By definition, we’re all unique, right? That’s what mom always said. You’re so very special, and don’t listen to them, son — it’s that third nostril that makes you you, dear.
What she didn’t tell us is that there are different level of uniqueness, different classes, different genres. It’s that enviable level of uniqueness — the blessed one that creates that All-Star circle of baseball players who are preternaturally talented and charismatic — that I’m thinking about on this sad Monday.
Last night, we were hit with the horrifying news: promising Cardinals’ outfielder Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend were killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. He was just 22. A day later, the promise lost is still difficult to process.
One of the enduring charms of baseball is its diversity. I’m not specifically referring to the players of various different cultures and backgrounds who hold the 750 playing jobs in the major leagues on any given day, though there is certain appeal to be found in watching camaraderie develop between, say, David Ortiz and Koji Uehara, men of vastly different cultures, talents and sizes who bond over a common goal.
No, I’m talking about a diversity in skills, especially among baseball’s elite players, that makes the sport endure, sometimes in spite of itself. I’m talking about true originality, players with such particular flair that they remain radiant in your mind’s-eye in crisp focus and vibrant color years beyond their final innings.
It’s Dwight Evans wheeling and throwing from Fenway’s right field corner — his right field corner — holding the runner to a single with a throw that all but advises, You’d better scurry back to first now, son. … It’s Nomar Garciaparra, circa June 1999, adjusting, readjusting, then ripping a line drive to an unattended part of the ballpark every single time up … It’s Rickey Henderson tucking his head and hitting warp speed before the pitcher can process that he’s gone …
It’s Pedro. Everything Pedro.
It’s Manny. Almost everything Manny.
It’s Mike Trout, our Willie Mays, and Clayton Kershaw, whose own brilliance makes us happily revisit Sandy Koufax’s incomparable brilliance … It’s Ozzie Smith’s back flip, his barehanded wizardry … It’s Dwight Gooden, lighting up radar guns and New York City (good thing he didn’t have a third nostril) … Vladimir Guerrero swinging from the heels and ripping a one-hop 59-foot curveball into the right field gap.
Ah, Vlad. Man. I don’t know if we’ve seen many Hall of Fame-caliber players with more charming quirks and idiosyncrasies than Guerrero, who hit .318 with 449 homers and a .931 OPS in 16 seasons. He really did hit pitches on a bounce …
… and in his Montreal youth his throwing arm was such a weapon — a loose cannon might be a better term — that he was liable to cut down a runner by 25 feet or overthrow the relay man as the ball soared toward Quebec City.
I miss every distinctive player when time runs out and the skills fade. Hell, Pedro last pitched for the Red Sox 10 years ago yesterday, and I still think about him often and clearly, as if he pitched yesterday. You’re always waiting for the next great one to come along, the next thread through history, the next precocious, effervescent, supremely talented kid to remind you why baseball will forever matter in your life.
I miss watching Vlad Guerrero do his thing. So when Taveras began drawing raves from the likes of Keith Law as the lefthanded Vlad while ascending to the top of prospect lists two years ago — he rose from the No. 74 prospect in baseball in 2012 to No. 3 before the 2013 and ’14 seasons — what else were you going to do but hope it was true?
Another Vlad? It seemed impossible. But then, the original once seemed impossible too, and Taveras did hit .321/.380/.572 with 67 extra-base hits as a 20-year-old in Double A in 2012.
His acclimation to the major leagues was not effortless. He had three homers and a .590 OPS in 248 plate appearances this season. Cardinals management spoke of a need for him to commit to better conditioning. It seemed a speed bump rather than a crossroads, but he was not a Vlad Guerrero mirror image, not yet.
So much remained in his favor. He was just 22, an age in which even the can’t-miss prospects usually miss for a while. He had his moments — a home run in his first game, and a tying homer in Game 2 of the NLCS, a single in the eighth inning of Game 4.
And he had time. Who would be so cruel to imagine it would run out so soon?
I cannot think of a player of such promise dying so young, after his career had only just begun.
Old timers will remember the Cubs’ Ken Hubbs, a former rookie of the year who perished in a plane crash in February 1964. Around here, we know Harry Agganis for tragedy as well as youthful triumph. But neither owned Taveras’s combination of talent and youth.
Lyman Bostock was in his prime, 27 years old, when he was gunned down in September 1978. Mets prospect Brian Cole, who died in a truck accident in 2001, was touted, but not to Taveras’s degree.
Perhaps the closest is Nick Adenhart, the 23-year-old Angels righthander killed by a drunk driver in 2009 in the hours after pitching the best game of his young career. But I can’t think of anything quite like this. We’ll never know whether he might have become one of those unique superstars or a variation of Vlad, one of those players appreciated even by fans of a different ball club.
All we have are the flickering moments left behind, the teases to what he could become. All we have are the brief highlights. Look at this. Watch it.
It’s the clip of Taveras’s first home run, in his first game, and it’s wonderful. The deep crouch and stylish follow through as he crushes the baseball is reminiscent not of Vlad, but Robinson Cano at his cockiest.
Then there’s the celebration, teasing and congratulatory at once, that old baseball tradition. As Taveras reaches the dugout, he’s greeted by a gauntlet of teammates, who high-five and pound on him in unison as he zips from one end to the other.
He turns now, slightly hunched, chomping his gum, his eyes radiating joy as he accepts more congratulations.
A curtain call beckons, and he’s on his way even before Joe Kelly gives him a playful get-out-there-kid shove. He doffs his cap. Cardinals’ fans roar. It’s scene that was supposed to repeat so many more times through the years.
What really gets you though, if you listen, is the description of the home run on replay. As Taveras’s swing unleashes in slow motion, raindrops that went unnoticed before falling around him, Cardinals color analyst Al Hrabosky provides the voiceover:
“The breaking ball was coming right into him. Look at the finish, the follow-through. You see the raindrops. Probably a lot of tears, too. All the hard work has paid off. …”
Hrabosky was so right. It did. It did. Taveras made it. Just for far too brief an instant.
We will miss Oscar Taveras, a uniquely sad story in baseball history. We will never know what we missed.