What do you think about when you think about baseball? Maybe you think of the game’s best players, guys like Mike Trout, Pedro Martinez, or Babe Ruth. Or perhaps you recall warm summer nights listening to your favorite team’s broadcast on the radio. Still others may remember enjoying a game in-person, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells.
Baseball takes on different forms for different people, but for me, baseball isn’t the best player, or any nostalgia-tinged memory. Baseball is the player whose game embodied the sport more than anyone I can recall watching.
Baseball is Yordano Ventura.
Yordano Ventura was baseball. Everything about him personified the best – and at times, worst – of this game we love so dearly. From his childhood, to being discovered at a tryout and signing for a five-figure bonus, to developing into a top prospect and delivering a memorable performance under a national spotlight and doing it all with fire and joy and intensity and exuberance that made every moment so compelling.
He was immensely talented, with a right arm possessing one of the most valuable commodities in the sport – velocity. And that velocity seemed to materialize with relative ease, made even more surprising considering Ventura’s slight frame. The first time I saw Ventura pitch in person was at his AAA debut in Omaha. He was warming up prior to the first inning, and after what appeared to be a calm, typical warm-up toss, I peered over at a scout’s radar gun and saw the number “95” blink, which caused me to blink as well. He coined the hashtag “#LetsThrowFire,” and at times he even seemed to do so quite literally.
The smoothness of his delivery was counteracted by the sudden violence of his recoil, his right arm rifling back toward his body with such a whip, it was amazing to not see Ventura writhe in pain after every pitch.
Watching Ventura pitch was to watch baseball in all its basebally goodness. He was one of the most talented pitchers in the game, with a fastball few could match, and yet, he was unable to dominate hitters on a consistent basis. He’d struggle with control. He’d hang a breaking ball. He’d catch too much of the middle of the plate. Despite his breathtaking talent, Ventura battled the same issues nearly every major-league pitcher battles. He was one in a million while at the same time being just one of a million. He was baseball.
The joy with which Ventura pitched on his best days was a reminder of how fun this game should be. One of the most iconic plays of his career involved a harmless ground ball back to Ventura, because his normal leg kick on his follow through apparently just didn’t have enough swagger. He was, at heart, a kid playing the game he loved, and when things were going well for him, his smile on the mound could be seen from the 400-level of Kauffman Stadium. He had so much passion for the game, such an intense drive to win. He played with fire. Kids from around Kansas City will be wearing the number 30 because of that joy, and that fire, and that smile. And despite the advice of their coaches, there will be a few leg kicks, too.
But when things weren’t going well, Ventura could become his own worst enemy. He would do everything he could to prove himself, often at the expense of his results. He played with fire. Whether it was throwing intentionally at a batter or shouting at an opponent, Ventura would let his emotions get the best of him, because he hated losing and hated being shown up even more. As a fan, it was frustrating to watch him succumb to the worst parts of this game, the immaturity and borderline dangerous behavior. He had the natural ability to get back at his opponent with his pitching, but too frequently did so with his pitches, allowing pride to get in the way of performance. He was not alone in this behavior. He was baseball.
Every start Ventura made was must-watch television. It’s been said that “you can’t predict baseball,” and Ventura’s starts brought that phrase to life at 100 mph. While it was common to expect good things from him, you were never quite sure how the day would go. He could strike out a dozen hitters, give up a pair of dingers in the first two innings, or possibly get into a shouting match with someone on the field. It wasn’t always good, but it was always captivating. Seeing Ventura’s flame-emblazoned right forearm propel toward the plate caused you to hold your breath. It was like watching Ken Griffey, Jr start his swing, or Carlos Beltran take that first step toward a fly ball in center. You weren’t sure what was about to happen, but you were sure you needed to watch, because something was about to happen. And if something didn’t happen on that pitch, that just meant it would happen on the next one. That anticipation made tuning in to his games a necessity.
For those fortunate enough to watch Ventura pitch in person, the experience was similarly awe-inspiring. From the simple rock of his windup, to the explosion toward home, the pop of the catcher’s mitt, and the gust of wind as 30,000 fans simultaneously turned their heads to the scoreboard to see digital flames reveal what everyone already suspected. 99 mph. 100 mph. 101 mph. It didn’t take long for the ball to travel 60 feet, 6 inches, but it was enough time for the suspense to build, and for an entire stadium of spectators to widen their eyes while the hairs on the back of their collective necks stand on end. When Ventura was on the mound, each pitch felt like it could change the course of the game. Anything was possible when the ball was in his hand. He was baseball.
He showed so many flashes of brilliance intermixed with periods of disappointment. Ventura was not the first player to belie his ability with inconsistent performance, nor will he be the last. Baseball is a difficult game played by people who make it seem simple. It’s a game based on failure, and even though we can recognize that and internalize it as fact, it’s still so disheartening to see a player fail, particularly one as talented as Ventura. Failure is, of course, a relative term here. Simply reaching the big leagues at all must be considered a magnificent success, especially considering Ventura’s backstory. But there was always a feeling around him, and within him, that there was more success to find. That a better start was just four days away.
We were drawn to Ventura because the only inevitability with his starts was that fire would be thrown. That fire could erupt into an inferno in an instant, so we watched. We admired the wonder of his talent, and wondered when that talent would reach its zenith. We shook our heads in discouragement, and in disbelief.
We appreciated his game and his story, because his story made us feel like a part of the game.
Ventura’s story is one of what could have been and what was. It’s a story of what is, and what will be. It’s a story of baseball.