Remembering Oscar Taveras, 7 years after his tragic death

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Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

All I could remember was being in instant shock at the news. Coming off Brentwood Field during a softball game on Oct. 26, 2014, someone uttered a terrible combination of words: “Oscar Taveras died.”

The first thing that settles into the cerebellum is firm denial, aided by the fact that social media could be just as cruel of a place back then as it is today. Back in 2014, mere weeks after hitting a memorable home run off the eventual World Series Champion San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series, Taveras perished in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic. After a family get-together with his family and in the middle of heavy rainfall, Taveras drove with his girlfriend at the time, Edilia Arvelo, towards their home–where their son awaited them. They never made it there. Taveras was driving while intoxicated, crashing his sports car in a wreck that claimed both their lives.

Taveras, the organization’s former top prospect and next great Cardinal at the time, was just 22 years old. Gone was the possibility of waking up the next day. Gone was the ability to begin the 2015 season as a starting outfielder. Gone was the position to be the next great slugger for the Cardinals.

I spent the rest of that softball game trying to control my racing mind. A myriad of thoughts burst into my head, including the idea of a one-year-old kid being orphaned in one wreck. Taveras’ blood alcohol level was six times the legal limit where he crashed, an immovable reminder that drunk driving claims more young souls than most non-disease-related incidents can imagine.

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In life, it’s a constant struggle to remember that sports figures are just as fallible as the people they entertain. The same rules apply to baseball players as they do for the fans that watch and adore them. Be safe, be responsible, and do the right thing even when you’re far away from the playing field. The cost of being young is thinking you are invincible –as if a single decision could threaten to take everything away in an instant.

While I could sit here for a few more paragraphs and throw blame and “shoulda, woulda, coulda” remarks at a grave, I will choose to remember the great things about Taveras: the smile, the swing, and the promise. Few Cardinal diehards can forget that rain-soaked weekend home game against the Giants in the 2014 regular season, where Michael Wacha was pitching in a scoreless game with the rain picking up its strength as the later innings began. Taveras comes to the plate, a southpaw-swinging rookie waiting to collect his first career home run.

Behind or ahead in the count, Taveras was never cheated. He had a large, looping swing that started low and gained height as the ball made contact. The man and the bat whipped the ball to right field, high and far. Two things were clear: baseball fans rarely smiled that much while getting soaked and the game wasn’t tied any longer. Taveras had hit his first big league home run and given Wacha and the Cards all they needed to finish the game with a win. A young man destined for great things in that very moment, equaling the high stack of promise that preceded his arrival.

That’s how I will choose to remember him. Like the faults and vulnerabilities that bind us all together, we can choose to look at the bright side of things, even seven years later. You don’t have to focus on the harsh end to Taveras’ life, because that’s a brick wall that doesn’t have any new good news to share. Look at the good times, like the 1,000 watt smile that could challenge Julia Roberts on its best day.

I’ll remember the time I got to ask Taveras a question at the annual Winter Warm-Up down at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. It was his first big press gathering, but he wasn’t overwhelmed. He was 21 years old at the time and beaming at the idea of putting on a show for Cardinal Nation, he couldn’t stop smiling. Through broken English and constant questions about being compared to Albert Pujols or the stakes of his projection, Taveras kept smiling. He was having a blast, a young talent blossoming in the dreary cold of a St. Louis winter.

We’ll wonder all day and night what could have been with Taveras if he hadn’t gotten into his car that fateful day–if he had decided to hang out longer with his family and hitch a ride back home. Along with the promising young life of his love, Arvelo, he would have kept going and answered the forever open-ended question: Just how good could he have been? Wondering about that for too long produces a headache.

While young athletes should learn a ton of lessons from his unfortunate demise, everyone should remember the smile and try to live life as boisterously as Oscar did. That’s how a legacy endures and teaches at the same time.

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