A little over three years ago, St. Louis Cardinals phenom Oscar Taveras perished in a car accident off a wet road in the Dominican Republic, taking with him the life of his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, and a potential superstar career. Over 1,000 days later, Cardinals fans wonder what life would have been like if Taveras made better choices on the night of Oct. 26, 2014.
When I received a tweet about writing a piece to remember the kid, I couldn't turn it down, because his loss seems to reverberate today with the team and on this roster.
Anybody with a heartbeat can think back to his pair of home runs against the Giants during the 2014 season. Taveras' first ever blast happened in a 2-0 Michael Wacha victory, the baseball that soared through the rain, and put a smile on every face in the building, friend or foe. Weeks before he died, Taveras hit a more meaningful home run off Jean Machi in the National League Championship Series.
Both home runs were comprised sweet looping swings that carried the ball up into the right field stands, creating a luminous moment for Cardinals fans in two separate times of a season. These days, those memories are harsh and bittersweet.
For his career, Taveras's stat line won't blaze a trail for sabermetric honks or old school baseball card gum chewers. In 80 regular season games, he hit .239 with an OPS of .590 and struck out three times as much as he walked. He hit three home runs and sprinkled in eight doubles, accumulating 73 total bases. He came up, went down, and came back up. There was a Rocky-esque theme to his launch. Taveras battled former Cardinal Randal Grichuk for playing time.
When he died, John Mozeliak had to move quickly. He traded a pair of pitchers for Jason Heyward, a defensive expert with a streaky bat. Heyward won a gold glove, produced 6 WAR, and aided the Cards weakened outfield. He eventually left for the Chicago Cubs, where his bat disappeared, but he won a gold glove and picked up a World Series ring.
So, I ask myself a question quite often: what if Taveras didn't die? If he were still around, would the Cardinals look differently, and act differently today?
For one, Heyward isn't traded for, and the Cardinals possibly make a harder push for Max Scherzer, the free agent hometown kid who would sign with the Washington Nationals three months later in January of 2015.
Perhaps, Mozeliak knew he wanted to re-sign Heyward after the 2015 season, and was reserving cash for that acquisition. I'm not sure he and Bill DeWitt Jr. would want to hand out a pair of 200 million dollar contracts, even in back-to-back winters.
If Taveras is here, Dexter Fowler must certainly isn't. He was signed due to Heyward choosing Chicago over St. Louis, a deal that only cost the Cardinals five years and $80+ million instead of $200 million, but still pricey nevertheless.
The Cardinals would still be enjoying Taveras' arbitration eligible years instead of pouring $18-20 million into a free agent or trade acquisition. He would be flourishing in right field, possibly with his friend Marcell Ozuna riding shotgun in left field. Who knows? That's the kicker.
At the 2014 Winter Warm-up, John Mozeliak talked about the potential of Taveras in the big leagues like a father finally getting to see a coveted son get his shot after injuries delayed his rise. When asked about comparing the kid to Albert Pujols, Mozeliak threw a different shade on it.
“That’s a way to look at it. When Pujols was coming up, no one had him on their major league radar. He came out of nowhere. We knew there was a talent, but not quite the career path he took. With Taveras, we have known all along it was there but it has been delayed by injury," Mozeliak said.
We knew it was there the whole time, but it was taken away far too quick.
I won't sit here and sabe the heck out of you as you sip that afternoon cup of coffee over a BLT at Uncle Bill's Pancake House. I won't decipher Fangraphs with earnest, trying to figure out what he'd be hitting exactly or how many wins he'd be generating or what kind of exit velocity his bat would be creating.
I'll say that Taveras put a dent in Mozeliak that I don't think has completely healed just yet. No one talks about the possible effect it had on Mike Matheny, a manager who reportedly sparred with Taveras' playing style during his first call-up. Matheny knew what was there and wanted the kid to get it right. If you watch this video of Taveras' home run off Machi in the playoffs, you'll see veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright point to Matheny in the dugout afterwards.
Matheny knew. Mozeliak knew. Wainwright knew. We all did. That's why it hurts years later.
I imagine Taveras would be hitting .290, smoking 30 home runs, and smashing baseball 46% of the time. In six seasons in the minors, Taveras was a .300 hitter with a clean .460 slugging percentage, and he saw improvement every single season as he climbed the ranks and faced tougher pitching. There were many steps backwards, only pauses caused by injuries. He would be the rightfielder that everyone in the game knew he was. Other teams had a fair idea when they saw that swing. It was Ken Griffey Jr. sexy with a Ray Lankford finish. In a word, beautiful.
The Cardinals would be a better team in my opinion, because the loss of Taveras did spark a different route that threw the team off for a couple years. How much better? I'd say at least five wins better. Don't burn me at the stake for a prediction.
I'm going to get sentimental here for a moment, so bear with me. I imagine a scene in the 2018 season playing out. Carlos Martinez, Ozuna, and Taveras are standing around in the dugout. They are laughing, taunting each other, kidding others, and generally loving life as Major League baseball players. They think back to being kids in the Dominican Republic, where baseball is the lifeblood of the environment, but promises don't grow on trees. They realize how lucky they are to be playing big league ball for a proud franchise. Bets are made, cups are stacked, and smiles own the night. That's what I think about with Taveras.
A smile. I got to share a room one time with Taveras on that same weekend that Mozeliak spoke so highly of him at the Hyatt Regency in downtown St. Louis back in 2014. He was coming off ankle surgery, and I asked him about working with fellow Cardinals Matt Holliday and Trevor Rosenthal during his recovery. He spoke glowingly of the two players who reached out to him to help, and smiled often. That was the biggest takeaway with Oscar: smiles and big swings.
Wondering what could have been always leads one back to what actually did happen. One of the most common faults of human beings is thinking we are invincible to danger. All of us have had too much to drink and got behind the wheel or seriously considered it at one point or another. We think to ourselves that it's only so far away, it'll be easy.
More likely than not, Taveras thought he could make it home from a beach side get-together with family that rainy afternoon after having too much to drink. He got in his Chevy Camaro with his Edilia, and tried to make it home-and he never did. That's life. Our ultimate vulnerability is our reliance on our invincibility. Many make it home. Oscar did not. As Benjamin Hochman so eloquently wrote back in 2015, the lesson is in the legacy.
The bittersweet part is wondering what his career would have looked, and the impact it would have had on the team. The moves they wouldn't have to make, along with the ones they would make as a result of one potential superstar's presence. Wondering what kind of beautiful life Arvelo would have had, with or without Oscar.
Whether we like it or not, baseball creates a romantic attachment inside our hearts, more so than any sport. The 162 game grind, offseason drama, and constant expectation. It never quits or lets up. This feeling creates memorable moments, like Taveras' home run off Machi. It also created sorrow, like Taveras dying less than a month later.
Baseball gives and takes, like any other thing in life. It leaves sweet things, like a beautiful swing-and painful things, like a poor decision.
Oscar Taveras was just 22 years old when he died. Three years later, his legacy still carries a heartbeat in St. Louis. I imagine in three more years, or even ten, it still will.
Great players come and go. Great moments followed by a what-if legacy never go away.
Rest in peace, Oscar and Edilia. You're haven't left my head just yet.