For nearly 30 years, the Royals were a laughingstock. This isn’t new information to you. They lost in ways that many fans didn’t even know existed. It was really hard to be a Royals fan. This isn’t about those dark times, but it’s about how the Royals emerged from those dark times. Many might argue that it all began when the crop of talented prospects all seemingly made their way to the big leagues during the 2011 season. You might be right, but things didn’t really change until one man showed up.
The final piece to the puzzle of the New Royals was Yordano Ventura.
And now he’s gone.
We feel like we knew Ventura. He was on our televisions every fifth day. We discussed him all the time. He was our guy. Some people didn’t think he could harness his emotions. Others thought that fire would eventually be a positive. Some believed he could be the best pitcher in the world. Others thought the Royals should trade him while his value was still high. No matter what you believed, he was a part of our lives, even if you had never talked to him.
Then when the news broke on Sunday morning, it was as if we had lost a friend. It’s hard to explain the feeling. When the tweets started coming through with his name attached, many (myself included) believed it couldn’t be real. It had to be some sort of mix-up after the devastating news of Andy Marte’s death in a similar fashion was announced. There was just no way this could possibly be true.
Soon, confirmations came. Respected reporters retweeted reports and articles began to be penned. The Royals still hadn’t confirmed. We had one last hope. And then that hope was taken away. The pain was sharp and distinct. We had lost a key member of our lives.
When the Royals signed Ventura as an international free agent in 2008, they gave a scrawny kid $28,000 on the off chance that he could develop into something special. He was somewhere around 140 lbs. and the odds were against him. He was fine in his debut as an 18-year old. Then as a 19-year old, he really showed what he was capable of when he struck out nearly 10 batters per nine innings and walked just 2.5. He was suddenly looked at as a potential big-time prospect.
At that time, the talk of the farm system was still about the core that emerged in 2011, but when we looked deeper into the system, Ventura and another big arm, Robinson Yambati, were talked about as the next wave. I remember thinking at the time that Yambati was the better bet for success because he had the size Ventura didn’t have, but had similar stuff. Yambati never really built on his 2010 success and eventually his time as a real prospect, but Ventura continued to grow, both on the mound with the measuring stick and scale.
By 2012, Ventura was in Double-A. He struggled a bit, but he came back the next season and was too good for the league. Then he was called up to Omaha and pitched well enough there that he was given the opportunity to start in September for a team on the periphery of playoff contention. And he was good.
As Sunday went on, it became simultaneously easier and harder to deal with the news. The disbelief was gone. This was real. Ventura was gone. In that regard, it became a little bit easier. It was something that could at least begin to be understood. But on the flip side of that, it became more difficult because reality had begun to set in. Ventura was gone. My mind started racing with thoughts about his family and what he was now sadly leaving behind.
Then I began to think baseball thoughts. Was that okay? Could I really be thinking about something so trivial as a baseball team mere hours after a man lost his life? I think it is okay, for what it’s worth. It’s obviously not the most important element of this tragedy, but the fact that there will be a Royals game in just a couple months means that it’s something that should be thought about and discussed. When the time is right is different for everyone.
As remembrances began to be posted on the internet, I found myself craving the information. I wanted to read and hear stories about the man who I was fortunate enough to meet a few times and talk with. In my experience, he was everything everybody says he was. He was gracious, accommodating, kind. He wasn’t just a good pitcher with loads of potential. He was a good person.
I don’t really know why I always remembered his first start against the Indians so well, but I always have. Maybe it’s because I was there. Maybe it’s because you could tell he was going to be something special on the mound. Whatever it was, I remember. The Royals lost that day. But in the first inning, Ventura walked the first big league hitter he ever faced on four pitches. He finally threw a strike to the next hitter, but then threw another ball. The next pitch, Nick Swisher hit a ground ball to shortstop that became a double play.
In the second, the same thing. He walked the first better before inducing a 1-6-3 double play on a really nice play he made in front of the mound. You could see in those two innings that he had “it” on the mound.
I don’t really remember much about his other starts in 2013. I know he was good against the Mariners and got lit up a little by the White Sox. The potential, though, boy you could see it with every pitch. He threw with a purpose and a confidence that you don’t often see on rookie pitchers, especially those who are as small as he was. He was different.
