Editor's note: It was always a pleasure to publish Tom S. on Viva El Birdos; it's a pleasure to publish him here as well, though for a much smaller audience and on a much graver occasion. What follows is his.
I do not grieve because I knew Oscar Taveras at all. I saw a fascinating swing, the promise of talent still to be discovered. I saw a luminous smile and a palpable enthusiasm for the game he played. But I cannot say I knew him. I grieve him though, in my own way, along with everyone else.
Something irrational lies in the focus on a single man’s death. People die everyday. Many unheralded deaths are as senseless and sad as Oscar’s. Our attention for the deaths of public figures often comes in unfortunate contrast to our larger indifference to the mass of human suffering. At the other end of the island where Oscar died, a barely-noticed-then and little-remembered-now earthquake killed a hundred thousand Haitians or more in 2010. I cannot reconcile the disproportionate emotion I feel for the loss of one Dominican ballplayer and the loss of countless Haitians. Being a creature of emotions means being a creature of irrationality. One can love a single man shown on a screen much more easily than one can love people described only in statistics.
As for why you feel this death more than many others: Oscar broke the rules of baseball. The rules of baseball are simple. We pay to watch people more athletic than we’ve ever been do things we could never do. We get to feel vicariously and for a short time their youth and vigor. We are ordinary. The players are elite. We are burdened with all the weaknesses of flesh: we are variously overweight, feckless, uncoordinated, aging. They defy the limits of their bodies. Our successes are few, small, and unknown. Theirs are writ large and appreciated nationwide. For the cost of a ticket, or of a few hours of watching or listening with intermittent advertisement, we get to buy a small taste of what that’s like.
And in that arena of eternal, vibrant youth, death has no place at all. Death and frailty of the body are things of our world, not theirs. At least, that is the fiction we buy into when we turn on the game. Oscar broke the rules by reminding us of that fiction. By proving his mortality, Oscar reminded us that the story baseball tells us is a pretty lie, nothing more.
Outside the arena, death is forever plucking at our elbow. We leave him in our peripheral vision, until he suddenly demands our undivided attention. But we need not continue to repeat this cycle. You can wait for the memory of Oscar’s death to fade and resume believing in the lie, or you can try to live beyond the lie.
Anyone who has spent time outdoors in winter knows the pleasure of coming home to a warm fire. If you had grown up on a tropical island without wintertime you might not love the fire's warmth as much. You have to feel the cold to appreciate the warmth. You can warm your hands at the fire and remember they will get cold again, while enjoying the feeling of warmth. The warmth can be more pleasing, in fact, when you remember that it is transitory. The colder you felt before you came home to the fire, the better that warmth will feel to you. The two feelings are counterweights, inseparable from one another. The cold then is part of the warmth now. The sweetness now is part of the sorrow to come.
In every gorgeous swing are the seeds of a ballplayer’s decline to come, a decline that must come, one swift as Oscar’s or one stretched out over decades. It will come. The sweetness and the sorrow are hopelessly commingled.
To live beyond the lie, somehow we must learn to love the sorrow as much as we love the sweetness, for they are not truly different things. Somehow we must see the thing we love and see its destruction at the same time, and neither turn away from its destruction, nor let the prospect of its destruction cloud the pleasure of loving it.
The lie of baseball was the lie of eternal youth. The terrible, beautiful truth of Oscar Taveras was powerful, graceful, fragile youth.