KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Oscar Taveras was the guy you worked with closely. He was the guy at work you barely knew at all. He was your brother, your friend’s brother or the son of the guy who occupied the desk near the elevator that you walked past each day.
He was all of these things in the baseball world, a different man to different men. He was close to some, an acquaintance of others, a brother to the St. Louis Cardinals, a son of the Dominican Republic.
And now he’s gone, and your mind races and you ache and you wonder why. You think about the things you wish you had said, or the opportunities you had to maybe get to know a little bit more about him but didn’t.
And then in an instant, that opportunity is gone.
Mangled car. Broken hearts.
Death visited the World Series on Sunday night, same as it often does your office, your school, your church and your neighborhood. Except, the World Series is supposed to be a safe haven that only allows smiles and standing ovations. Isn’t it?
“It’s hard to be joyful in this moment, for me,” Jake Peavy, San Francisco’s Game 6 starter Tuesday, said. “It’s hard to yell and scream. This is devastating. So young.”
There are no words, no motivational sayings for a speeding car skidding off a rainy beach road and killing both occupants, Taveras, 22, and a woman who reportedly was his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, 18. No coach's talk can make what happened better.
“It reiterates how fragile life is,” a shaken Peavy said, and he didn’t even know Taveras, other than watching the Cardinals' now-dead phenom hammer a Game 2 home run against San Francisco in the National League Championship Series.
Eggshell fragile. That’s what life is.
Tragedy reaches out and nips at all of us, or someone we know, every single stinkin’ day. This is just the latest reminder that while it dances around the fringes of our lives, we can at least prepare for the moments when it inevitably strikes by seizing every single day, zestfully inhaling every breath, squeezing tightly every loved one.
“I was asked last night to give some words regarding the tragic death of Oscar Taveras,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said in a statement released Monday. “But I just simply couldn’t.”
Mangled car. Broken hearts.
Matheny’s first instinct was to gather his Cardinals around him. Maybe figure out a way for a group hug. When Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed by a drunk driver on an early Thursday morning in April, 2009, just hours after making his first start of the season, his heartbroken teammates gathered together in their clubhouse the next day. Grief counselors were made available to the Angels over the next several days.
But the 2014 Cardinals already scattered like the autumn leaves. All that’s left is the memory of a season that just ended 11 days ago.
And, the haunting thought that, had they defeated the Giants, Taveras probably would have been playing in Game 5 of the World Series in St. Louis on Sunday. Instead, he went for a drive in the Dominican on a rainy day.
“It felt like a bad dream that could not be real, and when reality kicked in, my words didn’t even seem to make sense,” Matheny said in the statement. “To say this is a horrible loss of a life ended too soon would be an understatement. To talk about the potential of his abilities seemed to be untimely. All I wanted to do was get the guys together and be with our baseball family. I know the hurt that comes along with buying into the brotherhood of a baseball team. That hurt is just as powerful as the joys that come with this life.
“Not to say it is even close to the depth of pain his true family is going through, but the pain itself is just as real. The ache is deep because the relationships were deep, and forged through time and trials.”
The baseball world shifted back to Kansas City on a gloomy Monday, taking a quiet break from Panda hats and Moose calls. Sports is life with the volume turned up and, dammit, that includes the sorrow as well as the ecstasy.
“I found out after the game,” Royals setup man Kelvin Herrera said. “I couldn’t believe it.
Herrera played winter ball with Taveras in the Dominican Republic and ascended with him in the minor leagues.
“To see him a couple of weeks ago, to see him in the playoffs hitting a home run against the Giants, making plays,” Herrera continued. “It’s crazy how one day you can be hitting a home run, and the next day you’re dead.”
Less than two weeks ago, we were fiercely debating Matheny’s bullpen usage in the LCS. Now, the loss of Taveras sledgehammers home how hollow and trivial some of our games sometimes can seem.
Except, you looked out at 40,000 happy people jamming AT&T Park the other night, you feel the buzz here in Kansas City, you think of the millions watching on television. For so many of us, sports is our community, fulfilling similar needs as your church, your school, your service club. The ballpark is the modern-day town square.
Life speeds up on all of us. It becomes messy and complicated and rough. And as it does, we need our communities as much as we ever have. We all have lost loved ones. We all struggle with grief, always at what seems like the most inopportune time. What the games do is what the church and our neighborhoods do: They give us something to smile about, friends to lean on, events to look forward to.
Juan Perez, a close friend of Taveras, was in tears in the Giants clubhouse the other night during Game 5…then he was roping a key double. Teammates Gregor Blanco and Joaquin Arias helped push him forward. “Stay strong,” Arias told him. “Stay strong.”
This now is what the Cardinals will do for each other. Must do for each other.
“In my opinion, the word ‘love’ is the most misused, and misunderstood word in the English language,” Matheny continued in the statement. “It is not popular for men to use this word, and even less popular for athletes. But, there is not a more accurate word for how a group of men share a deep and genuine concern for each other. We loved Oscar, and he loved us.
“That is what a team does. That is what a family does.”
None of us can make it to the other side of life's road alone. In this time of grief, may this communal outpouring serve as a source of strength for the families of Taveras and Arvelo, and for the Cardinals.
And may the stitches holding together the baseball community, and your own community, pull ever tighter as we do what communities should do: help each other through our most difficult challenges, so we can see the best of ourselves, and the best of each other.