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Oscar Taveras 1992--2014

THERE ARE GOOD nights for baseball, and there are perfect nights for baseball. On Sunday, San Francisco provided the latter. It was 67° when Game 5 of the World Series began, a gentle twilight descending over AT&T Park. Organ music played. Tens of thousands of orange towels twirled as Giants fans prepared for the Series' second showdown between aces Madison Bumgarner, their star, and James Shields. Nothing, it seemed, could go wrong.

By the top of the first, news began to trickle in that something had. Oscar Taveras, the Cardinals' future superstar outfielder—baseball's consensus No. 3 prospect in both 2013 and '14—had died in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic at the age of 22, along with his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, 18. By the end of the inning, the reports from questionable sources had been confirmed by reputable ones. It was true, and it was heartbreaking.

Taveras was potentially a franchise-defining talent. A natural hitter who had drawn comparisons to Adrian Beltre and Vladimir Guerrero, he batted .320 in the minors and for two years stood on the cusp of arriving in the big leagues and never looking back. A few things delayed his ascent: a sprained ankle that required surgery in August 2013; a swing that needed to be shortened; the post-surgery addition of up to 20 pounds, which sapped his speed. Taveras made the Cardinals' playoff roster this year, but he didn't receive a start. "My hope is that he sees this as a bit of a wake-up call," St. Louis GM John Mozeliak said of Taveras's benching, in regard to his conditioning. As a pinch hitter in the seventh inning of Game 2 of the NLCS, though, Taveras hit a game-tying home run in what would turn into the Cardinals' only victory against the Giants in the series.

Taveras had friends on the Giants, chief among them Juan Perez, San Francisco's 27-year-old reserve outfielder. Perez, who was born in the Dominican Republic but moved to New York City when he was 14, had years ago become close with Raul Burgos, Oscar's older brother and a former Giants pitching prospect. "My little brother's going to be special," Raul used to tell Perez. By 2012, when Oscar and Perez were winter ball teammates on the Dominican league's √Åguilas Cibae√±as, Perez could see that for himself. They became friends too, texting every two weeks or so to check in. When Taveras made his major league debut on May 31—against the Giants, on the same day that Perez was recalled from the minors—and homered in his second at bat, they could hardly believe it.

In the early stages of Sunday's game, Perez was in the trainer's room behind the Giants' dugout when he heard someone say that Taveras had died. He didn't believe that, either. He ran to the clubhouse and found 20 text messages on his phone. Still, news reports in the Dominican are unreliable. It was only when someone sent him photos of Taveras's crumpled car—and then of his body, in the morgue—that he was forced to accept the truth.

As the game wore on, and Bumgarner spun what would end up as a four-hit masterpiece, Perez found himself crying in the dugout. But he had a job to do. By the time he entered the game as a pinch runner in the sixth, he had squeezed the news from his mind. He stayed in as the leftfielder, and in the bottom of the eighth he stroked a two-run double off previously unhittable Royals reliever Wade Davis. The ball struck the outfield wall perhaps a foot from going out, but Perez had pushed San Francisco's lead to 4--0. As he stood on third, which he reached on a poor throw, he looked to the sky, and thoughts of his friend flooded back.

Later Perez, his eyes red, talked a little about the game ("We're in a good spot right now, just gotta win one more") but mostly about Taveras. What if the Cardinals had beaten the Giants in the NLCS? What if Taveras had spent Sunday getting ready for Game 5 of the World Series in St. Louis and not driving his red 2014 Chevrolet Camaro in Sos√∫a, near his hometown of Puerto Plata? "If they would have won," Perez said, "they would have been playing right now, with Kansas City."

The reality is that Taveras had achieved the dream of millions of Dominican boys by making the majors leagues, but that, forever, will be it. "He could have been an All-Star-caliber player," Perez said. "The big leagues, he was adjusting pretty well to it. It's not going to happen. He's not here."

He will never come through on his extraordinary promise. He will never hit another home run. Oscar Taveras seemed to have many perfect baseball nights ahead, when the towels were waving for him. In an instant, he had none.

Taveras made his debut on May 31, the day Perez was recalled from the minors.


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