Hayes: ‘An athlete dying young’ and the ethics of grief

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Bob Hayes, Assistant Opinion Editor

Not long after the first pitch of Sunday night’s crucial Game Five of the World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants, baseball fans around the country abruptly paused and held one united, collective breath.

This sudden emotional rush unfortunately had nothing to do with the nation’s darling Royals going on another improbable rally. In a sport’s world where we often dive into the profundity of our feelings towards strangers playing schoolboy games, Sunday night’s realization has truly transcended all lines of fan affiliation and the sport itself.

In a sentence I still cannot believe as I type, 22-year-old St. Louis Cardinals outfielder and top prospect Oscar Taveras and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, died in a car accident in the Dominican Republic, just days after Taveras stepped off the field in the National League Championship Series.

The talented slugger made his major league debut this season after being ranked as the top prospect in the Cardinals organization and the number three prospect in all of baseball, according to both Baseball America and MLB.com. He was a key player in the storied franchise’s postseason run, including an unforgettable game-tying home run late in Game Two of the NLCS.

I feel shamefully irreverent discussing Taveras’ baseball merits in the wake of his death, but it is necessary as we try to understand why his death and those of other popular figures mean so much more than those of others.

Little time has passed since the death of the unanimously loved actor and comedian Robin Williams on Aug. 11. Social media exploded with deeply emotional posts about the loss of a man few had ever met.

Since that day, I have struggled with the ethics of feeling exceptionally sorrowful toward a person’s death simply because of his or her talents. Are Williams and Taveras more deserving of grief because of their exceedingly strong abilities, even though we hardly have any idea who they really are? I continue to be upset by Taveras’ death, despite never knowing something so simple as what his voice sounds like or what he likes to do outside of baseball. Most of us don’t really know him at all, so why do we care so much?

Oddly enough, a post on a generally informal and unserious sports blog helped my contemplation more than anything else has. SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee wrote a beautiful, must-read piece titled “The lost hope of Oscar Taveras.”

A death is always sad, but the fact that Taveras was 22 and in such a position to succeed multiplies our grief, however impersonal it may be. Brisbee says we all mourn Taveras’ death so powerfully because we understand his youth, his potential, his talent and how that all translates into hope for the future.

This argument inevitably loses some supporters when we discuss this hope in the context of sports. Even people who are apathetic toward sports should understand that sports still take a special place in the lives of millions of people. However foolish it may seem, for many people sports profoundly dictate their emotions more than anything else. Brisbee explains this phenomenon far better than I ever could.

“All you have is the understanding of the hope that doesn’t exist anymore. To be clear, we’re talking about the hope he offered on the baseball field, which seems like a spectacularly callous thing to consider right now. But it isn’t, not if you’re using baseball as a stand-in for life … The absence of this hope is the absence of a million people cheering at once because of something they collectively experienced. Hope in baseball translates to hope and emotion in real life. It’s the language of the sports fan, which means it’s the shared language of billions of people … All you wanted for Taveras was … to become the realization of hope, even if you never expressly thought of it like that.”

Brisbee continues, “When he hit a home run like his shining moment in Game 2 of the NLCS, the joy was real. Nothing else existed. That was the most important possible thing in the world at that moment to millions of people. The world was blocked out in the best possible way. It would trickle back in slowly, as it always does, but the world was gone for a while because of Taveras and his talents, gifts we wish we had and gifts he was kind enough to share.”

This eloquent explanation for our collective grief causes me to wonder if our feelings are really grounded in some cruelly selfish point of view: We watch sports because we can, and we may unjustly feel we deserve these talented athletes. Perhaps we get particularly upset because what we deserve has been taken from us. On the other hand, perhaps we are sad because we realize what a treat Taveras was in our absurdly frenetic, emotional sports journey, and it took a real-life version of A.E. Housman’s mournful To an Athlete Dying Young to make us understand that. Or maybe our grief is so pronounced because two of the most profoundly emotional moments for us as people and as sports fans – death and a beloved athlete’s career ending – have suddenly hit us in one fateful swoop.

Whether selfish or not, we care about Taveras’ death because of the abrupt loss of what he contributed to our perceived meaning of sports. I will finish with Brisbee’s words about why this car accident means more to us than all the others. Other deaths of people whom we have never met “are abstract situations. Your brain has to keep them abstract or you’ll collapse. You knew exactly how Taveras was going to make millions of strangers happy, though. You knew exactly how he was going to make himself and his family happy. You could see it. It was familiar. You had the path all plotted out in your head. He deserved that chance. Your brain can’t keep that loss abstract.”

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].