One of the many wonders of baseball is that you get to watch kids grow up. In 2008, the Kansas City Royals -- coming off a decade of baseball so discouraging that all seemed hopeless -- signed a 16-year-old kid from the Dominican Republic for $28,000. He had quit school when he was 14 to get a job in construction and help support his mother. There was nothing dazzling about him as a baseball player. He stood less than 6 feet tall. He threw baseballs in the mid-80s.
There was something about him, though, something almost imperceptible, something about the way he threw a baseball that made a couple of the Royals scouts hope. And dream.
:: Yordano Ventura, 1991-2017 | Andy Marte, 1983-2017 ::
This is how it begins for young players, of course, hundreds, thousands of them. Hopes and dreams. The hopes build around the player's body -- hopes that the player, as the expression goes, will grow into his body. The hope is he will get stronger, faster, more agile. For a pitcher, the hope is that the fastball will gain speed, the curveball will learn to bite. For a hitter, the hope is that the bat will cut through the zone faster, that the baseball will jump off the bat more. For all of them, the hope is that the awkwardness of youth will smooth out.
The dreams, though, are about something else entirely.
The dream is that something small but miraculous will happen.
It doesn't happen often. Every team has prospects. Most of them fade. Some of them keep trying. A few of them push through and make it in the sportswriter Top 100 lists, but even then odds are against them, some still wash out, some make it only as minor characters and bit players. And every now and again, yes, there's a little miracle.
"He was just a skinny, scrawny kid," says J.J. Picollo, the Royals' assistant general manager. "A couple of scouts thought he had a good-working arm, a quick arm, the sort of arm you look for as a scout. That was it. He really didn't throw hard at first. ... And then, overnight it seemed, he did."
Overnight. The kid, of course, was Yordano Ventura. Other teams didn't want him. When he was 16, he weighed 130 pounds and threw 85 mph. But he had this thirst for baseball. By the end of his first year, the fastball was approaching 90. When he was 19 -- after "eating some of that American food," as he often told his teammates -- he was 160 pounds and occasionally throwing 95. When he was 20, his fastball touched 100.
That was a miracle -- but it wasn't THE miracle. A breathtaking fastball, as every baseball fan knows, is only a part of the dream. Every organization has Minor League pitchers who can throw hard. There are so many other things a young pitcher needs. He must control the fastball -- that is, throw strikes. He must command the fastball, which is harder because it means throwing the right kinds of strikes, out of the middle of the plate. He must develop another pitch because if a Major League hitter knows without any doubt a 98 mph fastball is coming, there's a good chance he will crush it.
And then there is something else too, something harder to describe. He must love to compete, love to be at the center of things, love it all so much that he never stops trying to get better. Yordano Ventura was born with that gift.
"The kid was fearless," Picollo says. "Right from the start, you could see it with Yordano. He had this swagger, this confidence. It just isn't something you see in too many young pitchers."
Kansas City baseball fans, so hungry for good news, watched Ventura grow up from afar, through ever more impressive scouting reports. They wanted him to be good. They needed him to be good. The Royals had developed one star pitcher, Zack Greinke, in forever. And they traded him away.
Royals fans eagerly read what Baseball America and others had to say.
Baseball America 2011: "He has touched 100 mph on several occasions, hits 98 most of the time ... his stuff, size and arm slot have prompted comparisons to Neftali Feliz and even the patron saint of small right-handers: Pedro Martinez."
Baseball America 2012: "While Ventura can throw 100 mph, he's better off when he stops worrying about the radar gun ... Ventura has the upside of a frontline starter, though he could wind up in the bullpen."
Baseball America 2013: "Nicknamed Lil' Pedro because of his combination of size and velocity, Ventura has a fastball that sits 94-97 mph and reached 102. ... Despite Ventura's small stature, Kansas City hopes he can fill one of the holes in their big league rotation."
Baseball America 2014: "His fastball is a true 80 pitch [scouts rate players on a 20-80 scale], but his development as a starter has taken off now that he's refined his curveball into a plus pitch."
And then, 2014, he was there, in Kansas City, 23 years old, full of life and hunger and a sense of destiny. Everyone immediately called him "Ace," because of the Ace Ventura movie and because of his impossibly wonderful stuff and because he gave off that vibe. From the first day, he was the ace. His first game that year, he threw six shutout innings against Tampa Bay. Two and a half weeks later, he threw eight shutout innings at Baltimore, and then five shutout innings against Toronto. Few people around baseball thought that the Royals were any good. And so, few people around baseball paid much attention.
