In life, Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura burned bright against the night sky, a flame-throwing right-hander who mesmerized baseball fans with his precocious talent, scintillating fastball and fiery swagger. A child of the Dominican Republic, he arrived in Kansas City four years ago and rode that 100 mph fastball to staggering heights, helping a franchise through a championship renaissance and pitching on the game’s greatest stage.
In death, his flame was extinguished in an instant on a highway in the Dominican Republic, reminding a city of the bond between a team and its fans.
Ventura, 25, died early Sunday in a car crash on a mountainous stretch highway in his home country, the Royals confirmed on Sunday. The incident stunned the Royals franchise, cut short a budding career and sent shockwaves through Kansas City as teammates, friends and fans grappled with the feeling of immeasurable loss.
From the sidewalk outside Kauffman Stadium, where fans laid flowers and received hugs from Royals players Danny Duffy and Christian Colon, to the farmland in rural Georgia, where manager Ned Yost spent Sunday in a state of disbelief, to a remote town in the northeastern coast of the Dominican, where Yost and general manager Dayton Moore planned to travel on Tuesday, the baseball world mourned the loss of another talented young player.
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“It doesn’t seem real,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “It doesn’t seem like anything like this could happen. Then you sit down and realize it did happen. You just realize that life is so fragile.”
The wreck occurred on Carretera Juan Adrian, a highway in the San Jose de Ocoa province of the Dominican Republic, according to Jacobo Mateo Moquete, a colonel in the Dominican National Police. When it happened, Ventura was driving approximately three hours southwest of his hometown of Las Terrenas.
The factors that led to the crash are still unclear, but a basic sketch emerged on Sunday afternoon. Ventura was not wearing his seat belt and was thrown from his white Jeep after losing control on a mountainous stretch of highway, Moore said. He was apparently driving through a thick fog when his tires went off the road and an overcorrection resulted in a rollover and his car resting on its side on the side of the road, according to Moore and eye-witness photographs.
The toxicology report on Ventura will not be completed for 21 days, but Dominican officials say there was no sign of alcohol at the scene, according to information relayed to Moore. Officials in the Dominican Republic completed an autopsy on Sunday, according to Moquete. The funeral services for Ventura are Tuesday in his hometown of Las Terrenas. Moore, manager Ned Yost and other members of the club are expected to attend.
In Kansas City, Ventura leaves a legacy of brilliant moments and heartbreaking ‘What ifs?’, the cruel pain of an athlete dying young.
In four seasons with the Royals, he posted a 3.89 ERA and a 38-31 record. He pitched in two World Series, lit up radar guns and antagonized opponents with a demeanor and temper that too often boiled over. In just four seasons, Ventura jawed with Angels star Mike Trout in Anaheim, brawled with Manny Machado in Baltimore and was at the heart of confrontations with the Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox. He also twirled seven scoreless innings in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, a lithe 23-year-old offering a glimpse at a devastating arsenal.
“He’s always had a zest for life, an innocence about the game, a freshness, a fearlessness,” Moore said.
“He loved to compete. He no doubt challenged us. But that made us better. No one could ever doubt how much he cared about his teammates. How much he cared about the fans. And how much he loved to compete and to pitch.”
It was on that night at Kauffman Stadium in 2014 that Ventura scribbled the message “RIP OT #18” on his blue Royals cap. As he took the mound in the World Series, Ventura paid tribute to his friend Oscar Taveras, an outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals who had died two days earlier in a crash on a Dominican freeway. On Sunday, it was impossible to wrestle with Ventura’s death without thinking of Taveras.
The roads in the Dominican Republic are among the most dangerous in the Americas. The Royals seek to emphasize this point to their players on an almost daily basis, Moore said. On Sunday, the combination of a Dominican baseball player and a hazardous highway system claimed two more victims, including Andy Marte, a former major-leaguer who signed with the Atlanta Braves as an amateur in 2000 and died in a separate crash.
Moore was a member of the Braves’ front office then, and as he prepared to fly to Atlanta on Sunday for a previously scheduled speaking engagement, he received a phone call from Rene Francisco, the Royals’ assistant general manager in charge of international scouting. Francisco informed Moore of Marte’s death, and then, a short while later, his phone buzzed again. The voice on the other end asked if he had heard about Yordano Ventura.
“I actually thought they meant Andy Marte,” Moore said.
By 10 a.m. in Kansas City, news reports from the Dominican had filtered onto social media. A few minutes later, a message buzzed on a group text chain of Royals players.
“We don’t want to believe it,” said Duffy, who mourned Sunday with Colon in Kansas City before venturing out to Kauffman Stadium for a vigil in the evening. “He had an enormous heart. He loved his teammates.”
The love was born of a story that defied the odds. The roots of that story began on the same island where it ended. Ventura had grown up in Las Terrenas, the product of a single mother, working a construction job after dropping out of school in his early teenage years. But there was also baseball, and there was also that arm, and when Ventura wowed scouts at a local tryout, the Royals responded by offering him a $28,000 signing bonus.
There was no way to know what Ventura would become. But Francisco loved telling Moore about the spindly kid from the Dominican with an arm blessed by God.
“He had a gift,” Moore said. “Yordano had a great gift. (He was) a tremendous athlete with a great arm — and he wouldn’t back down.”
Ventura made his major-league debut on Sept. 17, 2013, allowing just one earned run over 5 2/3 innings against the Cleveland Indians. He joined the Royals starting rotation in 2014, posting a 3.20 ERA in 183 innings. He shook off a disastrous outing during the 2014 American League Wild Card Game before breaking out during the long postseason run.
There was the start in Anaheim, when Ventura allowed just one run in seven innings. There were two starts against the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, including the memorable performance in Game 6. There was another postseason run in 2015, when Ventura celebrated an American League pennant by opening a beer bottle with his teeth and helped the Royals finish the job against the New York Mets.
“He’s a huge part of the history of the Royals,” Moore said.
There was also the flair for the dramatic. The swagger that infuriated opponents. The antics and emotion that were often left unrestrained.
“His fierce competitiveness,” Yost said. “There were times on the field where people would shake their head or scratch their head and wonder ‘What’s going on with him?’. But he had a fierce desire to be as good as he could be. I don’t think a lot of people saw that side.”
If the lack of composure limited his effectiveness, it was perhaps most notable during the 2016 season. Ventura recorded a 4.45 ERA in 32 starts, his worst full season in the big leagues. In the weeks after the season, Royals officials said, Ventura vowed to be better. In the days before Christmas, Moore spoke to Ventura for what would be the final time. Ventura was working out every day, Moore said. He was focused on 2017. He told his general manager he had two goals.
“He told me that he’s going to win 18 games and 10 of them are going to be complete games,” Moore said. “The relationship with Yordano has always been strong. But it really deepened in a more meaningful way as he prepared for the 2017 season.”
Now that season will never come, that cruel reality still fresh as Moore remembered Ventura on Sunday afternoon. His teammates called him “Ace,” for reasons that stretched beyond baseball. He called his manager “Nedyo,” because that always sounded good. And now, as the start of spring training hands in the distance, just three weeks away, the brilliant and complicated bright light of Ventura is gone.
“It’s certainly something that puts everything into strong perspective,” Moore said. “And challenges us all to never grow tired or weary or cease in doing what’s right and loving on others. It’s a reminder that nobody is guaranteed tomorrow.
“We loved Yordano. We love his heart. We love who he was as a teammate, a friend, somebody that challenged us all and made us better. And we’re going to miss him.”