All last season, Willy Taveras waited for a phone call that never came.
Seven years removed from finishing as runner-up for National League rookie of the year, five seasons after being the starting center fielder for a World Series team for the second time and four years after leading the National League in stolen bases, Taveras was out of baseball at age 30.
“I don’t hate, I just love,” said Taveras, back in baseball now as a member of the Omaha Storm Chasers. “I’m very blessed to get an opportunity, and now maybe the people who didn’t sign me last year can see that they made a mistake — or maybe they can see that they made the right choice.”
Taveras stayed in shape at his Houston-area home while wondering when his next baseball opportunity might come. He finally landed a spot — with Obregon in the Mexican winter league.
He was able to do enough there, hitting .255 with nine stolen bases, to attract interest from major league organizations and earn spring training invitations. He signed with Kansas City.
“It was tough, but I watched a lot of baseball and I enjoyed my family at home,” Taveras said. “I would have liked to be working, too, but I did enjoy being with my family.”
Originally signed by Cleveland out of the Dominican Republic, Taveras began his professional career at 18. He reached the majors in 2004 with Houston after the Astros selected him in the Rule 5 draft of minor league players.
He was the runner-up to Ryan Howard for NL rookie of the year in 2005, when he was a starter for Houston’s World Series team.
He was traded to Colorado after the 2006 season, hit .320 in 2007 and again was a regular for a World Series team.
“It seems like yesterday,” he said.
Taveras led the league with 68 stolen bases in 2008, but he hit .251 that season, .240 with Cincinnati in 2009 and .200 in 35 at-bats with Washington in 2010.
He hasn’t been back in the majors since, though he hit .302 for Class AAA Colorado Springs in 2011.
After that, though, he got his unwanted season off.
“It’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have gotten a job,” Omaha manager Mike Jirschele said.
After his stint in Mexico, Taveras signed with Kansas City and impressed by hitting .406 (13 for 32) in spring training. But he got off to a slow start once he was assigned to Class AAA Omaha. He also missed some time in April for the birth of his third child.
“It’s getting some more at-bats,” Taveras said. “And when you do well in spring training, you want to do well right away to start the season. And sometimes it doesn’t come your way. But it’s a long season.”
A three-hit game June 1 put his average at .262. And though a combination of weather and the presence of rehabbing Jarrod Dyson has cut into his playing time, Taveras had another three-hit game June 12 to start a six-game hitting streak that ended Wednesday. His average was up to .256 entering Friday.
Despite being out of the major leagues for three years, Taveras still ranks second among all big-leaguers with 130 bunt hits since 2005. Only Juan Pierre, with 136, has more.
“My game is my game,” Taveras said. “I’d love to get some leadoff at-bats here … maybe later in the season. This is what I do. I’m still running real well.”
And as for all the teams out there that couldn’t find room for Taveras last year?
“I know they made a mistake — to be honest with you,” he said. “Because I know I can play.”
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