312 on the year, with just two more homers in 246 plate appearances. The Cardinals chose to keep him in reserve during the playoffs, starting Randal Grichuk in his place in right field. Reduced to pinch hitting, Taveras still contributed to St. Louis's cause, singling and scoring on Matt Carpenter's game-tying home run in Game 2 of the NLDS and, in what was clearly the biggest moment of his short career, hitting a home run off of Jean Machi to tie Game 2 of the NLCS against the Giants:
These were wonderful moments, of course, but they were only supposed to be the beginning of fifteen years of memories for Taveras and for Cardinals fans. Knowing that they also are the end is heartbreaking.
This is not the first time baseball has lost one of its own at a young age. Angels prospect Nick Adenhart, also just 22, was killed in a car accident in 2009, hours after making his fourth big league start. Jim Creighton, one of early baseball's youngest stars, ruptured his spleen while swinging a bat in the 1860s. This is also not the first time the Cardinals have been touched by tragedy, losing Daryl Kile to a heart attack in 2002 and Josh Hancock to a fatal drunk driving accident in 2007.
No matter how often we are touched by this tragedy, however, its sting is no less painful. It's always shocking when a ballplayer passes away, regardless of his age. In a way, we think of them as indestructible and immortal. They remain, for us, time-locked in the prime of their careers, no matter when that prime took place. In this case, Taveras didn't get a prime. He will remain potential unattained. He'll forever be raw and we will always wonder what he might have become both on and off the field.
None of this is any comfort. Not to us and not to the families of Oscar Taveras and Edilia Arvelo. Nor should it be. The end of two lives so young should leave us feeling unfulfilled and uneasy. It is not natural, and it is not fair.