One thing that I don’t think was reported enough is how badly Ventura wanted it. Every issue he had on the mound stemmed from being so competitive that he just couldn’t contain it. That competitiveness was definitely not channeled correctly at times, but you could tell that it was going to be the driving force toward him becoming something more. He shouted at Mike Trout. He dropped f-bombs to Adam Eaton. The man competed on that mound every fifth day. It was impressive.
The stories behind the scenes that we’re now hearing are that he had a drive to get better in every facet of his life that you don’t see from everyone. The stories that he would be in tears following issues he had on the field because he knew he could do better tell you that he was someone who cared and cared to get better. You can’t teach that.
He ultimately won a job in the rotation out of spring training in 2014 and put together a rookie season that portended a better career than the one that was unfortunately cut short. He went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA and was the number two starter on an American League champion. He had his moments where you could see that he was going to do amazing things. The sky was the limit.
In a way, Ventura was vindication for Royals fans and Dayton Moore supporters. Until Ventura stepped in the rotation, no starter had successfully been developed under this regime. Then Ventura did what he did (along with a very good season from Danny Duffy) and the narrative shifted.
To me, Ventura cemented his legacy in October. But in order to do that, he had to face adversity after not facing much during his rookie season. You’ll remember that he was called upon to pitch in the Wild Card game in 2014 with the Royals nursing a small lead. He gave up a booming home run to Brandon Moss that we thought was the end of the season. Fortunately, the Royals would come back in that game.
There are so many great stories circulating about Ventura in the hours and days since we learned of his untimely passing. My favorite might be the one from 2014 when he ended up on a local softball field and just played.
The Royals had just lost the World Series in absolute gut wrenching fashion. You remember it. They held a rally the next day where a good number of fans came out to thank the team that had broken their hearts for years only to mend it back together in one magical season. Ventura was there. It was both happy and sad at that time. We had to say goodbye to the best team this city has seen in literally decades, but it was also celebrating something magical.
Players began to depart for their offseason, as is typical. These guys don’t live in Kansas City, not all of them anyway. Many of them were heading home to California or Florida or wherever it is their travels would take them. Ventura, from the Dominican Republic, wasn’t going home just yet. A couple days after all the heartache mixed with the joy, he found his way to a local softball field. And there he played. He just had fun playing the sport he loved.
You could tell. He was different.
The often forgotten story from the 2014 breakout for Ventura is that he came back to give up one run on five hits in seven innings against the Angels in game two of the ALDS. He came back from the most difficult appearance of his career to shut down the best team in the American League for seven innings that allowed the Royals to come home up two games to none. That was huge. Everyone talks about the World Series Game Six start, but that one really showed me his mettle.
The last two seasons probably didn’t go as Ventura or the Royals had hoped they would. His command struggled. His mechanics struggled. The numbers weren’t what they were in his rookie season. You still saw flashes, though. He struck out 11 in back-to-back games in late 2015. He threw his first and final nine-inning compete game late in 2016. The results weren’t quite there on the whole, but you knew you might see something very special every time he took the mound.
It’s been reported that in a recent conversation with Dayton Moore, he told the Royals’ general manager that he was going to win 18 games with 10 complete games in 2017. He had dedicated himself to becoming the pitcher we all knew he would be someday. And you know what? I think he would have at least come close.
He was brash. He was boisterous. He was fiery. But more than anything, Yordano Ventura was a kind man. I was lucky enough to speak with him in the clubhouse a couple times and always left the conversation feeling more upbeat than I was before it began. That’s the kind of person he was.
While these days are somber and depressing as we remember Ventura, it’s important to remember the joy he showed both on the mound and off. We should remember the joy in his voice as he excitedly announced he was going to the World Series again. We should remember his 100 MPH fastball and devastating curve ball. We should remember that he tantalized us all with his potential.
One of the biggest factors in the Royals becoming champions was Yordano Ventura, the young man who vowed to throw fire every fifth day. His loss is a devastating one both on the field and off. The organization and the city won’t soon forget him.
Rest in peace, Yordano. May your memory be for a blessing.