The greatest moment in Yordano Ventura’s baseball life is now the one that most rips the heart.
He stood on that mound at Kauffman Stadium 27 months ago, looking exactly like himself except more — an assassin’s stone expression on a baby face, cutting into Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, the hat that always looked two sizes too big with a scribbled message for his friend who had died the night before: RIP O.T. #18.
And, boy, was he fierce that night. That leg kick, that finish, that stare down after strikeouts, with the energy of sports’ most invigorated fan base literally shaking the ground he walked on.
He pitched seven shutout innings. Gave up just three hits. Walked off the mound to a standing ovation. The Royals won big that night. That’s how much of the baseball world met Ventura.
Now, after he died in a car crash, it’s part of how we’ll remember him.
There is no silver lining here. This is unnecessary tragedy. He died in stomach-turning similarity to Oscar Taveras, the Cardinals player he honored in the World Series — late at night in a car wreck in his native Dominican Republic.
Those who loved him and knew him personally, and those who cheered and watched from a distance, will struggle in different but real ways to cope. Ventura was 25 years old, his best baseball and happiest days still to come.
We’d already known him in Kansas City long before Game 6, of course.
He came to us as the most precocious and promising of athletes — a pitching prospect with a 100 mph fastball, occasionally devastating curveball, a flaming baseball tattooed on his arm, and a screw-you swagger that alternated between his best friend and worst enemy.
The Royals signed Ventura when he was 16 years old for just $28,000. At the time, they liked what baseball people call his “arm action.” He was loose. The ball came out smooth, and easy. Back then, his fastball topped in the mid-80s. He was 5-foot-6 and 125 pounds, if he had just had dinner. Nobody could’ve known what he would become.
But the Royals liked how he competed, and gave him a chance. Within a few years they could tell they had something more. The fastball kept going faster — 88 mph, then 90, then 95, then even 100 and a little more.
He never grew much past 6-feet and had the metabolism that would forever keep him skinny. Often, that means a career stalls in the minor leagues. Sometimes, a man that size can find his way into a big league bullpen. The Royals never saw him as anything other than a starting pitcher — and a damn good one, too.
Ventura fought. Constantly, he fought. Later, he would become somewhat famous for starting fights on big league fields. In Anaheim, he seemed to trash talk Mike Trout, the best player in the game, after a single up the middle. In Chicago, he f-bombed Adam Eaton after a groundout, starting a bench-clearing that eventually led to two White Sox pitchers attempting to storm the Royals’ clubhouse.
Against the A’s, Ventura escalated raw feelings into an all-out benches-clearing, fastballs-at-the-head feud. He felt like he was protecting a teammate. Others felt he was immature, and handled it terribly. Both sides had good points.
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.
Ventura pitched in the big leagues for the first time on Sept. 17, 2013. The Royals usually like their pitching prospects to debut in the bullpen, even the good ones, but Ventura was different. He was the most physically talented pitcher the Royals had, on his first day, even on a staff that led the league in ERA.
He was purely himself that night, too. Cold and expressionless on the outside, burning hot on the inside. He walked the first batter he saw, on four pitches, all fastballs that made it easy on the home plate umpire. Ned Yost would later remember growing a little nervous.
The next batter hit Ventura’s third pitch straight back. Ventura gloved it, pumped once to compose himself, then threw a strike to second base to start the double play. He struck the next man out, the inning ended, and Ventura walked calmly back to the dugout.
The next season, the Royals turned into the best team in the American League. They won the pennant, with Ventura starting four times in the playoffs, including that magnificent Game 6.
The Royals saw enough to give Ventura a long-term contract worth as much as $46 million just before the 2015 season. On the day that deal became official, club officials referenced that debut. The calm. The confidence. The talent.
Today, that deal still has five years left on it.
I first met Ventura in New York. This was in July 2013, two months before he’d pitch in the big leagues. We were at the Futures Game, baseball’s prospect showcase over All-Star weekend.
This was the second straight summer Ventura was chosen for this event, and by then, he was already somewhat famous in baseball circles. He was a high-level starting pitching prospect for an organization in desperate need of it.
I’d spent much of the day on the phone with Royals general manager Dayton Moore, assistant GM J.J. Piccolo, and a few scouts from other organizations. I asked them about Ventura, and each time, parts of their answers came in a boyish excitement that you might expect grown professionals to have outgrown.
But Ventura was different. Watching a man his size throw a baseball that hard takes some getting used to. In the beginning, it looks like some magic trick. You feel like you’re watching a movie, and the montage is about to begin.
Being around professional sports means seeing a lot of humans do things you did not think humans could do. Being close enough to hear the mitt pop on a 100-mph fastball from a man the size of a high school possession receiver is as hard to believe as any of them.
I’d seen that, and felt that, by the time I saw Ventura in that hallway at Citi Field. But I’d never spoken to him before. I introduced myself. Told him I was from Kansas City. He said he would love to talk but wanted to find a translator.
A couple minutes later, he came back with a friend. We shook hands. I asked him about someday pitching in Kansas City. Ventura lit up. He did not wait for the translation, and his answer came back in pure, perfect, smiling English.
“Oh, yes, that would be great,” he said. “That’s my dream. What I’m working for, every day. For my opportunity, I just want to keep working hard. I’m so excited about that.”
The greatest part of watching Yordano Ventura on a baseball field is that you never knew. Watching him pitch meant feeling, at least a little bit, a wonder.
It is often said that every time you watch a baseball game you will see something you’ve never seen before. And that’s true, on some levels. The geometry and skill and small margins of baseball mean a stack of possibilities that more than 100 years have not yet exhausted.
But in some ways, that’s conveniently misguided for those of us who love the game. For the most part, baseball games often look the same. Nine innings, some strikeouts, some hits, a home run or two, maybe a few errors, and one team wins 5-3.
Ventura changed all of that. Everything in baseball is calculated, but Ventura never fit any of the formulas. Anything you could conceive on a baseball field might happen if Ventura was pitching.
His next pitch might pop the radar gun at 100 mph. Or it could be that nasty, biting curveball, the pitch that even more than the fastball scouts thought would someday make him a star.
He might throw a no-hitter. He might give up line drives to the next five batters. He might make the bat in the cleanup hitter’s hands useless, the man cursing to himself as he walks back to the dugout after a strikeout. Or, he might hit the No. 7 hitter, then puff his chest out like a rooster, the beginning of another confrontation.
Ventura struggled, like a lot of us, to find his way. His world moved faster. His successes and failures were always broadcast louder. Through it all, he was relentless and unapologetic and desperate to be great — both for himself, and for everyone back home for whom it meant almost as much.
His teammates and coaches might occasionally grow frustrated at some of the rougher moments, but they saw a good soul, a big heart, and an earnest learner. It’s easy to support someone like that. Easy to see the best.
Whenever Ventura would have a bad start, or the benches would clear, Royals executives could count on their phones buzzing. Other teams wondered if they could buy low on an enormous talent. Every once in a while, those phone calls would leak and you’d hear speculation on whether the Royals might make a deal.
The truth is the Royals never thought seriously enough about trading Ventura to exchange names. They were awed by his talent, and they were forever encouraged by his heart, even through the drama. They wanted to build around him, and to grow with him. They weren’t sure how it would turn out. But they had a good feeling.
They wanted to know.