The Light Dims: Remembering Yordano Ventura

World Series - San Francisco Giants v Kansas City Royals - Game Two

It was easy to understand how fans of other teams found him, shall we say, egotistical. His fist pumps, his facial expressions, his arrogance even when he was getting beat; it all rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Perhaps there’s no greater evidence of this than the arguments he sparked with Mike Trout, Adam Eaton, Brett Lawrie, and that one time Manny Machado had to catch his breath while charging the mound after being drilled with one of his 100-mph heaters:

Here’s something you’ll notice, though: it’s arguable that, for every one of those confrontations, he was in the wrong. But every time, his teammates had his back.

Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic late Saturday night. Early reports indicate there was no alcohol or drugs present at the scene, but that he may not have been wearing his seat belt when he lost control of his car on a treacherous road. I cried, as many thousands of people did, when I first heard the news. Another shining, albeit misunderstood, beacon of baseball has been taken from us far earlier than is fair.

It will be heartbreaking when Spring Training commences in three weeks; none of this feels real. Jose Fernandez still doesn’t feel real, and Yordano Ventura certainly doesn’t. Two of baseballs brightest comets have been just that; passing by but for a moment to illuminate the night sky. It’s too early for reconciliation, it doesn’t even feel right to mourn; right now, a celebration of the things we witnessed is the only thing that seems prudent.

The Man Who Threw Fire

I was there for his major league debut; just another fan of the Royals in 2013 who was desperate for some wins and a reason to be hopeful. Yordano Ventura was that reason. The swagger, the confidence, the fastball. My God, the fastball. You don’t expect something like that to come out of someone not even six feet tall and who weighs a buck eighty soaking wet. But the power of that pitch, if properly harnessed, may have been able to light all of Kauffman Stadium. He sailed through five innings before yielding a couple runs in the sixth. He didn’t get the win that night, but everyone who witnessed his brilliance was talking about it at the water coolers the next day.

I was there for Game 2 of the 2014 World Series, which got off to an inauspicious start when Gregor Blanco crushed a Ventura fastball for a quick 1-0 lead. He settled down though, allowing only one more run on 7 more hits in 5 1/3 innings. After Omar Infante’s earth-shattering home run, it was all the Royals would need. Any rookie would be proud to hang their hat on that kind of effort in their first World Series appearance, but Ace Ventura was not done.

The Royals had their backs against the wall in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, and Yordano had a heavy heart; his friend Oscar Taveras was killed in a car accident two nights prior. He inscribed, “RIP OT” on his hat to honor him. Starting this type of game is a lot to ask of a 23-year old rookie, but Yordano, as only Yordano could, put the team on his back and carried them through a seven-inning, three-hit shutout performance. It was when the world was introduced to the spectacle of a pitcher of whom Kansas City was already well aware.

Destiny was always greatness for Yordano Ventura. Crash Davis told Nuke LaLoosh to be, “cocky and arrogant, even when you’re getting beat.” Yordano had that invincibility about him. It didn’t matter what the scoreboard said, he was going to stare you down and not back away. I mentioned earlier that his teammates had his back; well that’s because he had his teammate’s. Everyone in that clubhouse considered each other family, and fans didn’t need to see their interactions every day to understand this truth. The way they spoke of each other, the genuine brotherly affection they showed night in and night out is what made Kansas City embrace these band of brothers as their own.

Wonder and Imagine

That’s the worst part. Perhaps myth is more interesting than reality; speculation is a topic most enjoyed by everyone, particularly sports fans. But this isn’t Bo Jackson suffering a hip injury or Barry Sanders retiring early; this is a cruel, tragic, abrupt ending to a career that was just beginning to blossom. Ace was our Number One; he was going to be an All-Star, a Cy Young winner, hell, maybe an MVP. There were more playoff appearances, more World Series victories and more champagne to flow in his wonderful career.

To truly understand Yordano was to look beneath the surface. Vahe Gregorian’s superb “Becoming Yordano” piece is tough to read right now, but it provides a glimpse into how Ventura become the pitcher of illumination in the American League. He quit school when he was 14 to work and provide for his family. He was signed for $28,000 at just 16 years old. He would eventually recover from allowing a 3-run homer in the 2014 Wild Card game and establish himself on a national stage.

His right arm was a lightning bolt. The thunder of the ball popping in the catcher’s glove was just the aftermath of the hair-raising, goosebump-inducing, jaw-dropping power that emanated from within him. He may let up seven runs, he may throw a no-hitter, but when you came to watch him pitch, you knew that no matter the outcome he was going to be one thing: electric.

*Header image from Flickr user Douglas LeMoine

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