The brief, fearless life of Yordano Ventura

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports US

He was fearless. All of those years mired in heartbreaking poverty, his father half a world away, the other boys bigger and stronger and better at playing the game he loved – they shaped Yordano Ventura into what he was up to the moment he died early Sunday. His choice wasn’t binary. He could’ve been a million things. He chose fearlessness, in every aspect of his life, on the baseball field and off, because nothing else felt quite as right.

Fearlessness gave a 5-foot-10, 140-pound child who quit school at 14 to help his mother pay the bills the chutzpah to show up at a tryout with the Kansas City Royals. And once they bet the pittance of $28,000 on his right arm, fearlessness drove him through his insecurities and the doubts of those who disregarded him because he was a runt. And by the time he made the major leagues, where he introduced himself by throwing a fastball harder than any starting pitcher ever had been recorded doing so, fearlessness became Yordano Ventura’s raison d’etre, for worse on occasion, mostly for better.

Because from the fights he instigated to the moments shared with friends in which his utter lack of damns given made the night, Ventura was the person so many want to be, unencumbered by others’ expectations, driven purely by his own. Some thought it selfish. Those who knew him just saw it as Yo being Yo. And it scared them because they feared he was prone to situations like Sunday, when he was driving a white Jeep down a Dominican highway late at night, an activity best suited for the fearless.

Nobody knows whether Ventura was speeding or drinking or where he was going or what played a role in the accident that took his life at 25 years old. Just that the Jeep wound up on its left side, the front windshield caved in, the top ripped open, Ventura’s body in a swath of grass on the side of the road, another baseball player taken too early, another one-vehicle tragedy with devastating consequences.

Yordano Ventura spent the entirety of his brief career with the Royals. (AP)
Yordano Ventura spent the entirety of his brief career with the Royals. (AP)

They called it Black Sunday in the D.R. Andy Marte, once among the finest prospects in the game, died in a crash, too, at 33 years old. A former major leaguer and a current one, separated by 40 miles as the crow flies, gone in separate accidents. After Jose Fernandez’s death in a drunken-boating accident in September. And Oscar Taveras’ in a drunken-driving accident in 2014. Frequency makes it no easier, no more palatable. There is no salve for young men dying needlessly. Only the instinct to celebrate the life as though it might numb the pain.

It’s what the Royals did Sunday. Fans gathered at Kauffman Stadium, where they found Danny Duffy and Christian Colon, two of Ventura’s teammates, offering hugs. Dayton Moore, the general manager who signed Ventura as a teenager and thought so much of him he guaranteed him $23 million in a contract extension less than two years ago, celebrated Ventura’s willingness to sow chaos as a character trait that made everyone better, because it forced the organization and those who knew him and loved him to understand what drove him.

“He’s always had a zest for life,” Moore said. “A freshness. A fearlessness. He’s really been the same guy from Day 1 as far as his character traits and what made him special. A very passionate human being. Loved to compete. No doubt he challenged us, but that made us better.”

Even more, Moore said, “Yordano had a great gift.” His right arm, physiologically speaking, didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Ventura never grew to 6-foot. The leverage that regularly accompanies triple-digit fastballs didn’t exist. When Ventura threw a baseball, the velocity looked so easy until the end of the delivery, when his pitching arm would recoil and his drive leg would swing around and almost turn him sideways. Orthodoxy never suited him particularly well.

He refused to oblige anyone’s customs. It’s why so many in baseball thought him a punk. Cursing out Adam Eaton, plunking Manny Machado, beefing with Jose Bautista – no sacred cows existed with Ventura, a bold place to be in a sport that’s a veritable bovine factory. Ventura had no time for that. He came from a place accessible by dirt roads, laden with potholes, wreathed with shacks, ravaged by poverty. His father split up with his mother and left for Germany when he was young, leaving him to play dutiful male. He made it, then he became rich, then he lived his life like he thought a rich man should. He could drink plenty, according to two friends who knew him, and as is customary in the D.R., where there are nearly 30 deaths per 100,000 people in car accidents per year – the highest number in the Western Hemisphere – he would drive.

If that weren’t the case Sunday – if it’s simply a terrible accident with no extraneous circumstances – that still doesn’t bring Ventura back. It still doesn’t lessen the loss, the shock, the sadness, the gut-wrenching truth that a man who’d seen the earth for but a quarter century deserved to see more.

Royals fans create a memorial for Yordano Ventura, who died in a car accident early Sunday in the Dominican Republic. (AP)
Royals fans create a memorial for Yordano Ventura, who died in a car accident early Sunday in the Dominican Republic. (AP)

In those 25 years, he left plenty of indelible moments by which to remember him. The world knows him for the seven scoreless innings he threw in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, with a tribute to Taveras written in white on his royal-blue cap. Inside baseball, it’s more of the little moments, like in 2012, when on a backfield in Surprise, Ariz., the stars of the future for the Royals and Texas Rangers, who share the spring training complex there, pitted multiple teams against one another.

There were scores of future major leaguers on those fields, a half-dozen at least, maybe more, top prospects and future All-Stars, names we’ll know for years to come. And yet on that day, Yordano Ventura stood atop the mound, and it was like he was the Pied Piper. All the scouts and executives focusing on the prospects at the other fields heard a literal buzz over on Ventura’s field and meandered over to see who was creating it. They unsheathed their radar guns and saw the fastball tickling 100 and the major league-ready curveball and the changeup on which they could dream. And they knew they were staring at something special. They didn’t know what. Nobody could. But they knew the kid was different.

That’s how Yordano Ventura will be remembered inside baseball. He was little in a sport that deifies the big, loud in a sport that rewards submissiveness, self-assured in a sport designed to beat down even its best. After an inconsistent 2016, Ventura dedicated himself to a big 2017. In a conversation before Christmas, he told Moore he would win 18 games this year with 10 of the complete. He was bold. He was brash. He feared nothing. That’s why baseball loved Yordano Ventura. And that’s why baseball lost him.

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