The Legend of Oscar Taveras

San Francisco Giants v St. Louis CardinalsI did not know Oscar Taveras, at least not on any kind of personal level. I never met him, never spoke with him, and other than being in the stands for a handful of games, never saw him in person. Until the summer of 2008, when the Cardinals signed him as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic, I had never heard of him. Even then he was just another name on a long list of names. I couldn’t have even pointed him out in a crowd until 2011, when he was assigned to Low-A Quad Cities, the nearest Minor League team to me, a team I had actually interned with for the previous two seasons.

I still had a few friends that worked with the team, and I remember asking one of them about Taveras. His response was great: “Oh my god, that swing. That swing man“. A couple weeks later I went and saw him play in person. I remember him stepping in for his first at-bat. He wasn’t a physical monster or anything, but he certainly looked the part. He held his hands pretty high, and he had this menacing little bat wiggle, like he was just dying to launch a ball into orbit. But what I remember most was that Oscar seemed like he had sort of a presence about him, like he was totally different than the guys around him. It’s totally cliche, but it just felt like something awesome was about to happen. I was sitting down the 3rd base line, so I couldn’t tell you exactly where the first pitch was thrown, but wherever it was, Oscar liked it enough to swing at it. And that swing man.

It’s then I realized that Taveras wasn’t so much swinging the bat as he was swinging a mace. He wasn’t trying to hit the ball, he was trying to erase it from existence. He didn’t so much swing the bat as he unleashed it. He hit that ball so hard at the first baseman that the guy ducked. Ducked! Didn’t even offer a glove at it, just let it pass. And I swear to god that ball, the same ball that almost took the first baseman’s head off, hit the wall on the fly. It couldn’t have ever gotten more than six or seven feet off the ground. The ballpark was damn near silent. Oscar stood at 2nd playing with his batting gloves, seemingly unaware of what he had just done, like this was normal for him. It was one of those holy shit moments.

When most people think of legends, at least in a baseball sense, they think of guys like Babe Ruth & Ty Cobb. We’ve heard the tales of these men and their accomplishments so many times that they seem almost as big as the game itself. And really, that’s what makes them legends, the nearly endless parade of stories and the seemingly bottomless barrel of moments that they produced. But a legend can also be defined as a story that lies within the realm of being believable, but is unable to ever be proven true. On Friday, May 30th the Cardinals announced that they were calling up Oscar Taveras, and he was to make his debut the following day. I remember it well, because I saw the news while en route to St. Louis to see that very game against the Giants. Suddenly, after 6 long years of waiting, Oscar was St. Louis bound, and I was going to be there to see it.

The weather the next day was about as crappy as it could be. It had rained all night and through the morning, and the forecast for the remainder of the day didn’t look much better. It didn’t matter. It was Oscar Day, and Busch Stadium was nuts. I’ve seen grand slams that got less of a reaction out of the home crowd than the one the grounds crew got when they came out to pull the tarp off the field. The Beatles could have played there that day and I’m not sure anyone would have noticed.

When Taveras stepped in for his 2nd at-bat in the bottom of the 5th, he did so under a sky that was ready to burst. It started to mist a bit as he took the first pitch for ball one. Yusmerio Petit took the throw from his catcher and circled the mound looking at the sky. It was coming any second now. He stepped back on the rubber and looked in for his sign. I don’t have any clue what sign he got, or what pitch he threw, but Oscar liked it enough to swing. And that swing man.

The ball traveled 401 feet into the Cardinals’ bullpen. Just like that, almost as if a switch had been flipped,  the skies opened up and it began to pour. It was the kind of rain that turns the warning track into a lake almost immediately. From our seats in the 3rd deck behind 1st base it was hard to even see Oscar as he rounded 2nd. Still, almost nobody left their seats. Not until he got his curtain call. The waiting was over. Oscar Taveras had brought the rain.

 

Fast forward to Sunday, October 12th. Its Game 2 of the NLCS, and the Cardinals trail one game to nothing against the Giants. Taveras, after struggling to really get going for most of the season, had been relegated to the bench for the postseason. In the following days a lot will be made of him & what the Cardinals want to see him do differently in the off season. To his credit, Oscar seemed to take it all in stride. He didn’t look angry or disappointed, he just looked ready to be used in whatever role Mike Matheny would assign to him. That assignment came in the bottom of the 7th with the Cardinals trailing by a run, when Taveras was called upon to pinch-hit for his friend Carlos Martinez. He promptly took a 2-1 pitch from Jean Machi and deposited it into the right field seats to tie the game.

He looked stoic as he rounded the bases. There was no fist-pumping, no chest puffing. Here’s this 22 year-old kid playing in the biggest game of his life, after delivering the biggest hit of his life, and he looks like he’s done it a thousand times before. He’s acting like he was made for this moment. The Cardinals went on to win Game 2 on a walk-off home run in the 9th inning by Kolten Wong. For Taveras, it felt like another story that would eventually be a small part of the narrative of a potentially legendary career. A career like those of Ruth & Cobb.

Taveras NLCSBut Oscar isn’t that kind of legend. He was taken far too soon to put together enough of the of the indelible moments like those guys were able to. What we’re left with is a small collection of special moments and a mountain of what-could-have-been’s. Oscar Taveras might have been the next Ty Cobb; the next Babe Ruth. Maybe he would have taken a shot at Pete Rose’s all-time hits record. Maybe he would have tried to unseat Cal Ripken Jr. from his Iron Man throne. He could have been baseball’s first .400 hitter since Ted Williams.

We’ll never know. A couple of years ago I bought a few pictures of Oscar that I hoped to someday get signed by him. Sadly, I never got that chance. I’ll keep those pictures though, in the hopes that someday my kids will find them and ask who that kid is and why he’s smiling so hard. Then I can tell them the stories; like the time I saw him hit a ball so hard the first baseman just gave up, and the time he brought the rain. And then I’ll tell them what Oscar was supposed to be, what he was meant to do. That’s the legend of Oscar Taveras.

The world spins on. The sun came up today, and it’ll come up tomorrow. By this time on Thursday we’ll be without baseball for another long winter, left only to think about what could have been, what could have gone differently. Though he’ll always be remembered by baseball and certainly by St. Louis, we’ll move on from Oscar Taveras. Onto the next kid with the big smile & the big bat.

But that swing man.

 

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