In face of tragedy, Raul Mondesi seeks to honor memory of Yordano Ventura

Raul Mondesi will start at second base for the Royals on opening day.
Raul Mondesi will start at second base for the Royals on opening day.

Out on the front sidewalk, a row of Royals Hall of Fame banners greet visitors here at the club’s spring training complex. They hang from the top of a two-story batting cage. The portraits include names like Brett and White and Wilson. Every morning, they are the first thing Royals players see as they walk to the clubhouse entrance.

It was here, on a quiet morning in early February, that Raul Mondesi thought of his friend. He remembered his smile and his dreams and his generous side. He looked up at the banners and couldn’t shake the thought: Yordano Ventura was going to be up there someday.

“It’s hard,” Mondesi says.

Two months after the death of Ventura in a Jan. 22 car crash in the Dominican Republic, Mondesi is still processing the loss of a best friend. He thought of the Royals pitcher as a brother, and Ventura did the same. In a clubhouse full of close relationships, there were few players more inseparable.

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They shared a heritage in the Dominican Republic and a common dream in baseball. When Mondesi was promoted to the big leagues last summer, they shared a home in Kansas City. To most Royals, Ventura was the little brother who required mentorship and guidance. But as Ventura grew older, club officials say, he sought to pay the lessons forward. He saw the perfect opportunity in the 21-year-old Mondesi.

“Everybody knows how he was with me,” Mondesi says. “We were like brothers. So it’s pretty tough. It’s not easy. But I know he’s going to be proud of me if I keep doing my stuff.”

In the face of tragedy, Mondesi has sought to honor his friend on the field. As he grappled with the emotional wounds, he responded with the best spring of his career. He batted .367 (18 for 49) with three homers in 19 Cactus League games. He dedicated himself to his defense and base running. In a crowded competition at second base, he emerged as the club’s opening day starter, beating out Whit Merrifield, Christian Colon and Cheslor Cuthbert.

The performance surprised Royals officials, who entered the spring expecting to send the top prospect back to Class AAA Omaha for more seasoning. The basic plan called for Mondesi to play shortstop and continue his development at the plate. But in the end, general manager Dayton Moore says, the club could not ignore the obvious.

“The bottom line is Raul Mondesi made us change our minds,” Moore said. “It’s as simple as that. He gives us the best chance to win in Minnesota (on opening day). And that’s the way we’ve always looked at it.”

For Mondesi, the transformation began on the field. Yet it did not end there. He’s more comfortable in the clubhouse now, he says, more confident and self-assured. After an offseason of grief and pain and wondering why, he does not want to take baseball for granted.

“We’ve seen more of a sense of urgency in all aspects of his life,” Moore says. “I think it hit him very hard and it affected him in a very deep way. He came into spring training early. He’s more focused.”

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The Royals, of course, have always believed in Mondesi, and it is not hard to understand why. A 6-foot-1 switch hitter, his tools can mesmerize. He runs like a gazelle, covers vast range at second base and has developing power in his 185-pound frame. The son of former Dodgers All-Star outfielder Raul Mondesi Sr., he is a victory in life’s genetic lottery.

In one game this spring training, Royals officials clocked him at 3.4 seconds to first base from the left side, an astonishing display of speed. In another, Mondesi barreled a 95 mph fastball for a walk-off blast to deep center field.

“I always say he’s a freak,” left fielder Alex Gordon says.

But if the Royals viewed Mondesi as a centerpiece of their future, they were also willing to exhibit patience. In 2016, he batted just .185 in 47 games after being summoned to the big leagues in late July. At the plate, he often looked overwhelmed, striking out 48 times in 135 plate appearances. Inside the clubhouse, he rarely spoke, unnerved by the environment.

“The major-league level is different,” Mondesi says.

In the offseason, he returned home to the Dominican and internalized the lessons from his first run in the big leagues. For years, Royals officials had preached the important of pitch selection and pitch recognition. Yet the ideas never seemed to take root. In 418 minor-league games, Mondesi batted just .249 with a .297 on-base percentage. He believed his raw talent would allow him to hit any pitch, and on many days, his swings represented this conviction.

Some of the struggles, of course, stemmed from his age. In 2014, he reached Class A Wilmington at the age of 18. The next season, he advanced to Class AA Northwest Arkansas at 19 before becoming the first player in history to make his major-league debut in the World Series. On that night in New York, Mondesi pinch-hit for Ventura and struck out against Mets starter Noah Syndergaard.

The World Series experience was eye-opening. His 2016 season would be even more instructive. In May, he was suspended 50 games for violating MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. (Mondesi tested positive for Clenbuterol, a performance-enhancing drug. Major League Baseball offered leniency when Mondesi proved the substance came from cold medicine.) He returned to the minor leagues in early July. On July 26, he was called up to the major leagues.

“When he came up last year,” Royals manager Ned Yost says, “it was kind of just like a whirlwind for him.”

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Three months later, he headed back home, humbled by his performance, motivated to make adjustments. Back in the Dominican, he spent part of the offseason working out at the Royals Academy. He played winter ball with Tigres de Licey in Santo Domingo. He focused on refining his offensive approach.

“That was the plan,” Mondesi says. “I’ve been changing stuff, and I’ve had good results. You got to focus on pitch selection and everything. I think I’ve been feeling good.”

On a morning in early March, Mondesi stood near his locker and finished the thought. In any moment, a memory of Ventura will come flooding back, he says. But for now, he would prefer to keep the focus on baseball. The pain is still raw, the emotion still fresh. Their friendship was special.

Ventura and Mondesi were four years apart, yet they grew close as Mondesi climbed the rungs of the minor leagues. Last year, Ventura offered to let Mondesi live with him during spring training. They shared meals and conversations and laughter in the clubhouse. Ventura, club officials say, just wanted to help the Royals’ younger Dominican players feel comfortable.

In the days after the 2016 season, Ventura and Mondesi spent a few days together, hanging out and decompressing after a long year. Ventura dyed his hair blond, and Mondesi braided his curly locks. They talked about the future and hatched plans for the offseason.

So perhaps it made sense, that in the hours and days after Ventura’s death, as the shock faded and the reality set in, Moore and assistant general manager Rene Francisco worried most about Ventura’s closest friends.

“We wondered about Raul Mondesi,” Moore says.

In some ways, the concerns are still there. The process of grieving is daily, and inside the clubhouse, they are moving forward together. But if the Royals were worried about Mondesi, Yost says those fears were assuaged during the opening weeks of camp.

“From the first day of spring training, he’s been a different guy,” Yost says. “Emotionally and mentally, he’s more mature. He’s much more engaging.”

In some ways, Yost says, the most impressive growth has taken place off the field. But on other days, it’s hard to ignore the raw talent. On Monday, Mondesi, at 21 years and 250 days, will become the third-youngest Royals player (behind Clint Hurdle in 1978 and 1979) to start on opening day. And on a recent morning, Yost found himself talking about Mondesi’s promise.

The day before, the Royals had played the Los Angeles Angels and reigning American League MVP Mike Trout in Tempe, Ariz. Mondesi had finished 1 for 2 with three stolen bases and a sterling defensive play in the ninth. It was just one afternoon, but all his gifts were on display. The speed, the defense, the potential at the plate. The future, all in one package.

“I’m not so sure who was the best player on the field yesterday,” Yost said. “Was it Trout or was it Mondi? That day. Trout is Trout. I’m not saying Mondi is Trout. But the best player on the field that day — Mondi was right there with him.”