The Death of a Ballplayer

Oscar Taveras was a 22-year-old outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals who died Sunday in a car accident that also took the life of his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo. She was 18.

Her death is no less tragic than Taveras’. In fact, it might be even more tragic, considering he, at least, recognized what was probably a life-long dream of his as a professional baseball player. Arvelo was barely an adult. I looked for her online. She doesn’t seem to have a Facebook page. As of this morning, her name was mentioned only once in a tweet, by a chocolatier in Cottleville, Missouri.

It’s important to know her, maybe as much as anything has been important, but this isn’t about her today. It’s about him: the ballplayer whose life ended while he was an active major league player.

The New York Times knows the significance of this tragedy, as Tyler Kepner notes in today’s article, “This is the first death of an active major leaguer since Greg Halman, a Seattle Mariners outfielder, died after being stabbed by his brother in the Netherlands in 2011.”

It’s especially tragic when a ballplayer dies in the midst of the prime of his life, and it’s always been that way for me. The first death of an active ballplayer I can recall is that of Minnesota Twins outfielder, Lyman Bostock, who was murdered in Gary, Indiana after going 2 for 4 against the White Sox at Comiskey. Bostock was 27, which is understood as the age a baseball player enjoys his best years, statistically.

I was seven, and I didn’t know the circumstances of his death. I don’t know how I found out about it, either; probably from one of my friends at school when his Topps card was flipped or scaled at recess against the cement wall of Edith L. Slocum Elementary School. Or maybe I saw it on the news, briefly, before my parents rushed to change the channel on the television before I could understand the circumstances of his death.

Less than a year later I was enjoying summer vacation between second and third grade, playing with Gary Martinek on the front lawn of my parents’ house in Ronkonkoma, and we came around the side of the house to the gate that was tough to open. My mother waited a little ways off on the patio…

…or Gary and I were already past the patio and on the swings, one of which Michelle Gangi would later break because of her sheer mass, and my mother came out the back door and onto the patio to tell me that Thurman Munson had just died in a plane crash. Munson was practicing taking off and landing a Cessna on one of the Yankees’ off-days. On his third landing, he came in too low and crashed the plane. Two other people were on the plane with him, but they lived.

Everyone in New York felt that loss, so there was no hiding it from me. The Yankees honored Munson four days later, and the man who delivered Munson’s eulogy, Bobby Mercer, homered in that game. You can watch the entire game on YouTube if you want.

The Yankees had won the last two World Series at that point: 1977 and 1978. Then Munson died, and the Yankees wouldn’t win again until 1996 and Derek Jeter.

After Thurman Munson’s death I felt a pall over my heart for a while. I knew nothing about how big it was, or, really, how regular it is for people to die. The Captain of the New York Yankees died in a fiery plane crash, like a hero in a movie, and that’s how I probably absorbed it.

When I first became a teacher in North Carolina in 1995, I coached fast-pitch softball and some of the best young women I’ll ever know in my life. They were 13 or 14 years old and had the entirety of the horizon there for the taking. They just had to get to high school first. The captain of that team was Priscilla Anne Edwards, and I still see her with her catcher’s gear on, filthy, blocking every fucking ball within her reach. I still see her with the ball, her mask on top of her head like Dottie Hinson, looking to me for what the team should do next. I can still see her.

In 2000, I was in Lee, Massachusetts teaching seventh grade, and Priscilla was starting her junior or senior year of high school, a star athlete for the school, and then she was hurled from a car and killed on August 4th. Jennet and I drove down to Sanford for the funeral.

Darryl Kile of the St. Louis Cardinals had a heart attack in his room at the Westin on Michigan Avenue right before the Cardinals were to play at Wrigley on June 22, 2002. In 2006, after the Yankees were ousted from the playoffs, pitcher Cory Lidle got in a small plane for a lesson and flew it, accidentally, into a 40-story high rise on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He and his instructor were both killed. People thought it was 9.11 all over again.

But by then, the death of a ballplayer had taken on an entirely new significance. These were millionaires who were living their dreams. Kile died at 33 years and Lidle at 34. Priscilla, though, was 17 and all of the romance of the dead ballplayer had no more appeal to me. Priscilla had crooked teeth in the front and tried to hide them when she smiled. She hardly talked at all, but I knew what she was thinking without her saying it. She had pin straight brown hair that she put up most of the time. When she wore it down, it was an event.

She had two little sisters who looked at her like she was Joan of Arc.

If God had ever answered my wishes for a sister when I was a boy in Ronkonkoma or a daughter after I got married, it would have been Priscilla. I loved that girl.

And when Madison Bumgarner kept throwing his pitches last night to shut out the Kansas City Royals in the pivotal Game Five of the World Series, and the pitches kept hitting the catcher’s glove without hesitation, and the batters still swung, and the men still ran the bases, I had that empty feeling inside—that pall over my heart: Didn’t anyone care that Oscar Taveras is dead.

People do care that Oscar Taveras is gone. I know they do, and I am selfish to think that no one feels like I do—that he’s more than a guy with a cannon for an arm in right field. He’s more than just a future king of the diamond. He’s Priscilla: a beautiful young person taken way too soon.