For baseball fans, it doesn’t get much better than October. It has given us Curt Schilling’s bloody sock, Kirk Gibson’s infamous pinch-hit home run and Willie Mays’ iconic over-the-shoulder catch. We have watched Carlton Fisk wave a home run fair and a bearded Brian Wilson strike out the side. And this year, October has given fans the chance to watch two wild card teams compete in the World Series.
October is Christmas in the world of baseball. But amid the excitement, fans were given pause Sunday by the news of Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras’ tragic death. The 22-year-old Taveras, an elite prospect for St. Louis, was killed in a car accident at home in the Dominican Republic on Sunday, along with his girlfriend.
There is much to be said in the wake of this tragedy that has shaken up the baseball community. Just over two weeks ago, Taveras hit a game-tying pinch-hit home run against the San Francisco Giants in Game Two of the National League Championship Series. The news has devastated teammates, friends and fans, but it was Cardinals manager Mike Matheny who best articulated the impact of Taveras’ death.
“In my opinion, the word ‘love’ is the most misused and misunderstood word in the English language,” Matheny said. “It is not popular for men to use this word, and even less popular for athletes. But, there is not a more accurate word for how a group of men share a deep and genuine concern for each other. We loved Oscar, and he loved us. That is what a team does, that is what a family does. You will be missed, Oscar.”
Matheny’s words about Taveras are moving for a number of obvious reasons. But most importantly, his words illuminate just why this time of year is so special for baseball.
Baseball is a team sport played by individuals and, for most of the regular season, this is exactly how it seems. But in the playoffs something different happens. All of a sudden, those collections of individuals become teams, fueled by emotion and passion and, as Matheny put it, love.
This abstract part of the game is what makes playoff baseball so fun to watch. It is what sent Torii Hunter flipping over a fence at Fenway last year in an unsuccessful attempt to rob a game-tying grand slam. It is what led to Luis Gonzalez’s walk-off single in game seven of the 2001 World Series. It is what made possible Dave Roberts’ infamous steal in the historic 2004 ALCS. It is every fist pump, every pig pile, every walk-off and every last moment of pure magic that fans wait for all year.
Baseball is a game of failure and thus a game that rewards consistency. But it seems that the rules of averages and probability don’t apply in October. When the outcome of a six-month-long season rests on a seven game series, anything can happen. Averages are what get teams to October; heart is what makes them come out on top.
It’s this heart that makes watching teams in October special. And it’s in the fall that groups of individuals become teams and teams become families. There is a love — of the game, of teammates, of the fans — that becomes apparent during this time of the season, and it sure is fun to watch.
Taveras’ sudden death is nothing short of tragic. Baseball has lost a great young talent, the Cardinals have lost a teammate and many others have lost a friend. But from his death and reflections on it, we have been reminded of what makes baseball so special. We are reminded that it’s just a game. But we are also reminded that, when played right, it can feel like so much more.