By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) In sports, as in life, there’s no more haunting question than, “What if?”
That’s something, of course, that fans of the Chicago Cubs know all too well.
What if the Cubs hadn’t fallen apart down the stretch in 1969? What if Greg Maddux had never left for Atlanta? What if Moises Alou had managed to keep his cool? What if Alex Gonzalez had turned a routine double play? What if Mark Prior and Kerry Wood had stayed healthy?
And before any of that, what if Ken Hubbs hadn’t died?
“What if,” Keith Hubbs said to FOXSports.com this past February on the 50th anniversary of his brother’s untimely death in 1964. “If, if, if.”
Back in 1962, after a stellar debut season on the North Side, Cubs second baseman Kenny Hubbs was named the National League Rookie of the Year and became the first rookie in history to earn a Gold Glove after he set a major league record with 418 consecutive fielding chances without an error.
He was only 20 years old.
Less than two years later on Feb. 15, 1964, Hubbs took off from Provo, Utah, piloting a small Cessna that he owned. Bound for southern California, he never made it as the plane crashed into Utah Lake just outside Provo, killing both Hubbs and his passenger.
He was only 22 years old.
Growing up as a Cubs fan, my dad told me about Kenny Hubbs, whose brief career and sudden death he remembered well. And this past Sunday night, it was Hubbs’ story that was among the first thoughts that came to my mind when I learned of the tragic news that St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras had been killed in an auto accident in the Dominican Republic.
Like Hubbs five decades before him, Taveras was only 22 years old at the time of his death. And also like Hubbs, the talented Taveras appeared to have an incredibly bright future ahead of him.
Today, many who saw Hubbs play say that had he lived, he would have become a Hall of Famer. Some argue that had he been able to play alongside future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins on the 1969 Cubs, that team never would have collapsed. Back in 1993, Sports Illustrated went so far as to imagine that with Hubbs, the Cubs would have won it all in ’69 and then gone on to win four more World Series before he retired.
Now, would the Cubs really have done so? We’ll simply never know.
And sadly for Cardinals fans, they’ll now never know the answer to how far Taveras could have carried the team in the future. Billed as the organization’s best homegrown hitter since Albert Pujols, the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder had been ranked in recent years as the second- and third-best prospect in the minor leagues by Baseball America, MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus. In six minor league seasons, Taveras was a .320 hitter, which included batting a whopping .386 during the 2011 Class A Midwest League season while still in his teens.
Heading into an era where Cubs fans are hoping to see their own top prospects such as Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez emerge as stars, Taveras was poised to serve as a powerful, young foil down in St. Louis. And from a Chicago perspective, it’s sad to know that now won’t happen.
Because just as it will be more satisfying for Cubs fans if the team some day overcomes a strong Cardinals club en route to winning it all, it would have been all the more exciting if Taveras had gotten his chance to keep the Cardinals organization strong.
Without Taveras, baseball will go on, just like it has for the past 50 years without Kenny Hubbs. And so too, of course, will the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry.
But this week, as all of baseball mourns the passing of Oscar Taveras and laments the new “What if?” question that’s fostered by his absence, the future feels a less exciting and a lot more somber from both ends of Interstate 55.