Becoming Yordano: A trip to the backroads of the Dominican Republic
In time, the story of the supernova known as Yordano Ventura will seem like the stuff of myth.
First, there was his improbable rise out of a remote region of the Dominican Republic, where he at times seemed as one with the sea he credited for developing the right arm he further honed through working with concrete after dropping out of school at 14.
Then, there were the potholes, literal and figurative, on his way to being discovered and signed by the Royals into a mercurial baseball career marked by astounding ups and confounding downs.
Finally, there was his abrupt, shattering death at 25 years old early Sunday morning in a car crash in the Dominican.
Whatever his full legacy is, and part of it was being a vital catalyst for the resurgence of the Royals, gone too soon will always underscore it.
As he spoke of the beauty and challenge of Ventura on Sunday, anguished general manager Dayton Moore said something we all know too well but never can quite be girded for.
“Nobody’s guaranteed tomorrow,” he said, part of a call to remind each of us to never grow weary in “loving on others.”
The demise of this vibrant young man leaves an excruciating void in a city that embraces its athletes as its own and an organization that cultivated him, and in many ways helped raise him.
It pierces the Dominican, which treasures its baseball heroes and no doubt will be convulsed in grief for days to come — much as it was in late October 2014, when projected star Oscar Tavares of the St. Louis Cardinals died in an auto crash.
It was in the throes of mourning Tavares, his friend and countryman, that Ventura somehow mustered the game of his life — a moment that in some ways will define him forever.
He harnessed all the promise and potential and thrill he had within him into a majestic performance in Game 6 of the World Series.
It wasn’t just that Ventura pitched seven scoreless innings in a 10-0 victory over San Francisco that enabled the Royals to reach Game 7.
It was the nearly mystical aspect to it all as Ventura elevated a fan base and soothed a nation in his honoring of Tavares.
Ventura’s hat that was soon bound for the Baseball Hall of Fame bore the inscription, “RIP O.T. #18,” and he also had etched tributes to his friend in his glove and shoes and on Twitter.
“All for you my brother. Wherever you are, I will always remember you, bro,” Ventura wrote, roughly translated from Spanish. “You do not know the pain you left on my (heart).”
Now, we’re all left to reconcile the pain left in the wake of Ventura, a radiant guy “full of youthful exuberance (who) always brought a smile to everyone he interacted with,” as Moore put it Sunday.
Despite the impression Ventura may have left with his occasional on-field tantrums, his persona was anything but volatile in a clubhouse he animated with his laugh.
Even if there always seemed more to Ventura’s story than what we could see, there was no mystery in that sweet face, or the warmth between him and his teammates, and with fans.
It’s telling, too, that even with his meteoric rise he was never happier than when he returned to the Dominican to see his mother … and go back to encourage youngsters at the ballfield where he first played, Estadio Municipal … or to the beach where he’d hear the waves crashing as he ate at his favorite place, Restaurant Luis.
“I don’t want to go anywhere else, because these are the people who loved me,” he said as he ate lobster at Restaurant Luis, accompanied by friends and visitors from The Star in January 2015. “I want to live here for the rest of my life.”
Ventura grew up in a tourist region known for its mountains, beaches, and fishing — not to mention the annual migration of North Atlantic humpback whales.
On our trip there, he showed us the beach where he still ran and swam. He believed this swimming to be the well-spring part of his arm development.
He dropped out of school at 14 in what he had alternately described as a spat with a teacher and the need to help his mother and sister financially after his father left for Germany — in itself a statement of the apparent duality of Ventura.
Although Ventura was only about 5-foot-6 and 125 pounds when the Royals signed him as a non-drafted free agent in 2008, he would tell you that this, too, figured into the arm strength that made him a prospect:
He worked at his grandfather’s hardware store, and he drove a truck, mixed cement and lugged concrete blocks.
Other major-league players have come from the region known as Las Terrenas. But then-Royals scout Pedro Silverio couldn’t believe what he was seeing when he first witnessed the wispy Ventura.
After watching him repeatedly uncork pitches into the 90s with a deft curve and changeup, Silverio believed Ventura could pitch in the major leagues.
Meaning … that day.
Though he appreciated Silverio’s breathless report about the budding flamethrower, Victor Baez was puzzled.
The field director of the Royals’ Dominican Academy laid eyes on the scrawny kid and said, “You?!”
“Yes,” Ventura told him then, “I’m the pitcher.”
Yes, it turned out, he was — though his workout began inauspiciously.
Ventura’s first two pitches beaned a dummy named Rafael standing in the batter’s box.
But moments later, Baez was so impressed by the “whip in his arm” and the “fire in his eyes” that he urged Rene Francisco to come see him.
Francisco, then the Royals’ director of international scouting, signed him on the spot for $28,000 — and called Moore to tell him all about him.
Ventura would then spend nearly 18 straight months at the Royals Academy in the Dominican, where Baez became a father figure. Before Ventura left the academy to begin his minor-league career, Baez told him his goal shouldn’t be just to become a major-leaguer.
It was to become a Hall of Famer.
It’s impossible to know, of course, where Ventura’s career was headed. He was 38-31 with the Royals with a 3.89 ERA but 11-12 last season with a 4.45 ERA. You could just as easily believe he was on the cusp of finding himself as that he might’ve continued to struggle to realize his potential.
But it’s easy to say what he did do.
He became a core part of the Royals’ revival, and some would say his swagger and competitiveness — reckless as it sometimes was — in some ways symbolized their refusal to be defined by others’ limits for them.
And you can say this:
Through all his ups and downs, the bumps in the minors and curious inconsistencies in the majors, Ventura was a shooting star across the sky for the Royals and their fans — a wonder of nature so abruptly gone as to seem like a mere legend.