Inside the Royals clubhouse, though, there was this growing belief -- illogical but irresistible -- that they actually were good. They were all young and talented and confident. And in the middle was this 23-year-old kid who threw 100 mph with a backbreaking curveball.
"When he threw that curveball for strikes," Raul Ibanez, Ventura's teammate on that 2014 team, says, "it was going to be a quick day. He just had fantastic stuff."
What's that line from Bull Durham? "I want to give him the heat and announce my presence with authority." Yes, that was Ace Ventura. He pitched on that edge between brilliance and fever. He wanted to throw fastballs by people, and the more hitters fouled off his pitches, the more he wanted to throw it by them the next time. When he was in Class A ball, his pitching coach Steve Luebber cut a deal with him -- three or four times every game, he would allow Ventura to come unglued, throw as hard as he could just to blow the ball by hitters. The rest of the time, though, he had to try to pitch. This was always the inner battle for Ventura.
Off the field, though, he was a sweetheart, this lovable kid with the big heart and a gravelly laugh you could hear from across the clubhouse.
"If he wasn't pitching that day," Ibanez says, "he would always come around me just to talk and joke and play around. After a while, I'd have say, 'Ace, get out of here, dude. Just go somewhere else.' He was like a little brother who would come and poke you and want to play with you. You couldn't help but smile when you were around him."
That 2014 Royals team, as you know, turned out to be very good -- they would go to the World Series. And Ventura would make America take notice. Well, first, he was inexplicably used in relief and he gave up a home run that seemingly lost the Wild Card Game against Oakland. But the Royals came back and so did Ventura, with two sparkling starts in the Series against the Giants. He threw seven shutout innings in Game 6 to force a dramatic and ultimately unhappy Game 7 in Kansas City.
The next year, Ventura and the Royals were different. This time, they didn't just believe they were good. They knew it. And everybody else knew it. There was tension, brushback pitches, brief scuffles, and Ventura was often in the middle of it. Benches cleared in three consecutive starts of his. He was briefly sent down to the Minors. Many people around baseball took shots at him.
"He needed to pitch with that edge," Picollo says. "And yet he needed to harness his emotions. That was the constant struggle for Yordano. He always wanted to do more. He always wanted to defend his teammates. He always wanted to win -- he wasn't scared of anybody. That was the trait that got him to the big leagues. He had to be who he was."
"It's a common story, isn't it?" Ibanez says. "With so many great athletes, the greatest strength is also the greatest weakness."
Ventura was good again after his return from the Minors, with the Royals winning 12 of his 16 starts. And then they willed their way to the World Series title.
"It is," Ventura said after that final victory, "better than a dream."
Yes, in baseball, you get to watch kids grow up, develop amazing skills, make big mistakes, do extraordinary things. You get to know them. Family is an overused word in sports, but there is a sense of family there, a connection that goes beyond sports. It is a connection that makes days like today, when Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte die young, hurt that much more.
"I see that big smile," Ibanez says. "I hear that laugh."
Picollo thinks about a small story. When Ventura was 21 and still making his own way, he sort of adopted a younger Dominican pitcher named Miguel Almonte. One year, Almonte won a Minor League award and was invited to come up to the team dinner to be honored. Ventura went with him to just help out.
And Picollo remembers watching Ventura order dinner for both of them. Two years earlier, Ventura probably didn't know 10 words of English. And now, here he was, ordering food for himself and his protege. Here he was making conversation and translating for Miguel. It was staggering for Picollo, a little bit like watching one of his own children.
"He was so proud," PIcollo says. "I just remember seeing that big smile on his face -- even my wife noticed it. She said, 'Yordano's really proud of himself, isn't he?'"
"I've been thinking about that ever since I found out," Picollo says. "He was just this scrawny kid who made himself into a big league pitcher through sheer will and fearlessness and competitiveness. And along the way, he also became a man."
Yordano Ventura, the man, died too soon, but not before he lived his dream, not before he helped Kansas City baseball fans live their own dreams. All around Kansas City on Sunday, people cried remembering his smile.