There I was on Sunday evening, lamenting the Bears’ implosion and trying to distance myself emotionally from Ricky Renteria. Then I began seeing tweets about Oscar Taveras, the young St. Louis Cardinals slugger. I quickly learned that he and his girlfriend had been killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic.
Condolences were coming from everywhere, from media members and outlets to fans from around the world, regardless of team affiliation. In spite of the tragic news, the responses to it were unifying and uplifting and showed me that baseball is more than just a sport.
I grew up in a small town in rural Northwest Indiana, the kind of place where you knew who everyone was even if you didn’t truly know them. With maybe 1,500 inhabitants, North Judson was not a town that knew too many strangers. That was great when you needed a hand but not so much when you wished to remain anonymous.
Sports were a big part of life growing up, due in no small part to the fact that there was little else to do in such a small town. Our teams were usually very good and our proximity to both South Bend and Chicago meant that we always had college and pro teams on the radio or TV year-round.
I developed a love of the Cubs from watching them on WGN every day and the Bears had little competition for my attention from an NFL standpoint. The Hoosiers and the Fighting Irish were in the mix as well; it had been that way for years too, so my Grandpap and my dad had been indoctrinated in much the same manner, passing their allegiances on to me.
But as the inherent strictures of childhood gave way to the freedoms of youth, things began to change a bit. Don’t get me wrong, sports were still huge; athletic endeavors were always a defining force in my young life. But other interests and pursuits cropped up along the way, namely driving and girls, only one of which I actually found attainable.
Of course, you had the inevitable lure of the bottle, as delinquency was a far more enjoyable pursuit for many of my classmates than an evening at the bowling alley or pizza place. And despite our hometown’s small population, it was a relatively far-flung community. That said, it’s not as though you could just walk to wherever you wanted to be.
And that meant driving, often after more than a little indulgence. Down narrow and poorly-lit county roads that were often bordered by deep ditches and obscured by cornfields as far as the eye could see, or couldn’t see in this case.
One night, a young man and his friend were driving down one such road after having consumed well more than the legal limit. Their car was pulled over, but the officer, who knew the driver and knew that he was lived nearby, just told him to be careful and get home right away.
Normally, someone in this situation would count his blessings and return posthaste, but alcohol and teenage rebellion tend to displace common sense. So it was that the young man proceeded to rocket down the narrow road, presumably enjoying a rush that was almost strong enough to cut through the booze haze.
At the same time, another vehicle carrying some of our classmates was travelling in the opposite direction. And given the nature of the roads I discussed earlier, they were unable to avoid a head-on collision with a car that crossed the center line while likely travelling in excess of 80 MPH.
The driver who had been pulled over that night was thrown through the windshield, coming to rest nearly 100 yards away. He lived, though in a permanent vegetative state. His passenger survived the accident but died in the hospital due to complications from injuries he had sustained.
One of the passengers in the other car suffered only a broken leg, but the driver and another passenger were killed instantly. These were classmates of mine, young people who were gone before they had even begun to experience the primes of their lives. I wish I could say that the story ended there, but it doesn’t.
The on-again-off-again boyfriend of the young woman who was driving was understandably shaken by the accident, turning to alcohol to numb the pain. One night not long after the initial tragedy, he got into a fight with his buddy at a party and stormed off, returning with a shotgun. After murdering his friend, he drove off and took his own life, leaving the entire community in shock and struggling for answers.
Even writing about it now, nearly 20 years later, I still feel a void and I still struggle to understand why this had to happen. It all could have been avoided so easily. But when I remember all those involved, it’s actually sports, namely baseball, that first comes to mind to fill the empty space.
You see, I had played both little league and senior league baseball with the driver of one car and a passenger of of the other. All those practices, all those games. We were never close friends, but my thoughts at the time, and still to this day, were that they were my teammates. I had lost my teammates.
I had even played against the boyfriend of the other driver and I’ll never forget one of my first-ever at-bats when he beaned me right in the kneecap. It was the second batter he had hit in the inning, so he was required to leave the mound, swapping with the second baseman. As I cried and rubbed it, breaking two unwritten rules at once, he mocked me from his new position.
A few years later, I ended squeezing off an opposite-field, seeing-eye single against the guy when I made late contact with a fastball I had no business hitting. I remember it well because it was one of probably two hits I had that season. It’s funny how some things jump forth from the mundanity of life to imprint themselves on our consciousness.
And then there was young man in the car with the drunk driver, a kid everyone affectionately called “Chicago” because he constantly reminded us that it was his hometown, using the “ch” and not “sh” opening sound as he did so. A huge sports fan, we’d spend time during and between classes breaking down the local teams and their imminent return to glory.
While it’s easy to become jaded when we see millionaires playing a child’s game, there’s something at the core of athletic competition, and baseball in particular, that binds us in some inexplicable and ethereal way. It goes beyond team and local allegiances, beyond skill, knowledge and social standing.
And that’s why, when I saw the news of Taveras’s death, I felt much the same void as when I lost my former teammates. I had never met the man and certainly never would have. In an ideal world, I would have rooted against him as my Cubs faced his Cardinals over and over again throughout what should have been a long and fruitful career.
Seeing the outpouring of condolences last night, I know that I’m not alone in that sentiment either. Playing a sport, even just being a fan, gives us the ability to be a part of something much bigger than ourselves. I can’t put it any better than James Earl Jones as Terence Mann in Field of Dreams, who said:
And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.
There are times when it’s hard to accept that final line, when you see a young life snuffed out just as it was starting to burn brightly. And it’s the same when we lose legends like Tony Gwynn or Ron Santo, which is something I’ve written about in the past.
Because for as much as you may believe it’s been polluted, corrupted, and reshaped beyond recognition, it’s still baseball. No other game has the ability to take us back to those days of yore, watching in awe as the contest unfolded before us. And baseball will soon take a hiatus, after which we can all return to our teams, to our increasingly-detailed numerical breakdown of the sport.
But for now, I just want to revel in the essence of the game I love so much and to mourn the untimely passing of one of its practitioners. Godspeed, Oscar Taveras, would that we had gotten the chance to know you better.