Shortly after Game 5 of the World Series started in San Francisco on Sunday, the baseball world was rocked by the tragic news that Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend died in a car accident that afternoon in the Dominican Republic.
Taveras and his girlfriend, 18-year-old Edilia Arvelo, were killed near his hometown of Sosua, near Puerto Plata on the Atlantic coast of the Dominican Republic. Recently considered one of the game's top prospects, Taveras was 22 years old and had just completed his rookie season in the majors.
“I simply can’t believe it,” said St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak in a statement released by the team. “I first met Oscar when he was 16 years old and will forever remember him as a wonderful young man who was a gifted athlete with an infectious love for life who lived every day to the fullest.”
Taveras' career hadn't progressed smoothly the past couple years. He bounced back and forth between Triple A and St. Louis, struggling to recover his stroke after missing the second half of the 2013 season due to a right ankle injury, battling for time in the Cardinals' overcrowded outfield and facing criticism from his team about his conditioning. Despite all that, his 2014 season ended on a high note even in the midst of St. Louis' postseason exit. Though confined to bench duty, Taveras went 3 for 7 as a pinch-hitter in the playoffs, a performance that included a game-tying solo home run off San Francisco reliever Jean Machi in the seventh inning of NLCS Game 2, which the Cardinals would later win on Kolten Wong's walkoff homer.
Signed by the Cardinals in November 2008, when he was just 16, Taveras spent a year in the Dominican Summer League before coming stateside. He put himself on the map as a 19-year-old in the A-level Midwest league in 2011 by batting .386/.444/.584, a performance that pushed him onto the major prospect lists the following spring, with Baseball Prospectus ranking him No. 23 among its top 100 prospects.
He followed that up with an even more impressive performance at Double A Springfield, batting .321/.380/.572 with 23 homers. That earned him American Association MVP honors, and the number three ranking on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list coming into 2013. He was number two according to BP, where Jason Parks summed up the fuss about Taveras by writing:
His offensive ceiling could make him one of the best talents in the league, the type of player you can build a franchise around. This is a very special prospect who is likely to develop into a very special player at the major-league level. If you haven’t already jumped on the bandwagon, do so quickly. This is a future star.
Taveras was expected to get at least a taste of major league action in 2013, but he suffered a high ankle sprain in May, just as he was heating up, and never did make it to St. Louis that season. While he returned to action, further ankle problems limited him to just one game after June 23, and only 47 in all before undergoing season-ending surgery to repair ligament damage and remove bone chips.
Although his lofty prospect rankings held, a combination of his recovery from the injury and a crowded Cardinals outfield — Peter Bourjos and Randall Grichuk were added to a group that already included Allen Craig and Jon Jay — forced Taveras to begin the 2014 season in the minors. He hit well, but the team had no obvious opening for him until late May.
He debuted on May 31 and proved his mettle by homering in his second major league plate appearance, off the Giants' Yusmeiro Petit. Even so, he was sent back to Memphis after a total of 40 plate appearances over an 11-game span. He returned at the beginning of July, and with Craig's extended slump and eventual trade to the Red Sox on July 31, it looked as though Taveras wound finally have his shot. He showed intermittent signs of coming around, but on a team with a sputtering offense, he couldn't stay hot enough to exempt him from manager Mike Matheny's lineup tinkering. Taveras finished the year batting just .239/.278/.312 with three home runs in 248 plate appearances over 80 games.
While Grichuk started all of St. Louis' postseason games, Mozeliak and Matheny spoke out about Taveras' fall from grace. The GM said he hoped that Taveras' demotion to reserve status provided a wake-up call for the things he needed to work on to reach his potential, particularly his defense and his conditioning. Mozeliak also expressed a preference for Taveras to remain in the U.S. during the offseason to participate in a supervised conditioning program instead of playing winter ball. Instead, Taveras wanted to play for Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican Winter League as a means to stay in shape. Last week, MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch reported that the organization planned for him to spend November at its complex in Jupiter, Fla., allowing him to play a three-week stint in the DWL before returning to Florida.
In the team's statement, chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said, "We are all stunned and deeply saddened by the tragic loss of one of the youngest members of the Cardinals family … Oscar was an amazing talent with a bright future who was taken from us well before his time. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends tonight."
This is the third sudden death of a St. Louis player in recent years. On June 22, 2002, pitcher Darryl Kile died of a heart attack. On April 29, 2007, pitcher Josh Hancock was killed in a car accident in which alcohol was involved. Since then, two other active major leaguers have died suddenly as well. Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed in a car accident on April 9, 2009, while Mariners outfielder Greg Halman was stabbed to death by his brother on Nov. 21, 2011.
News of Taveras' death reached the Aguilas team during a rain delay that interrupted its game with Tigres del Licey. The Televisión Dominicana broadcast showed players from both teams huddled together in prayer upon learning of the tragedy. Team members put Taveras' jersey, bat and batting helmet on display in the dugout in tribute.
On the FOX broadcast of the World Series, on-field reporter Ken Rosenthal was tasked with delivering the sad news. Fellow reporter Erin Andrews added via Twitter that the Giants had learned of the news in-game:
As fate would have it, Perez came off the bench and found his focus for long enough to produce the game-breaking hit, an eighth-inning double off Wade Davis that widen the Giants' lead from 2-0 to 4-0.
The death of any 22-year-old is heartbreaking enough. That Taveras was a major league player doesn't make his death any more so, but in his brief time in professional baseball, he provided so many who follow the game — fans, media, scouts, coaches, executives, players — with a chance to glimpse his raw talent and to share in the vision of what he might one day become. Alas, Sunday's tragedy curtailed that vision with abrupt cruelty, leaving that bright future out of reach.