Dayton Moore is on the phone when he opens the door to his 26th floor hotel room here to let you in. The Royals general manager keeps his iPhone in a World Series logo case and it has buzzed for most of the day, except the two hours or so he was on a Delta flight from Kansas City.
Yordano Ventura, the supernaturally talented Royals pitcher, died when he lost control of the white Jeep he was driving in his native Dominican Republic the night before.
He is only four hours or so into processing all of this, so the emotions are still forming, but already they’ve been strong — sadness, reflection, a few smiles about the good times, and a touch of anger that a young life is over at 25.
Moore’s plan was to speak at an old friend’s high school fundraiser on Sunday night, then fly back home first thing in the morning. He’ll still do the fundraiser, but then he’s off to the D.R. That’s when the tears will come, when he sees the family and friends who loved Ventura so much.
Moore loved him, too. He may have talked with Ventura more than any other player in the Royals’ system.
“A lot of the good ones require maintenance,” Moore said. “They just do. Yordano challenged us. Players like Yordano are why coaches and teachers exist.”
This conversation goes about 40 minutes, and a familiar pattern forms. Moore smiles at something he remembers about Ventura, then pauses at the finality. Shakes his head. Such tragedy.
Shortly after this conversation, Moore will hear that Dominican officials found no sign of alcohol at the scene. Ventura wasn’t wearing his seat belt and was driving through a thick fog on a mountainous stretch of highway. He may have slid off the road, and overcorrected, his body partially thrown from the vehicle.
The Dominican is a notoriously dangerous place to drive. Coaches and executives across baseball worry constantly about their players who live there in the offseason. Many roads are terrible, laws are lax and drunk driving is not the taboo it is in the United States.
Moore first heard about Ventura as he was walking onto that flight, in a phone call that at first he thought was about Andy Marte — a former major-leaguer who died the same night, in an unrelated car wreck in the D.R. The coincidence doesn’t stop there. Moore signed Marte with the Braves, back in 2000.
“None of us are guaranteed tomorrow,” Moore said.
Most of his memories are happy. Ventura could be difficult at times, but never disrespectful. The challenge for Moore and the coaches was to help Ventura channel that 100 mph fastball and biting curveball for maximum effect. Ventura was never a troublemaker. He just needed help sometimes. There’s a difference.
“Some players, their talent moves them a lot quicker than their ability to manage their personal life,” Moore said. “With Yordano, we always had challenges, but in a good way.”
The last time Moore talked to Ventura was about a month ago. Ventura had posted a picture of himself with red hair a few days before, and Moore gave him heck for it. You playing Rudolph at the Christmas party or something?
The other part that sticks with Moore is the tone of Ventura’s voice. He was happy, confident. The Royals worked so hard to get him there as often as possible. They signed him to a long-term contract just before the 2015 season, and thought the certainty would help him perform. Some players are like that. The contract was negotiated during spring training, and Ventura wasn’t pitching well.
“His demeanor was changing,” Moore said. “The unrest, the unsettled climate, it bothered him. Yordano was always looking for security. He wanted harmony.”
The Royals wanted that for Ventura, too, and Moore felt he was finally there. Ventura had the worst of his three full big-league seasons in 2016. His ERA was up. Strikeouts down. Walks and home runs way up. But most of the damage was against his fastball, which Ventura always relied on too much when in trouble. He was a natural fighter, and a fighter’s instinct is to punch hard.
Moore saw that, but he and the scouts who work for him saw something else, too. Ventura’s curveball and changeup were consistently improving. They thought they could fix the fastball. Ventura had a bad habit of letting his front side fly open, which had the double effect of turning his command erratic and giving batters a clear view of what was coming.
Ventura would’ve turned 26 this summer, just entering his prime. He had told friends he would win 18 games in 2017 and took a new focus this offseason, both in perfecting his mechanics and improving his body. He was a regular at the Royals’ academy in the Dominican — him and a bunch of minor-leaguers, mostly, chasing different levels of the same dream.
“He didn’t have to be there,” Moore said. “But he was there, working hard.”
This is a part of what had become misunderstood about Ventura. He could be a jerk, on the field. He had moments where his brain left him, and all that remained was adrenaline. But off the field, he was different. Respectful to his coaches. Intelligent. He wanted to make those around him happy.
He lost his way after that string of bench-clearings in 2015. Baseball suspended him, twice. The Royals decided to send him to the minor leagues, though he never made the trip after a teammate was injured. The surface explanation was that he was trying too hard to live up to his new contract, and that was true, but didn’t tell the whole story.
It wasn’t necessarily the money, or the public perception, that he wanted to validate. It was the approval of his teammates and coaches.
Ventura was more insecure than he liked people to know. That’s why he took slights as an act of war. Then a coach would give him a tip, and a teammate would offer advice. He wanted to do exactly what they all said, but when he tried, all that happened was a toned-down, lesser version of himself.
“He was very gentle,” Moore said. “Just a pleasing type person. He wanted to get along. He was a little passive off the field, really.”
This was the constant conflict, both inside Ventura and around the organization that wanted to bring out his best.
With Ventura more than most, that meant talking with him about what Moore called “lifestyle choices.” The question about Ventura was never talent. He had plenty. Moore has always thought that most big-league careers are made or lost depending on preparation, focus and choices.
Moore’s phone is buzzing for much of our conversation, and eventually, he has to get going. Calls to make, texts to read, information to process. He will speak at his friend’s fundraiser. Then, he and others will fly to the Dominican on Monday. Ventura will be buried on Tuesday.
They will cry and they will hurt and occasionally they might laugh, too. Grieving does not happen in a straight line.
“We loved Yordano,” he said. “We loved his heart. We understood him. We were committed to helping him. We’ll miss him.”