Bob Lutz: Cardinals’ Oscar Taveras is gone far too soon

St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Oscar Taveras celebrates in the locker room with teammates after their 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.
St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Oscar Taveras celebrates in the locker room with teammates after their 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. AP

I first saw the news on Deadspin and thought that it must be a joke. It was close to Halloween, people play jokes on Halloween. Right?

For a split second, I even wondered if it was April Fool’s Day, even though we’re far removed from that date.

I couldn’t believe St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras had died in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic. It took more than Deadspin’s report to convince me. Sadly, I became convinced when ESPN, USA Today and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch confirmed that the 22-year-old Taveras, one of the top prospects in baseball, had indeed been killed along with his 18-year-old girlfriend.

I don’t know Taveras, but his death hit me hard. It hit my wife, Debbie, hard. We watch so many Cardinals games on television and we feel like we have a bond with the players. We develop relationships with them. We see them in strictly a baseball domain, but that’s enough to spawn feelings.

Taveras was likeable. He had a electric smile and, at least during his minor-league career, an electric bat. He struggled during the 2014 season with the Cardinals, though. He never seemed to get comfortable, although he did have success as a pinch-hitter and hit a game-tying home run in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants at Busch Stadium.

That was just more than two weeks ago and it showed, once again, Taveras’s great promise. The Cardinals were confident he would become a star and asked him to work on conditioning during the off-season. He was to play a month of winter baseball in the Dominican Republic in December. He was going to be given every chance to earn the starting spot in right field during spring training.

But in a blink of the eye, his promise as a baseball player was extinguished.

Maybe it’s because I was distraught, but I could sense the emotions of the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals during Game 5 of the World Series. We learned later that Giants outfielder Juan Perez, who had a huge two-run double in the eighth inning Sunday night, was crying in the dugout after he learned of Taveras’s death and that other players on both teams were eager to know more about what happened.

“During the game, when I found out, it was a little hard,” Perez, who played winter ball with Taveras, told the San Francisco Chronicle after Game 5. “I was thinking too much about it. (Joaquin) Arias came over to say, 'Stay strong, we have to win this game.’ ...

“I wasn’t thinking about it during my at-bat. Then I got to third and I looked at the sky. My emotions came back to me then and I was thinking about him. ... It’s a huge loss not only for his family, but also his teammates and people who care about him.”

I liked Taveras. He struggled, but he never seemed to be down about it. His playing time diminished late in the regular season and in the postseason, but when he was called on to pinch-hit, he was often successful. You could see the talent in his swing. But he was just a kid, probably a little overwhelmed by the big leagues. Some great prospects are immediately successful. Others, like Taveras, need some time to grow up and figure things out.

The Cardinals were blunt with him. But they understood how great he could become.

None of that seems to matter now. The sadness of his death overwhelms.

It speaks to the deep connection I have with the Cardinals, like so many of you have with your team or teams. The Cardinals are part of me and have been for decades. I feel what they feel.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who was headed to the Dominican Republic on Monday for a memorial service, issued this statement:

“I was asked (Sunday) night to give some words regarding the tragic death of Oscar Taveras, but I simply couldn’t.

“First of all, 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. To say this is a horrible loss of a life ended too soon would be an understatement. Tl talk about the potential of his abilities seemed 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 a baseball brotherhood of a baseball team. The 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 for 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.

“To the many fans who have already reached out with condolences, and to the many more who are in mourning, thank you for taking these players in, like they are one of your own. This level of care is what sets our fans apart.

“In my opinion, the word “love” is the most misused and misunderstood word in the English language. 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. You will be missed, Oscar.”