Baseball Player or Not, Taveras Died Way Too Soon…

Oscar Taveras’ early and tragic death has taught me a lesson, yet again. To love, in spite of ourselves. To love unconditionally, without grudge or bias.

On Sunday, Oct. 26th, in the Dominican Republic, on a stretch of road left slippery from heavy rain, 22 yr. old St. Louis Cardinals prospect Oscar Taveras, along with his 18 yr. old girlfriend Edilia Arvelo, lost his life in an automobile crash. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions, and amid all the shock and sadness, we’re reminded that life is oh so very short. This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen. Parents are supposed to outlive their children. In the sports world, our heroes, or future ones, are supposed to fulfill expectations. The Cardinals had yet another Superstar in the making. Even though I’m still tied into the MLB long after my body has succumbed to gravity and fade, I just can’t wrap my mind around what the Taveras or Arvelo family must be going through. I can’t look at this accident from the view of a career baseball guy. The only view I can have right now is that of a father. It could happen to any of our kids, at any time, and in the most innocent of circumstances.

In 1995, I was selected to play in the Arizona Fall League, a league reserved for what a parent club would label as “Prospects”, the players that had the best chance of developing into a contributing, successful major league player. It was September, and I had just come off of my first 2 months in the big leagues. It had all happened so fast; I was a late 26th round pick who was expected to fill a spot for a year or two, then take his release like a man and either become a coach or enter the work force. Neither happened. Somewhere along the line things clicked, and I became a player worth investing money and time in during winter ball. My attitude was that of an indestructible young man, seemingly immortal. Nothing could hurt me, I was 10 feet tall and bullet proof, and if you didn’t believe me, all you needed to do was ask. I waited for the opportunity to tell you how great I was. I was going to live forever, play forever, and be the greatest ever, forever, and ever. After a stellar AFL campaign, I was asked to play an extended winter schedule in the Dominican Republic. Former Royals outfielder Johnny Damon had a full season and was tired, so I was called upon to take his roster spot, playing in the capital of Santiago for now Indians manager Terry Francona. I loved the attention. I was becoming my own version of “The Man”. When the newspapers caught wind of my ‘promotion’, I conducted a couple of interviews, made my arrangements and off I went for my first venture into the land of humidity and baseball. I never thought to do research on the country, it’s landscape, socio-economic status, language, anything. I took the stance that the DR was blessed to have me; strangely enough, it would be the other way around. The best lessons are taught that way…

Upon arriving in the DR, I soon realized there was a huge language barrier. None of the taxi drivers spoke English, or least they pretended not to. I noticed there were a much larger amount of poverty stricken folks that any I’d ever seen in any one place, and that was just the airport. After settling on a taxi and a price, I headed off on my nearly 2 hour ride to the hotel. What I would experience for the next 120 minutes would be astonishing…

On most roads outside the city, there are no line markers in the DR. Street signs are non-existent in the countryside, and very few can be seen in the cities. Most roads are heavily damaged, which would lead one to believe that most vehicles carry an extra 2-3 spare tires, victimized by the massive potholes left unrepaired. Most vehicles in the DR are put together from parts of 1 or more similar vehicles, and in arguably the most scary fact: none are required to have inspections. Most roads are void of streetlights, some cars void of headlights. There may be traffic laws on the books, but they are considered more a set of guidelines or suggestions than laws, and they certainly aren’t enforced. To ride in a vehicle as a passenger in the DR is to play the game of vehicular Russian roulette, except someone else pulls the trigger and seatbelts are optional. On one particular night, after a long extra-inning affair, our team loaded the bus and headed for home. Around the halfway point of our journey, I noticed a reflective, flickering light facing me through the front windshield. Leaning forward in the front row of the right side of the bus, the zigzagging light grew closer as it traveled toward us at a high rate of speed. While nudging my teammate next to me, I shouted to the driver, “Senior! Cuidado!”, the Spanish version of “Sir! Watch Out!” At approximately 60 mph, our big, rickety team bus’s side view mirror collided with the side view mirror of a humongous dump truck, sending both mirrors off into the jungle with a loud crash. No horns. No swerving. No cursing. It was simply, according to the driver through a translator, “Business as usual.” By the grace of God, all of our lives were saved within the space of less than 1 inch.

For the next few moments, I attempted to comprehend the event that just transpired, and just how so very closely I came to dying. The laughter throughout the back of the bus had never waned; in fact, due to the large amount of alcohol being consumed, it was highly unlikely that any of them knew what was going on, or just how lucky they were. Vehicle after vehicle had passed, some with lights on, some without. I was in a new place, in the middle of the night, in a country without traffic rules, and completely at the mercy of someone else to navigate me back to safety. I felt, for all intents and purposes, doomed.

We all made it home safely that night. Very few were happier than I was to touch ground under my feet. The season ended, I never went back to play in that country, or even visit for that matter. I’ve seen ballplayer after ballplayer come out of the Dominican Republic, full of talent and passion for the game. I’ve seen MLB teams give their teenagers millions of dollars based not only on what they see in them now, but also what they hope will reveal itself later on. I’ve seen Latin kids learn our language, adapt to our customs, follow our rules, and appreciate every single thing they’ve ever been given. I’ve watched them defy the odds so often it’s become almost normal, and yet I never tire of the next success story with Dominican ties. In all these stories, there’s just one roadblock they can’t seem to hurdle…death. In an AP article from 2013, traffic fatalities in the DR are among the worlds highest, whereas some hospitals in the country report up to 120 patients per day come in as a result of traffic accidents. When it happens at such a young age like it has in the case of Taveras, it’s just a stark reminder that nothing is guaranteed. Taveras future wasn’t recognized because he wasn’t educated. He didn’t reach his full potential because he blew out a knee or a shoulder. He wasn’t cut, released, sent down, suspended, none of that. He simply was doing something he’d done for years now…drive a car. It just so happens that the road underneath his tires wouldn’t allow for the traction necessary to navigate the rain that night. Like most of us, he probably took his young life for granted. And in this horribly sad time in baseball…sorry, that’s not right…in life…we must remember to hang on to whom we love, and tell them how much they mean to us, every day. Even with the best of intentions and with the utmost care, life is NOT guaranteed. Oscar Taveras’ early and tragic death has taught me a lesson, yet again. To love, in spite of ourselves. To love unconditionally, without grudge or bias. No amount of days are guaranteed by our Creator…sadly, it takes that reality being put in action that we appreciate that.

Teach your kids proper vehicular safety. Demand they wear seatbelts. Spend time driving with them. And since we can’t control what drivers do in their own vehicles, just in case…always tell them you love them. Never stop. 22 years just doesn’t seem long enough.