ST LOUIS Missouri (Reuters) - It was a magical night as the St. Louis Cardinals rediscovered some of the mighty mojo that carried the team to a World Series championship in 2011. A night when it seemed another prolific home run hitter had been born.
It was Oct. 12, the top of the seventh inning in Game Two of the National League Championship Series (NLCS) when Oscar Taveras hit what would be his last major league home run and only post-season homer - a line drive to right field that would bring the capacity crowd at Busch Stadium to their feet.
The team had for years hyped Taveras as a top prospect with power that might rival that of former Cardinal Albert Pujols, but his major-league debut season was by all honest accounts a disappointment.
So when Taveras drove a solo shot off Giants reliever Jean Machi to tie Game Two at 3-3 with one of his trademark sweeping swings, fans pumped their fists for the emergence of a hero whose arrival they had long awaited.
It is a destiny Cardinals fans have been left to wonder and mourn after Taveras was killed tragically on Sunday night in a car crash while playing winter baseball in his native Dominican Republic.
Down 1-0 in the series and trailing 3-2 in Game Two Taveras entered the contest as a pinch-hitter for Carlos Martinez and immediately slammed a shot over the right field wall to spark a rally.
Matt Adams would add a solo shot in the eighth and Kolten Wong a dramatic walkoff homer in the ninth to give the Cardinals a heart-stopping 5-4 victory.
It was the only game of the NLCS the Cardinals would win as the Giants went on to dominate the best-of-seven series 4-1 and advance to the World Series.
Still, the 22-year-old Taveras had left his mark.
This was the big game power hitter Cardinal Nation had heard so much about but never seen.
He really did exist and the collective imagination boggled at the contributions he might make to Cardinals lore.
Pujols was gone, but maybe St. Louis was developing another Dominican baseball deity.
The Cardinals hit four solo home runs that night.
But even the sensational smash by Wong somehow seemed less significant. Wong had been on a tear in the post-season and his extra base hits almost seemed expected.
Taveras’ long ball seemed to suggest the arrival of another young powerhouse who might just tip the balance in favor of the Cardinals. The fans wanted so badly to believe in Taveras and now they could.
Looking back one cannot help but wonder how Taveras felt that night, and what he thought, as he sat at the interview table alongside his teammates and a translator and answered questions. He had to know his regular season disappointed and he must have felt great pride and relief.
It seemed at the time that Taveras was living not just a dream, but the dream his considerable natural gifts made possible.
While Taveras appeared to be all about business, he could not suppress the occasional smile that flashed across his young face as he stoically accepted the role of hero the moment had thrust upon him.
The players, including Taveras, described their hitting preparations and hard work but Wong’s response stood out. He offered a philosophical explanation that hinged on what he called “the beauty of baseball” and the adrenaline that comes with the post-season.
“Things you never expected to happen, happen,” he said.
Of course, Wong’s comments could just as easily be applied to life as to baseball, and to tragic events as well as joyous ones.
The crack of Taveras’s bat that night which had seemed to usher in a new era in Cardinals baseball in reality marked the single greatest moment of Taveras’s career and perhaps his life.
As Taveras left the media room for what presumably was the last time, he was so exuberant he actually jogged toward the door headed to the clubhouse to celebrate with his teammates. It’s a challenge not to replay the scene.
He paused at the threshold to shake the hand of an eager onlooker, simultaneously placing a hand on the man’s arm.
I don’t know what kind of relationship, if any, Taveras had with the man at the door, but while other players offered him a quick shake, there was an authenticity in Taveras’s greeting.
A gesture that also ended up being a farewell.
(Adds dropped word in 22nd paragraph and fixes typo in final paragraph)
Editing by Steve Keating in Toronto.