The first time I saw Yordano Ventura throw a baseball was on the backfields of the Royals’ spring training complex.
He looked like a high school player who had wandered onto the wrong field ... until he threw a fastball. It sizzled and popped and was easily the hardest fastball I’d seen all spring.
I turned to the scout next to me and asked who the kid was, and the scout said, “That’s Yordano Ventura.”
Ventura threw one pitch and you could see the potential. He clearly had the stuff to pitch in the big leagues, but did he have the maturity?
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The big debut
On Sept. 17, 2013, Ventura made his big-league debut against the Cleveland Indians.
In the second inning with nobody out and a runner on first base, Michael Brantley hit a ball back to the mound. Ventura snagged it and turned to start a double play by throwing the ball to second base.
Everybody in the Royals’ dugout held their breath; when a pitcher has to go back up the slope of the mound to make a throw to second base, it’s very easy for that pitcher to sail his throw high into center — especially if that pitcher is an over-amped rookie.
Ventura’s throw was on target, the Royals turned the double play and everybody heaved a sigh of relief.
After that play, the Royals began talking about how composed and unflappable Ventura was. But as we now know, that was an incomplete picture.
There were stories of Ventura throwing tantrums and acting out in the minors, and once he got comfortable in the big leagues he began to exhibit some of that same behavior.
Brilliant but erratic
At times Ventura pitched brilliantly, but the Royals were never quite sure what they’d get when he went to the mound.
Ideally, pitchers are stoic; look at Wade Davis and it’s hard to tell if he just gave up a home run or struck out the side. Ventura pitched with his heart on his sleeve, and that often affected his performance.
In Ventura’s second start of the 2015 season, he ignited a bench-clearing altercation with Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels. No one — including Trout and most of Ventura’s teammates — understood why.
By the end of the 2016 season, Ventura had a string of altercations to his credit and most of the time nobody could figure out what had started them or why they were necessary.
And after Ventura acted out and got everybody mad at him, he’d sometimes go into a shell and pitch ineffectively; he didn’t want to pitch inside, hit another batter and start another fight.
A 162-game baseball season is an incredible grind, so players are constantly being urged to keep an even keel: don’t get too high when things are going well, don’t get too down when you’re scuffling.
Ventura seemed to struggle with keeping an even keel more than most, and that meant the Royals never knew which Yordano they’d get: the guy who strutted, posed and seemed ready for a fight, or the guy so timid he didn’t want to pitch inside.
Understanding Ventura’s background
One day Ventura was upset about something happening at the plate and decided to throw a pickoff to first base as hard as he could.
Eric Hosmer — the guy the throw was aimed at — said he knew he was in trouble when Ventura dropped his arm down before throwing the ball. Most of the time, pitchers make pickoffs with short-arm throws that start by the ear. In this case, Ventura pretty much did a full windup before unleashing a rocket in Hosmer’s direction.
The throw was in the dirt, but somehow Hosmer picked it and prevented a bad situation from becoming worse.
Afterwards, Hosmer talked to Ventura in the dugout and basically said it was OK to be upset, but he couldn’t take it out on his teammates by throwing billion-mile-an-hour pickoff throws.
When I asked Hosmer about the incident later, he urged me to take Ventura’s background into account. Hosmer talked about his own upbringing and said he grew up in Miami with a dad that would have kicked his rear end if he behaved like that on a baseball field. Ventura grew up without his dad around and in an atmosphere that required him to fight for everything he wanted.
That didn’t make Ventura’s behavior OK, but it did make it a little more understandable.
Some signs of maturity
On Sept. 3, 2016, Ventura pitched against the Detroit Tigers and won the game; he also walked six batters.
Believe it or not, those walks were seen as a good thing. Ventura walked Victor Martinez twice, J.D. Martinez twice and Miguel Cabrera once.
Ventura pitched six innings and gave up one run by not getting macho and trying to show everyone who was boss. He worked around the guys who could hurt him, and that was seen as part of his maturing process.
And now we’ll never know how good Yordano Ventura might have been.
These guys are human
So what can we learn from the short, complicated life of Yordano Ventura?
When I first started covering the Royals, players would often say “people forget we’re human.” I assumed the players meant they weren’t perfect and would make mistakes like anybody else.
But they meant more than that.
Players are people and people are complicated; players are not just a collection of numbers that can be moved around without consequence. Players have feelings and are in a high-pressure job that most of us can’t imagine.
If I have a bad day at work, I don’t get sent to Omaha.
When ballplayers are successful, it’s a wonderful life; when they fail, it ain’t so hot. Yordano Ventura was incredibly talented, but he also had problems that showed up on the baseball field.
So next time you think of booing a player who performs poorly or leaving a snarky comment on a website or sending out a Tweet saying a player stinks, remember … these guys are human.
And we just lost one who could have been great.