Royals pitcher Danny Duffy knew how important wearing No. 41 was to first baseman Carlos Santana, who has worn the number for his entire 11-year career. So when the Royals signed Santana to a two-year deal this offseason, Duffy was happy to give up his No. 41 for his newest teammate.
When it came time to pick a new number, Duffy said he wasn’t overly concerned with what would be on the back of his jersey. That’s when a few people in the organization mentioned that Yordano Ventura’s No. 30 would eventually be recirculated, and if anyone should wear the number for the first time since Ventura’s death in 2017, it should be a teammate and a friend.
“I jumped at that opportunity,” Duffy said Saturday after the Royals’ workout in Surprise, Ariz. “It’s going to be cool knowing that I got his old number on my back, to rep him and honor him however I can. … It definitely wasn’t my idea, but when I was presented with the opportunity, I was, for one, very humbled and, two, eager to take that chance. It’ll be cool, and I figured if it’s going to be recirculated, it would be nice for one of the boys who knew him to be able to wear it. So I’m really thankful they bestowed that honor upon me.”
Duffy didn’t say who in the organization first mentioned he should wear No. 30 but emphasized his appreciation for his name being brought up in the conversation. He asked for his current and former teammates’ blessing before taking the number and wanted to make sure Ventura’s mother, Marisol Hernández, gave her blessing, too.
“I was told that she was more than happy to allow me to wear it,” Duffy said. “I think that that’s really important. That humbled me even further. It’s a big deal, and I’m excited to wear it.”
Duffy and Ventura were teammates in the Royals' farm system and on the Major League team, winning the World Series together in 2015. No player has worn No. 30 since Ventura -- affectionately known to his teammates as "Ace" -- stepped off the mound at Kauffman Stadium on Sept. 30, 2016. In January 2017, Ventura died in a car accident in the Dominican Republic.
Ventura is still never far from Duffy’s mind, and the left-hander has found ways over the past four seasons to honor him. Duffy’s jersey this season will reflect a new way to pay tribute.
“To honor somebody, I think it’s a beautiful thing,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said.
Duffy, 32, is now in the final year of his five-year contract he signed with the Royals after the 2016 season. It hasn’t been the easiest road since he signed the $65 million contract, but he’s been reliable in the Royals' rotation over the past four years. He’s entering Spring Training as a starter, with the Royals looking for innings out of their veteran arms, especially early in the season.
Duffy said he hasn’t thought about this year potentially being his last as a Royal. He found himself with more free time this offseason while trying to limit his exposure to public places because of the pandemic. He was able to do a lot of reading and thinking -- along with working out and trying to master the piano again -- and said he feels “at peace” with who he is as a pitcher and a person.
“I know who I am in here,” Duffy said, pointing to his heart. “I try to make the right calls and do the right things, and I learned that someone’s opinion of you is really none of your business. And that’s something you kind of grapple with as a young buck. I’m finally kind of coming into that thought process where it’s just like, 'Be you. Make the right calls. Do the right things. Try to be the best teammate that you can.' Try to make the team better, obviously, is at the very top. And the rest will take care of itself.”
That mindset is exactly what Matheny wants to see out of one of his veteran pitchers.
“I just want to see Duff stay focused and consistent,” Matheny said. “That’s really one of the main conversations we’ll continue to have through this spring [with all players]. Talking about the things that are going to get in the way of us being as good as we can be, and the topic of distractions is always going to come up. They all have different forms for different people. So I’d say the same thing with Danny, 'How can we eliminate distractions that get in the way of you being the kind of pitcher that you can be?'”
This offseason was the first time Duffy didn’t completely stop throwing after the season ended. While he took three or four weeks off of throwing off a mound, he continued to play catch because of how good he felt to end the 2020 season. Duffy posted a 4.95 ERA across 12 appearances (11 starts), with a 9.1 strikeout-per-nine rate and a 1.331 WHIP. But he put together two 5 2/3-inning starts in September, allowing no runs on Sept. 9 and one run on Sept. 23.
This spring will be a chance for him to continue that feeling over into 2021. He kept working on his arsenal over the winter, with a focus on his curveball and his four-seamer to righties.
“Down and away, sometimes that ball can take off on me,” Duffy said. “I really need to focus on not getting rotational when I’m trying to throw the ball down and away to a righty. And get more consistent with my curveball. I think my slider’s gotten to where it needs to be, and it’ll always continue to be something that I work on. But just not lollipop my curveball in there. Throwing it with conviction, throwing it with the same arm speed as everything else.
“So I didn’t stop throwing in the offseason for that exact reason -- I felt that way in September. I didn’t want to lose that. So just continue to climb.”