Something called a Yordano took the mound for the Kansas City Royals on September 17, 2013 for his MLB debut against the Cleveland Indians. A skinny kid with a blazing fastball registering triple-digits that seemed born out of the inferno of the temperament with which he played. If Jose Fernandez showed MLB how to pitch through joy, then Yordano Ventura demonstrated what it meant to pitch through raw emotion. Both created beauty through their own unique artistry from the mound.
The Royals were in the midst of 12 straight games against the Detroit Tigers and Indians whom they were chasing for a potential postseason berth. Kansas City had won six of the first 10 games of this set to give their fan base hope. The pitching matchup would be against Tribe ace Corey Kluber, but calling up Ventura was the Royals way of thumbing their noses at the Tribe’s own rookie strikeout wunderkind, Danny Salazar.
The Tribe’s gameplan for the day was simple. Let the rookie beat himself. However, when it came time to make true contact, the fastball was too much and the curve ball was hitting the corners. Ventura would retire the first eight batters even if two of them briefly stood on first base.1 No. 30 would even out duel Kluber on this day though the yet-to-be-vaunted Royals bullpen would blow the lead.
The Royals would finish third in the AL Central. The Indians and Tigers would reach the MLB postseason. The baseball world was in order even though the Royals finished above .500 for just the second time since joining the AL Central division in 1994.
Yet something seemed different when the Royals began 2014 with a young Ventura as part of their rotation. The sound the catcher’s mitt made upon receiving a Yordano Ventura fastball was discernably more violent than ordinary. Even listening to the broadcast at home, the smack of leather on leather recalled past memories of a prime Mike Tyson in the ring more than anything heard within the confines of a ballpark. There was also the edge with which he played. Part fearless, part careless, the aura of owning every moment of every game seemed to transfer throughout the clubhouse.
A year before he would incite three brawls over the course of three weeks, Ventura was feared for more than a purposeful hit-by-pitch. The best of his ferocity on the mound seemed to be held in reserve for facing the Indians. Ventura would face the Tribe four times with his 1.57 ERA ensuring the Royals won each of them. The September 23 matchup against Salazar closed the door on any chance Cleveland had of catching the Royals in the standings. Few, if any, Indians fans viewed Kansas City as a viable rival, but Ventura helped the Royals loudly stated their case.
After pitching magnificently in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series just days after the tragic passing of his friend Oscar Taveras, Ventura appeared destined to make the jump to one of the elite pitchers in the game. Instead, the last two years of his career – and life – would have a variety of ups and downs. Everything from being demoted to winning a World Series.2 The successes against the Tribe vanished as his ERA approached six, and he would win only one more game against the Indians. Somehow, the chance for brilliance still elicited the anticipatory excitement when his name came up on the scheduled rotation.
His name shall come up on the scorecard no more. Yordano Ventura died on January 22, 2017. He was 25. Dominican journalist Euri Cabral reported he was assaulted by looters and stripped of his World Series ring after crashing his vehicle.3 Toxicology reports have yet to determine if alcohol helped contribute to the initial accident.4
One of the best ways to capture what Yordano Ventura meant to MLB is through the writings across baseball that have come since his death. With a hat tip to WFNY’s Scott Sargent’s #ActualSportswriting, here are excerpts from some of my favorites that deserve the full read:
SI’s Jay Jaffe: He held the Indians scoreless for the first five innings, but the first hit he gave up was a memorable one: It came on a 102.7-mph pitch (as recorded by Brooks) that Yan Gomes lined into centerfield for a single. Even at its “official” velocity of 101.9 according to MLB data, it was the fastest pitch thrown by a starter in five years. Via Pitch Info founder Harry Pavlidis (whose data powers Brooks Baseball), Ventura accounted for 11 of the 22 pitches of at least 102 mph from starters since the beginning of 2008.
FOX Sport’s Ken Rosenthal: I texted Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland to express my condolences. Eiland, the coach most in charge of bringing out the best in Ventura – harnessing that incredible energy in both his persona and electric right arm – replied immediately, “I’m devastated and speechless. He was a good kid with a good heart.”
Anyone who knew him would tell you the same. Heck, we all saw it the night of Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, when Ventura shut out the Giants for seven innings just two days after losing his friend and fellow Dominican, Oscar Taveras.
MLB.com’s Joe Posnanski: He pitched on that edge between brilliance and fever. He wanted to throw fastballs by people, and the more hitters fouled off his pitches, the more he wanted to throw it by them the next time. When he was in Class A ball, his pitching coach Steve Luebber cut a deal with him — three or four times every game, he would allow Ventura to come unglued, throw as hard as he could just to blow the ball by hitters. The rest of the time, though, he had to try to pitch. This was always the inner battle for Ventura.
Y! Sports Jeff Passan: 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.
The KC Star’s Sam Mellinger:5 But, more than anything else, Ventura fought himself. He fought his mechanics — you could tell by his follow-through whether he was right on any given night. He fought his emotions — opponents tired of his outbursts, and teammates tried every way to help.
He fought his focus — he was once skipped on a minor league playoff start because he didn’t show up to the ballpark on time. Ventura meant well. Coaches would tell stories of him being in tears after mistakes, because he wanted so dang much to be great. That was Ventura. Even more than his fastball, that was his greatest strength. He wanted to be great. It was also his greatest flaw, because it sometimes pushed him the wrong way, and he never did completely figure out how to push back.
- Michael Bourn led off the first inning with a walk on four pitches. Carlos Santana the second with a walk on five pitches. Both of those walks ended in double plays. [↩]
- Yes, Ventura was the only Royal pitcher to lose a game against the New York Mets. He also was a huge part of two wins againt the Toronto Blue Jays to get there. [↩]
- Unconfirmed reports though the Kansas City Star is looking further into it. [↩]
- On the same day, in a separate incident, former Indians prospect Andy Marte also died in a car accident. [↩]
- If you only read one of these articles, then read this one. You can practically see Mellinger in tears as you read his words. [↩]