JUPITER, Fla. — Call it the Gateway to the World Series. In the first 15 seasons of the 2000s, the winner of the National League pennant usually had to go through St. Louis. Nine times in those years, the Cardinals played in the NL championship series. Their last trip ended in San Francisco in October 2014, with a home run over the head of Oscar Taveras in right field.
Taveras shuffled off the field with his Cardinals teammates that night, as the Giants mobbed the hitter, Travis Ishikawa, at home plate. Ten days later, while driving under the influence of alcohol in the Dominican Republic, Taveras crashed his red Camaro into a tree, killing himself and his girlfriend. He was 22 and had started the year as a consensus top-three prospect in the majors.
The loss was incalculable in human terms, and devastating to the future of the franchise.
“I was flying back from his funeral and said, ‘You’re not going to miss Oscar today; you’re going to miss him in 2017,'” John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, said recently in his office at spring training. “That feels about right. Because when you look at what we had to do this offseason, we kept looking for that middle-of-the-order hitter, which we were able to acquire with Marcell Ozuna. But had that tragedy not happened, maybe we would’ve had the internal candidate.”