Updated: Monday, 10:30 a.m.
The Kansas City Royals and fans are reacting to the news of the death of one of their top young starting pitchers. Twenty-five-year old Yordano Ventura was killed on Sunday in a one-car accident in the Dominican Republic, where he grew up and lived.
When Yordano Ventura was introduced in the 2015 playoffs, he was in the midst of what turned out to be the best stretch of his shortened career. Nine of Ventura’s 13 wins that year came after the All-Star break. It also came on the heels of preparations for a drive to Omaha on a minor league assignment.
Though he consistently threw pitches at around 100 miles an hour, the pitcher nicknamed “Ace” struggled in the first few months to live up to that moniker. In July of that World Series season, Royals manager Ned Yost talked about how much Ventura wanted to do well.
“He takes a lot of pride in his game. He knows what he’s capable of doing,” said manager Ned Yost in July, 2015. “He feels like with his performance a little bit he’s letting everybody down, which is not the case. Everybody believes in him 100 percent.”
But Ventura never made that trip to the minors. Fellow pitcher Jason Vargas got hurt, so the Royals were at a point where they needed Ventura to step up. That’s when he looked like an ace.
Yost added, “A lot of times it’s good for players to take a step back so that they could take three or four steps forward.”
Perhaps the addition of Johnny Cueto, another pitcher known as an ace, and Cueto’s past success, rubbed off on Ventura. In back-to-back starts, Ventura struck out 11 when the Royals were on the verge of clinching their first division title since 1985.
Ben Zobrist also joined the Royals in a trade during the second half of the season, and he already knew how tough Ventura was on hitters. “He’s just as good as I knew he was playing against him. He just had everything working like he has in his last few starts. It’s just been really impressive,” said Zobrist in early September, 2015.
But controversy swirled around Ventura when he hit batters with his pitches. At around 100 miles an hour, hitters didn’t take it well when they were plunked by a Ventura pitch. There were incidents in the first month of the season with Chicago and Oakland, but questions persisted all the way through the playoffs.
“Can you speak to the idea of pitching inside?” asked Blair Kerkhoff of The Kansas City Star during the American League Championship series against Toronto. Ventura responded through translator Pedro Grifol, “This is nothing new to the Royals pitching strategy or approach to pitching. We pitch inside. That’s part of our game.”
Then in Baltimore last season, controversy dogged Ventura again when a brawl between him and Orioles slugger Manny Machado precipitated some fireworks. But Ventura showed everyone something when he came back five days later and pitched a gem in Chicago without incident. Ventura struck out ten in that game.
Royals manager Ned Yost said it was no easy task. “It’s a reputation that he has. He has to be able to work through that,” he said. “But the performance that he put forth was on another level. It was good for us as a team. We were in the midst of an eight-game losing streak. We had just won a ballgame the night before and we needed to come back and win another good ballgame and that’s exactly what he provided for us.”
But last year wasn’t a stellar year by any means for Ventura or the team. Yet the team and the fans knew that the best appeared to be ahead for Ventura in Kansas City with a long term contract. That’s what hurts fans like Andrew Keech of Kansas City, Kansas, so much.
“It just sucks because every time you thought about Yordano you thought of what he could be,” said Keech. “I feel like in another five years he could have definitely been one of the best pitchers in baseball. It hurts for the whole team.”
Keech was one of a stream of fans who swung by Kauffman Stadium to drop off flowers and mementoes at a makeshift memorial in front of the stadium. Teammates Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy and Christian Colon also stopped by the site to pay their respects. It continued into the evening with a candlelight vigil.
In the meantime, Royals general manager Dayton Moore was on his way to the Dominican Republic. In the afternoon, he addressed the media in a conference call. “We love Yordano. We love his heart. We love who he was as a teammate, a friend, somebody who challenged us all and made us better. We’re going to miss him,” said Moore.
Ventura stood only 5-foot-8 and around 145 pounds when he signed with the Royals as a 16-year-old, who could throw the daylights out of the ball. Though he was still learning the English language, he mingled with the fans the last two years at the Royals’ Fan Fest.
This weekend, the Royals are scheduled to hold their Fan Fest again at Kansas City’s downtown convention center. Normally it’s a time for fans and the organization to generate excitement for the upcoming season.
Suddenly, the event has taken on a somber tone.
The flags in front of Kauffman Stadium have been lowered to half-mast.
— Kansas City Royals (@Royals) January 22, 2017
— Stephanie Leith (@sleith9806) January 22, 2017
Somber scene at Kauffman Stadium as fans come to mourn the loss of their Ace. pic.twitter.com/da47HtoyMF
— MLB (@MLB) January 22, 2017
— Dani Jayhawk (@DSforKU) January 22, 2017
— Jeff Roberts (@ENGPHOTO) January 22, 2017
Greg Echlin is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3. Connect with him on Twitter @GregEchlin.