When I was in seventh grade, a classmate unexpectedly passed away. To say he was a close friend would be rewriting history, but I went to a small junior high school with about 60 or so kids in my graduating class, so I obviously knew him pretty well and I reacted to his passing in an odd way. When my mom came in my room and told me what had happened, I didn’t cry, I didn’t feel sad; I just felt empty. To distract myself from this confusing, tragic event, I went into my desk drawer and started filtering through my baseball cards, smiling as I got to Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards.
That’s what baseball is supposed to be, an escape from reality. We forget about all the things happening around us and slip into a wonderland of home runs and strikeouts. But the fact is, we all too often forget that these baseball players we watch for entertainment are real people with real lives. That truth once again smacked us in the face on Sunday evening.
Just as Game Five of the World Series started, reports started trickling out that 22-year-old St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend had passed away in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Slowly, reports got confirmation. The baseball world had lost an immense talent and two families had lost loved ones much too early.
The lefty with the quirky swing came into the season as one of the best prospects in baseball, but struggled in his first season at the major-league level. Two weeks ago, in his third-to-last at-bat, he hit a game-tying, pinch-hit home run in the NLCS—the sort of moment a career congeals around. He will never get to prove to us not only that his swing could work in the big leagues, but that it could perhaps power one of the best hitters of our generation.
In the summer of 2008, signing bonuses for international free agents were beginning to skyrocket, so the $145,000 the Cardinals gave a 16-year-old Taveras hardly registered. However, it wasn’t long before the young Dominican started showing he was one of the best talents not just in that international class, but in the minors.
As Taveras climbed through the minors, going from an overlooked IFA to a top Cardinals prospect to one of the best in all of the game, it was that unconventional swing that always seemed to be a focus. That long, aggressive swing that seemed so wrong, but was so controlled and always delivered top-tier results, will be etched in the minds of anyone who watched the man work at his craft.
Taveras has an excellent approach for his age, and his swing possesses the rare combination of extreme violence and sublime bat control. While he takes a massive cut, he consistently makes very hard contact to all fields.
Oscar Taveras has blossomed into one of the minors’ purest hitters, with offensive projections that could make him a perennial All-Star at the major-league level. With a violent, torque-heavy swing and an aggressive approach, the early word on Taveras was that the same characteristics that allowed him to hit .386 in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League would ultimately be his downfall against superior pitching, the kind that can use sequence and location to disrupt a hitter’s bat speed.
As it turns out, Taveras’s brand of violence is calculated, as he wields his weapon with a controlled fury; to the eye, his swing looks haphazard and aggressive to a fault, but his elite hand quickness and strength allow him to command his swing with more touch than is realized.
Parks would later state that if he could choose one middle-of-the-order bat to build his team around, Taveras would be that player. The phrase ‘future star’ was simply inserted by autocorrect following his name if one happened to type it on a phone. With Taveras, it never was a question of if, but when.
His 2013 season was mostly a wash due to injuries, but finally in the summer of 2014, Taveras arrived to the bigs and did this in the second at-bat of his career:
Taveras would be sent back down to the minors a couple weeks later, before returning for good on July 1st. The potential was clear, as he’d shown flashes of that elite hit tool.
That talent was allowed to shine for one night on the national stage, when Taveras was given a pinch-hit at-bat in Game Two of the NLCS. Taveras seized the opportunity, pulling a solo home run into the right field seats, tying the game at three.
For those watching the game who were aware of just how talented Taveras was, it felt like getting to see the first signature moment of a superstar’s career. So, so sadly, it was something else entirely. But we are all lucky that he had the one moment we will never forget. We try not to dwell on what might have been, but rather celebrate what was.