Kenny, Oscar, Nick and the Agony of What Might Have Been

By Glen Sparks

Ken Hubbs

Ken Hubbs

Ken Hubbs hated to fly. So, the Cubs’ infielder studied for a pilot’s license and learned how to buzz around in a small airplane.

Hubbs, along with a friend, Denny Doyle, took off Feb. 13, 1964, from the airport in Provo, Utah. Two days later, searchers found the crashed Cessna 172 a few miles from the runway. Both Hubbs, 22, and Doyle, 23, were dead.

The sad story gobbled up headlines and column inches in newspapers across the country.  People in Chicago and in a little town outside Los Angeles grieved the most.  Hubbs grew up the golden child of Colton, Calif., a four-sport athlete and model student. UCLA and John Wooden recruited him to play point guard, Notre Dame wanted him to play quarterback. How lucky could one kid get? Hubbs even set the Colton High School high-jump record as a part-time track star.

The Cubs offered Hubbs $50,000 to play baseball, and young Kenny went off to the minors in the spring of 1960. The big club called him up late the following season. Hubbs was just 19. He won a starting job out of spring training in 1962.

The 6-foot-2-inch second baseman, with the long arms and soft hands, played 324 games in his far-too-brief big league career. He won a National League Rookie of the Year award and a Gold Glove. Hubbs hit .247 in the majors with a total of 14 home runs.

Eulis and Dorothy Hubbs buried their son Feb. 20, on a day the wind whipped through town. About 1,300 people, including Ron Santo and Ernie Banks, attended the funeral service at Colton High School.

Francisco Taveras and Maricela Cabrera buried their son, Oscar Taveras, on a sultry Tuesday in Sosua, Dominican Republic. Taveras and his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, 18, died Sunday in a car crash.  Thousands of mourners, including Cardinal manager Mike Matheny and pitcher Carlos Martinez, paid their respects.

It didn’t seem real

Ken Rosenthal, a reporter with Fox Sports, told a national television audience about Taveras’ death, following a rush of news on social media. It didn’t seem real. It seemed numbing. It still seems that way. Once again, life and death didn’t get the story right. We were ready for Oscar Taveras to play 18 seasons, lead the league in home runs and RBI a few times and maybe go into the Hall of Fame.

Oscar Taveras shows off the swing that made him one of baseball's top prospects.

Oscar Taveras shows off the swing that made him one of baseball’s top prospects.

Baseball-reference.com is usually a great web site for fans to visit. You can look up the life-time stats of players from “Candy” Cummings to Mike Trout. The Oscar Taveras page looks so cold. You stare at the numbers, now frozen forever. Oscar Taveras played 80 games in the big leagues, batted .239 and hit three home runs. He also hit one playoff home run. (One suggestion: Check out Taveras’ minor league page. You’ll get an idea of what kind of player he could have been with the Cardinals.)

Cruelty beat out the promise, just like it did with Ken Hubbs. And like it did with top prospect Nick Adenhart, 22, the Angels’ pitcher, who threw seven innings of shutout baseball April 8, 2009, and died in a car crash, along with two other people, just a few hours later. A drunken driver caused the wreck. The next day, outfielder Torii Hunter said, “This is the real deal.  That’s why you’ve got to kiss your kids, kiss your family every day when you get up in the morning and before you leave for work.”

Fans pay respects to the memory of Angels' prospect Nick Adenhart.

Fans pay respects to the memory of Angels’ prospect Nick Adenhart.

Matheny issued a heartfelt statement about Taveras and about the emotional core that makes up a team ( “… We loved Oscar, and he loved us. That is what a team does, that is what a family does. …”) On Tuesday, he said, “He was our weapon off the bench and we had plans for him next year. Even though he was only 22, he wasn’t afraid of anything. He had a great heart, and this is a tragedy for us.”

Bob Kennedy, Ken Hubbs’ minor league manager with the Salt Lake City Bees, once said Hubbs was the “highest type of young man . . . a great talent. He was like a steel post at second. When you thought there was no way a double play could be turned, Ken Hubbs turned it.” Hubbs was tough enough that he didn’t hide from his fear of flying. He signed up for lessons.

“Something was going to happen”

Investigators still do not know all the details about the accident that killed Taveras and Arvelo. Police say Taveras lost control of his 2014 Chevrolet Camaro and hit a tree while driving on a rain-slickened road near Puerto Plata. Martinez, Taveras’ friend since childhood, said, “I had a premonition that something was going to happen to Oscar.”

A storm was brewing in the Wasatch Mountains the day Hubbs took off in his Cessna. One former friend, Max Lofy, was still kicking this around in a 1993 newspaper article about Hubbs, almost three decades later. “This was a kid who exercised good judgment in everything–even in the things he said. So once in his life he uses poor judgment . . . and it costs him his life.”

Today, kids at Colton High School play basketball and volleyball inside the Ken Hubbs Gymnasium. Young ballplayers learn how to turn two by signing up with the Ken Hubbs Little League. Top male and female high-school athletes from throughout the San Bernardino, Calif., area, vie for scholarships through the Ken Hubbs Foundation.

DSC_0346

Glen Sparks photo Fans created a makeshift memorial to honor Taveras.

How will we remember Taveras? Maybe the Cardinals will name an award in his honor. Maybe they’ll dedicate a youth baseball park in his name. I suspect we’ll see fans wearing Oscar Taveras t-shirts and jerseys for the next several years at Busch Stadium.

People will talk about his wipe-out swing that would have launched hundreds of home runs. They’ll talk about his enthusiasm and his flair for the dramatic. They’ll remember the first home run he hit, in his first game, May 31 against the Giants, and the last one, in Game 2 of the NLCS, Oct. 12, also against the Giants. Taveras didn’t just hit baseballs; he abused them.

Now, we must settle for the cruelty of what have been. Oscar Taveras, just like Ken Hubbs, Nick Adenhart and others, will be forever young. And that’s the tragedy.

Oscar Taveras 1992-2014

Glen Sparks photo Oscar Taveras
1992-2014

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