Sunday, October 26, 2014

Remembering Oscar Taveras

It had been nearly 40 years since I sat in the back seat of a school bus and it was not an experience I was enjoying.

You can feel every bump in the back seat of a bus, but since we needed teachers in both the front and back sections of the bus, I had to live with the discomfort for the time it took to travel from Joplin to Springfield.

Many of the eighth grade boys and girls who were seated near me were grumbling.

"Why couldn't we go to Silver Dollar City?" one asked.

Another one wanted movies, a third brought up roller skating.

Instead, the bus I was riding and two others were headed to Springfield that day in April 2012 to watch a Springfield Cardinals minor league baseball game.

The feeling wasn't universal; there were students who were eagerly anticipating the game. So was I.

For me, baseball was the best possible way to spend time. I had coached baseball and fast pitch softball teams for years, umpired for more than two decades, and played until I was nearly 30. I would have kept on playing, except my team disbanded. They were getting too old to travel every week. I never felt too old even though I was close to being the oldest player on the team when I played my last game in the '80s.

One of my earliest memories, as a four-year-old, was watching Bill Mazeroski hit the walk off home run that gave the Pittsburgh Pirates an unexpected 10-9 win in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. I have watched every Series since then.

I began listening to St. Louis Cardinals baseball games on the radio in 1962. Cardinals catcher Gene Oliver hit a game-winning home run in the first game I listened to.

I remember how upset I was the next year when Oliver was traded to the Milwaukee Braves and a rookie named Tim McCarver was the new catcher. It didn't take me long to begin appreciating McCarver and other rookies in the following years- everyone from Mike Shannon in 1964 through Al Hrabosky, Terry Pendleton, Willie McGee, Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, and Matt Carpenter.

As we entered Hammons Field, I was excited about seeing the next in a long line of Cardinal greats.

Oscar Taveras was in the starting lineup.

I had been reading about the 20-year-old prospect and could not wait to see him play, but there was so much else about the experience and I wanted to see it through the eyes of the eighth graders, so I watched them and their reactions as the day progressed.

We were taken to an area of the ballpark that was being used by the club to provide us with an educational presentation on jobs that were available in sports, then we were led to our seats.

The game was entertaining, though we only got to see five innings, since we had to have the buses back to Joplin before the school day was over.

A crafty lefthander (are there any other kind) named John Gast, who later won a couple of games for the Cardinals, only allowed four base runners during the six innings I saw and two of them did not remain on base long, thanks to one of the best pickoff moves I have ever seen.

Oscar Taveras did not disappoint.

The first time up he struck out when the catcher held on to a foul tip, but he was not cheated on his swings. You could almost feel the breeze when he swung and missed on the first pitch.

The second time he stepped to the plate, with an effortless swing, he took a pitch that was slightly off the plate and deposited it neatly down the right field line, gliding into second base with a double.

We had to leave before he batted for a third time, but I had seen what I wanted to see. I couldn't wait for Oscar Taveras to reach the major leagues.

That happened this year and though Taveras was not the breakout star many of us had expected, he had memorable moments, including a home run in his first at bat and a key pinch hit home run in the National League Championship Series against San Francisco.

He was scheduled to work this winter on improving his defense and his base running and Cardinal management was pleased with his willingness to better his game and still thought stardom was on the horizon for him.

The NLCS home run was the final magic moment in a much too short career for Oscar Taveras, who was killed in an auto accident today at age 22.

My first thoughts when I heard the news on tonight's World Series broadcast were of that day two and a half years ago in Springfield. On that day, in a sun-drenched stadium in the southwest corner of this state, I had the thought that maybe, just maybe, these young people, some of them attending their first professional baseball game might be seeing the start of a Hall of Fame career.

The magic swing that could draw gasps of astonishment even when he failed to make contact has been silenced forever.

The eternal promise of spring gone in a flash.

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