Life best described what was good and special about Yordano Ventura. It introduced itself to you as unmistakably as the brilliance of morning sun if you happened to leave the window shade open. Life on his fastball—where did it possibly come from, given that small and slender body?—and life on that mischievous face, which peered out childlike from beneath a hat that always seemed too big.
Ventura, a righthanded pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, lit up radar guns and he lit up rooms. He pitched and carried himself with a joyous purpose, delighting in what hard work and his gift of a wondrous right arm had wrought.
And now life shall forever define him, because it left him too soon. He is gone at the age of 25, not yet in full flower as a pitcher or a man, a perpetual reminder of the blessing and fragility of every day we breathe. A car accident in the Dominican Republic Sunday morning took Ventura, just as one did former major leaguer Andy Marte that same morning—twin deaths on Dominican roadways only 60 miles or so apart—and just as another crash there in 2014 took St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Tavares, a friend of Ventura.
The death of Ventura came just four months after another young, gifted and joyful major league pitcher was killed in an accident. Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident at age 23.
All the Royals learned about the accident as of Sunday evening was that it was a one-car crash. They awaited more details from Dominican authorities.
“I’ve been blessed with two daughters,” Kansas City pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “I don’t have a son, but when you spend eight or nine months with your guys, they feel like your sons. Today I feel like I lost a family member.
“He was a great kid with a huge heart and a great smile. He was very engaging every time you talked to him. He was just a fun-loving guy who showed up every day with a smile—always in a good mood.”
“I just talked to him 10 days ago. He was excited. Just before Christmas he told [general manager] Dayton Moore, ‘I’m going to win 18 games and throw 10 complete games this year.’ I believed him. He had all the equipment to do it. He used to always tell me, ‘I want to be the Felix Hernandez of Kansas City.’”
Baseball does not just mourn, it hurts. Too many reminders. Too young. Ventura and Fernandez were among the best, most exciting young pitchers in the game. Among pitchers in their age 25 season or younger last year, Fernandez had the second most career strikeouts and Ventura the sixth most. Each of them won exactly 38 major league games.
Ventura is the eighth active major leaguer to die in the past decade, following Fernandez, Tommy Hanson (2015), Tavares, Greg Halman (2011), Nick Adenhart (2009), and Josh Hancock and Joe Kennedy (2007). Five of them died in boating or car accidents.
The last time I saw Ventura was in Detroit last September, for what would be the penultimate start of his life. We joked about how he owned the Tigers—7–0 in his career; only Joe Coleman (9–0) ever was better against them. Ventura said he loved the challenge of facing the powerful Detroit hitters time and again, especially figuring out new ways to get out Miguel Cabrera. He always greeted me with a smile. Always. It was an image that might surprise fans of opposing teams, for Ventura brought ferocity to the mound that bordered on bullying, and sometimes crossed the border. Few who saw him instigate skirmishes and brushback wars understood the origin of the fire within him.
“He was a fighter,” Eiland said, “and he’s had to fight for everything his whole life. So when he felt like his teammates were challenged, he wasn’t going to back down. It was never premeditated. And when the dust settled he was always contrite and took responsibilities for his actions. He was confident and, like a lot of great ones, a little bit cocky. You had to know he fought for everything he had.”
Every major leaguer beats the odds just by getting to that level. The odds against Ventura, given his background and size, were especially high. Ventura grew up in Samana, in the northeast corner of the Dominican Republic, where Columbus made his last stop on his first voyage to the New World and where tourists now trek to see the humpback whales off the coast. Major leaguers Fernando Rodney and Hanley Ramirez hail from the same area. Ventura, however, didn’t seem to have the size to be a professional ballplayer, especially a pitcher. Growing up without his father, he quit school when he was 14 to work on a construction crew to help support his family.
When Ventura was 17, in 2008, a field scout for the Kansas City Royals saw the tiny teenager throw a baseball and recommended him for a tryout at the team’s academy in Guerra, near the southern coast of the island.
Ventura traveled with a buscone, or agent. Victor Baez, the field coordinator at the academy, saw the buscone walk in with someone he thought was too young for a tryout, according to the Kansas City Star.
“Where’s the player?” Baez asked.
“This is the player,” the buscone replied.
“This kid? He’s old enough? He looks 14.”
Ventura stood 5-foot-10 and weighed 137 pounds. That lack of size seemed to matter less when he stepped on the mound and began throwing. Ventura threw in the high 80s. The Royals loved his arm action and his fearlessness. They signed him for $28,000.
Ventura filled out to 6-feet and 195 pounds. As Ventura progressed through the system people around the organization called him “L’il Pedro” for his stylistic resemblance to Pedro Martinez, including the high-kick recoil after unleashing a pitch with particular fury. The great Martinez would become a mentor to Ventura, trading texts and phone calls with his fellow countryman. Ventura’s fastball gained 10 miles per hour. His curveball, his best two-strike pitch, had vicious bite. He reached the big leagues in 2013 and the World Series in 2014 and 2015. In April 2015, the kid who signed for $28,000 signed a $23 million contract extension.
Despite his lack of heft—or maybe because of it, given his determination—Ventura quickly became one of the most sturdy starters in baseball. Only 26 pitchers qualified for the ERA title in each of the last three years, and Ventura was the youngest of all of them. Like most young pitchers, he suffered through bouts of inconsistency. In 2015, for instance, just four months after making him their Opening Day pitcher, the Royals demoted Ventura to the minor leagues, only to call him back less than 24 hours later after Jason Vargas blew out his elbow.
Nothing, though, seemed to dent the kid’s outsized confidence. He walked with a bounce in his toes and took most every start just like he was back at the academy in Guerra: another opportunity to prove he was big enough.
“The sky was the limit,” Eiland said. “You could see the raw stuff. I’ve been on him for the past four years about his consistency. When he stays within his delivery, gets over his front side, he was damn near unhittable. The velocity, the breaking ball and of course the great changeup. He had it all.”
Ventura and Fernandez are forever linked in their tragic passing, if only because of the small window of time in which the fatalities occurred. More substantively, the two young athletes are linked by a special spirit within them, a power to move people with their charisma and artistry. The Spanish have a word for this power: duende. The word derives literally from the Spanish word for goblin or ghost, but in meaning conveys a soulful magnetism that captivates people. These young men, gone too soon, will be remembered for tener duende, both in times when they had a baseball in their right hand, and when they did not.