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The lost hope of Oscar Taveras

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If you have incalculable grief for a baseball player you had never met, you're not alone.

Michael Thomas

After the news broke that Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, were killed in a car accident, I did the same thing most of you probably did: Hoped it was a mistake. Stared at whatever contraption relayed the news. Struggled for words. Knew I was incapable of feeling a fraction of the emotion and heartbreak his friends and family were feeling, while at the same time feeling especially dejected and heartbroken.

Celebrity deaths follow a familiar pattern on social media. There are islands of people expressing their grief through connection -- "Here's how The Fisher King brought me closer to my dad." "Here's a video of the home run in Game 2." -- being overwhelmed with a river of condolences and sadness and disbelief expressed for the other people expressing condolences and sadness and disbelief. The people closest to the situation will never read a fraction of the outpouring of honest, helpless grief. It's not for them. Not unless they need to seek it out. It's for us, partly selfish and wholly sincere.

It feels like the right thing to do is keep digging through hard layers of empathy, trying to find a kind of empathy that's without impurities. That means thinking about what it means to be 22, what it means to lose someone who's 22, what it means to have a life cut short, what that expression even means, what his loved ones could possibly be thinking, what you would think if you lost someone close to you, making it all about you, you, you, then feeling guilty because you know it's not about you, so you have to keep digging for that empathy again, hoping to absolve yourself and feel exactly the right, proper way.

It's not about you. But there's no way not to filter it through your personal lens, just like everything else. There's a reason why Taveras affected you differently, why it stole your breath and made you 3,000 pounds heavier. It doesn't require the empathy you're digging for, the ability to place the death of a young man exactly where it needs to be. You feel like this because you're something of an expert in the hope that Taveras offered. Now you have to stare at the void where the hope used to be.

You can't stare too long. Even if you did, you'll never find the right level of empathy and understanding for his friends and family. You don't know Taveras' tics and quirks, what Robin Williams's character in Good Will Hunting called the peccadillos and idiosyncrasies. The good stuff. You weren't a part of Taveras' weird little world.

All you have is the understanding of the hope that doesn't exist anymore. To be clear, we're talking about the hope he offered on the baseball field, which seems like a spectacularly callous thing to consider right now. But it isn't, not if you're using baseball as a stand-in for life. Not if it's the only context you can place this in. Taveras was the personification of hope, and not in a clinical, counting fashion. He wasn't the hope of (x) home runs and (y) pennants over a (z)-year career. The absence of this hope is the absence of a million people cheering at once because of something they collectively experienced. Hope in baseball translates to hope and emotion in real life. It's the language of the sports fan, which means it's the shared language of billions of people.

The hope of Taveras was the hope that he would help make baseball what it's best at: a controlled proxy for the highs and lows of real life. Sports are a compact that allows you to shake off the lowest moments easier than the lowest moments of real life, while simultaneously offering the promise that the highest moments will feel just as good as the highest moments in real life. It's a bargain that you absolutely have to take, and it's why sports mean so much to so many. All you wanted for Taveras was to contribute to that bargain over the next decade, to become the realization of hope, even if you never expressly thought of it like that.

The compact was broken. In its place: a reminder of mortality. A reminder that nothing makes sense. An eternal symbol of unrealized hope. The thought of the families wondering what happened to their children. Everyone should be allowed to escape into the world of sports when they need to, forever and without interruption. Taveras, especially. When he hit a home run like his shining moment in Game 2 of the NLCS, the joy was real. Nothing else existed. That was the most important possible thing in the world at that moment to millions of people. The world was blocked out in the best possible way. It would trickle back in slowly, as it always does, but the world was gone for a while because of Taveras and his talents, gifts we wish we had and gifts he was kind enough to share.

That's why this feels like this. It's why this is different from the traffic accident you'll surely pass one day, why it's different from the news about the young friend of a friend of a friend, why it's removed from the awfulness you have to step over every day to keep moving. Those are abstract situations. Your brain has to keep them abstract or you'll collapse. You knew exactly how Taveras was going to make millions of strangers happy, though. You knew exactly how he was going to make himself and his family happy. You could see it. It was familiar. You had the path all plotted out in your head. He deserved that chance. Your brain can't keep that loss abstract.

That hope is gone. You'll never find the right amount of empathy for someone you didn't know personally, so there's no sense beating yourself up over it. But you're an expert in the kind of hope that Taveras offered to his fans, to his friends, to his family and to himself. It's gone now, and all you can do is mumble something like "Rest in peace," even if you have no idea what that really means.