Indians, WWW

Gonna miss loving to hate Yordano Ventura: While We’re Waiting

joeposnanski.com

This article originally ran in January after the untimely death of Kansas City Royals starting pitcher, Yordano Ventura.

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. Toxicology reports were not released to the public, so it will never be known if alcohol helped contribute to the accident.3

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:4 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.

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []
  3. On the same day, in a separate incident, former Indians prospect Andy Marte also died in a car accident. []
  4. If you only read one of these articles, then read this one. You can practically see Mellinger in tears as you read his words. []

  • Chris

    Absolutely brutal and incredibly unfortunate.

    Strictly from baseball terms here, this is devastating to a team like the Royals that must find, develop, and lean-on these young stars to be a competitive franchise.

    He walked a fine-line between young punk and old-school pitcher. On which side of the line one stood depended greatly on which team/batter just got pegged.

  • Garry_Owen

    Losing Andy Marte was, strangely, more impactful to me. He is responsible for one of my favorite memories at The Jake, when a number of years ago, in the midst of a horrible blow-out loss to the Yankees, he stepped in and pitched an inning. In my memory, he struck out the side. It’s almost certainly not true (I do think he retired the side without a walk or hit), but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that my wife and I had a brief moment to celebrate (and to share a laugh with the nice, but far too many, Yankees fans sitting around us). Thanks, Andy.

  • He worked a 1-2-3 and struck out Nick Swisher for the second out!

    Jon Steiner captured the moment for us at WFNY. http://waitingfornextyear.com/2010/07/yankees-11-indians-4-where-andy-marte-pitches-and-i-go-insane/

    MLB.com still has the video up.

    http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/6479266/v10413835/nyycle-marte-throws-a-123-ninth-inning

  • Great stuff here, Mike. It wasn’t that long ago where I had sent out a tweet about how fortunate we were for the young arms in Fernandez, Ventura and Salazar. Crazy to think that we lost two of them within just a few months.

  • Garry_Owen

    That’s awesome (and funny, reading a comment of mine from 6 years ago!).

  • CBiscuit

    Listen to me, it’s not your fault, sport. Butttt, I hope someone has Salazar on lockdown right now.

  • CBiscuit

    That’s a good memory. At the time, I was bitter at Andy for being a failed part of the trade of one of my all time favorite Indians (V-Mart). So sad to hear that news the other day.

    Also, I know it’s an unpopular bc it’s their home & family, yada yada– but if I had a young Dominican star, I would do everything in my power to dissuade him from going to the DR in the off season. So many accidents there and crime.

  • mgbode

    It is fair and I am glad that you wrote such. That inning of relief was magical and he was a top prospect not just for the Indians but in all of MLB at one time.

    His family definitely deserves prayers too.

  • mgbode

    Thank you. I did not realize just how much I enjoyed Yordano Ventura until we lost him. It was always there but the memories of everything flooded through once it was known we would not get to see him on the mound again.

  • mgbode

    The opening line of this column was taken directly from the first comment I ever made about Yordano on the WFNY comment pages in 2013.

  • mgbode

    Let’s hope that his arm injury that wrecked his ability to finish out 2016 was enough to satisfy that particular jinx.

  • CBiscuit

    PS. Scott tweeted the other day how fortunate we were for the outstanding new WFNY writers in Welch, Hattery and Bode. Ruh roh.

    (I kid…as a non-Twitterer, I couldn’t find a tweet if it hit me in the face)

  • Garry_Owen

    That, too, is awesome. And a little scary.

  • mgbode

    In the world of the internet, Kyle and myself are far from new to WFNY and I am far from outstanding 🙂

  • Garry_Owen

    Truly tough to tell a young man that he can’t go home; but it’s a valid point.
    It’s interesting. I’ve never blamed players for being involved in trades. In fact, it immediately exits my memory once it’s done. I don’t think I could ever tell you the players involved in trades even one week after the trade is done. They’re just pawns. It’s never their fault if they don’t live up to the departed hero’s memory.

  • CBiscuit

    Eh, we all have our warts (and charts), but in my opinion, you’re outstanding! And I can’t begin to tell you all of the weight that opinion carries in the world. I really can’t.

  • Garry_Owen

    Oh, you’re THAT good, huh?

  • Dago T

    He was “unconventional” let’s say.
    His corpse was stripped????
    Is it possible he was whacked?

    PS: There was a stretch there a few years ago that it seems as if EVERYBODY’S just-called-up rookie was beating Cleveland.

  • mgbode

    The unconfirmed reports are that the thieves were more opportunistic of a wrecked car than anything.

    And, yes, the Indians have struggled with never-seen-rookie pitchers (usually left-handed ones), but Yordano’s debut was different. He was their prize prospect, there was buzz ahead of time, and he was hitting over 100mph. I had a paragraph in there describing what you noted, but it ended up getting cut as it detracted too much.