Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!
The Phoenix night grew older as Mike Darr, Duane Johnson, and Ben Howard sped down Interstate-10. The friends had been out drinking, celebrating Darr and Howard’s final night of the off-season before spring training started later that morning. Darr was slated to be the San Diego Padres’ Opening Day center fielder. It was February 16, 2002.
When Oscar Taveras got in his red Chevy Camaro in Sosua, Dominican Republic, on October 25, 2014, he’d had over 15 alcoholic drinks in about two hours. His girlfriend was in the passenger seat. Taveras started the car and began driving to Puerto Plata, his birthplace. Taveras was one of the top prospects in baseball and was all but guaranteed to be the starting right fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015.
At the time of their deaths, Darr was 25 and Taveras was 22.
When I was 22 years old, I had just graduated college and set out to live in Los Angeles to be the “next great writer.” I had it all planned out, too. Step 1: Find an apartment. Step 2: Attend UCLA. Step 3: Flat out strike it rich. It was as stupid as it was simple.
But I was young and brash and really had no fear of anything. It’s truly a beautiful age to be. The world has no expectations of you. Even though the deck is stacked against you (because, really, chances are you’re going to be a nobody-can’t-hack-it…chances are), you have no inkling of that being true. How naïve and brazen you are when you’re young. There you go, hightailing it, living your life to the fullest, flipping the bird to everyone, even Death, because there’s nothing in the world that can stop you.
I made it to L.A., the City of Angels; found myself a dingy apartment in the neighborhood of Palms; even got accepted into the UCLA Screenwriting Program. I used to get martinis after class with a friend of mine, who later went on to write for People and Spin and AP, and we would talk about screenplays, movies and the craft of writing. We were the best writers at UCLA, soon to be the best writers in the industry.
Unfortunately, when you’re young, you can’t tell if you’re talented at something or not. It’s true, either you are or you aren’t, but it’s tough to tell. I lasted a year in L.A. Clearly, I was not.
Whenever a talented person passes away young (a la James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Cliff Burton, etc.), my brain always takes me back to the time when I was hightailing it. When I was grooving through life without any breaks.
But when news came out in October that Oscar Taveras had been killed in a car wreck, the baseball fanatic and Padre loyalist side of my brain took me to when Mike Darr lost his life. I never knew the guy, and I only got to watch him play a handful of times, but his death gave me great pause. It was the first time in my life that I took notice of the abruptness of life, the fragility and unforeseeable nature that came along with being a living, breathing thing. I mean, Darr was going to be the starting center fielder for my favorite baseball team! And he’d barely played 60 games in the big leagues. And he was dead? For whatever reason, I didn’t think that sort of thing could happen. When Kurt Cobain died young, I was old enough to know what that meant, but I wasn’t ever invested in Nirvana, so somehow his death never resonated with me. Had Eddie Vedder died young instead, however, I would’ve probably been an emotional wreck.
I’m not a Cardinals fan. I actually hate the Cardinals. Every year, when their season ends without a World Series trophy, I call or text my friend Josh who lives in St. Louis and express how happy I am that he’s not a World Champion once again. He always reminds me of the team I root for.
But even though I hate seeing the Cardinals in the playoffs every year, I still felt the gravity of the loss of Taveras. There’s a terrible word we use when talking about young athletes, and specifically young baseball players: potential. And it’s terrible because it insinuates that the player is neither bad nor good. He’s in a state of limbo. He’s a lottery ticket. He’s a gamble. In Taveras’ case, I would’ve doubled down on his future, but not because of what he’d done to date in the Major Leagues. In 80 career games, Taveras slashed 18R/3HR/22RBI/0SB/.239BA; hardly rookie of the year numbers. Hardly numbers you’d want from your fourth string right fielder. But he had that word, potential, slapped on his back every time he failed. He was big and athletic and when he was on, oh boy, you could see what he could be. He had Roberto Clemente and Reggie Jackson written all over him.
In one of his first Spring Training games in 2012, he ended up on third base and the announcers had no clue who he was, so they gave him the nickname “Minor League Guy.” This was a running joke through the game and every time he appeared on screen, they would display the banner “Minor League Guy.” This is pretty comical to look back at, considering just months later, Bernie Pleskoff of MLB.com had this to say of Taveras: “Taveras takes batting practice very seriously. In fact, at the Futures Game, Taveras’ batting practice was a ‘must-see’ event, one that I won’t soon forget.”
Jason Parks, a writer for Baseball Prospectus, once tweeted this: “Most people have stupid ringtones. My ringtone is the recorded sound of Oscar Taveras murdering a village full of people with his swing.”
When you’re young, you can’t tell if you’re talented at something or not. But other people can. Unfortunately for me, when I was 22 and dreaming of being a screenwriter, nobody ever said, “Brian, you are murdering villages with your writing.” No, I wasn’t even setting small fires in large cities with my writing. But Darr and Taveras were mulching houses and trees with every swing they took. They were poised to cash in on their potential. And forever, from here on out, that’s the only word people will attach to their names. It’s a horrible word, because both of these men weren’t in limbo. They were inches, seconds away from walking through a threshold and into a world that would solidify their names in the lore of greatness.
And I so badly wanted to call them great.