Certain moments give you a sense of community that’s lacking these days.
Several years ago, fans built bonds with minor leaguers by simply going to minor league games. They watched careers unfold and waited by the dugout for, pen and ball in hand. They got an early pre-big league glimpse; they were the players big club beat writers travelled for, if only to see once or twice. They had to. The mass information highway wasn’t quite the cruising ground it is today.
In the last five years, Twitter has changed all that. Sure, there was information before, but that social outlet opened up a whole new world for fans and reporters. We’ve lost some things, but gained many, both as reporters and sports fans. We've gotten a bit too smart for our own good. We talk and talk, and sometimes don't take a step back to make sure we're not over-speculating or over-reaction. On one hand it’s disconnected us. On the other hand, Twitter has connected us in a unique way and broadened our reach.
On the night of October 26th, in the middle of a World Series Game 4, we were reminded of the value of that connection.
We were watching a glittering performance by San Francisco Giants starter Madison Bumgarner, as he shut down one Kansas City Royals player after another. Big swings, ground outs, strikeouts, the Royals offense was going nowhere fast. In the midst of feverish typing, tweeting, and talking, I stopped, as did so many other people with their eyes switching back and forth between the TV and computer screens. When you see tragic news reported, you have to hear the words or read them again to be sure. I did. And then I started searching for confirmation that the word was true: Oscar Taveras, the Cardinals top prospect and one of the top prospects in all of baseball, had died in a car accident. He was 22. A little while later, reports were updated: His girlfriend, whose name the New York Daily News later reported, was Edilia Arvelo, 18, had been in the car with him. She also died.
A terrible darkness enveloped the moment, and Game 4 suddenly seemed like noise.
As we read more and more legitimate confirmations, we reacted. Youth was lost. Promise erased.
Tragedy always has a way of uniting us, whether it’s something that’s happened in our neighborhood or on a global scale, we find our people; the ones who share our shock and confusion, as well as personal stories that we tell through tears and laughter. We remember the good as we face the sadness. On Twitter, that community has grown. Our neighbors have grown to include our followers. The local baseball writer gets read by thousands of more people. Minor league players know their fans. Their fans feel a special bond with them long before, or whether not they ever do, wear a big league uniform. And we have Twitter to thank for that.
Taveras was one of the top prospects in the game, so Cardinals and baseball fans in general knew all about him. Besides, he’d made his major league debut in May of 2014. We’d gotten to see what was possible for the young player, a versatile outfielder with a power bat. Fans didn’t have to go to games to see his early progress. They could subscribe to MiLB, and see minor league games live. The daily updates of stats and news gives them, and us as reporters, a quick, clear view of at least some of what’s happening if we aren’t at the ballpark. But it’s Twitter that really gives us something. We learn things quicker, yes. That’s an awesome addition to any reporting, to anything you have a passion for. For all our overuse of the outlet, there are moments when it becomes our town hall, and allows us to make sense of what's important to us.
On October 26th, as Game 4 and Bumgarner rolled on, we turned our eyes to Twitter, and read reporters trying to find their way through the story. This was too important to get wrong. The details weren’t all that was important, so was the language. We had to take our time, word this just right, with our hearts and minds straight. Twitter, and therefore millions, waited; they were reading, discussing, already mourning. A family’s life had been torn apart. For them, we had to get the tone and the facts right.
For fans, Oscar Taveras was accessible in the Twitter realm. He shared photos, tweeted his thoughts, and a week earlier, he posted a photo of him and his smiling teammates with the hashtag #NLCS. Reporters and fans began to talk about seeing him come up through the system; games they’d seen where he displayed his offensive potential. They talked about his humor and kindness.
Twitter and all social media have taken away a sense of privacy and real intimacy, and, many would argue, a deeper sense of true human connection. On that October day, Game 4 of the World Series, the exact opposite felt true. We were united in a way we couldn’t have been many years ago, when the game was different. The minor leagues bring a sense of community, and through Twitter, that community is bigger and stronger. Those fans that headed down to a Texas League game a few years ago, were able to see Oscar Taveras in action. But even if you didn’t, if you followed, if you read, if you jumped on that far-reaching social media road, you knew much more than you would’ve in the past. You may have spoken to him there.
As these tragedies go, we all stop and ponder, and shake our collective heads at the unfairness of life. We take comfort in our neighbors. And we take comfort among those people we know but don’t know, the ones we call followers.
Other thoughts that came to mind: Can we be inspired to stop dehumanizing these guys as just 'prospects' or 'non-prospects'? Can you think twice before you call a young player 'trash'? Or when a 'stud' doesn't become such a stud so quickly in the big leagues, can you refrain from treating him like an investment gone bad? Because you've invested nothing. Take a step back. Evaluate, sure. But take time with tone, with facts, with words. That's been on my mind all day. How we talk about these guys. How they are reduced to labels, torn down, put on a pedestal. Hopefully, we can gain something within ourselves and our work going forward.
The minor league community was present on Twitter: the passionate fans that saw him make his professional debut in the lower levels; little-known but dedicated reporters and bloggers who had reported what they and scouts saw in the Appalachian or Pacific Coast Leagues; Cardinals fans who’d waited for him to develop and fully emerge on the big league stage. Last night we mourned together on a large scale, and there was something powerful about that. At its best, Twitter informs and unites. We feel less alone, learn more quickly, talk like old friends. Last night, through our use of social media, we knew each other. Because we all felt we knew Oscar.