Yordano Ventura was 25. He had one of baseball's fiercest fastballs. He was a little guy with big stuff, big confidence and big dreams. He died in a car accident early Sunday, and, though as of this writing we were still collecting the details of what exactly happened on Caretera Juan Adrian, a highway near the Dominican Republic town of Rancho Arriba, we've unfortunately seen enough other versions of this story to know the gist of it: '
Too fast. Too soon.
Andy Marte was 33. The big dreams Ventura still possessed had long since passed by Marte, a one-time top prospect who didn't reach his star potential. But oh, how he loved the game, and oh, how he explored every conceivable path to pursue it as a livelihood -- the Minor League invites, the winter league stints, the two seasons spent bashing homers in Korea. Inconceivably, he, too, died in a separate Dominican car crash early Sunday, and the story here is much the same:
:: Yordano Ventura, 1991-2017 | Andy Marte, 1983-2017 ::
Too fast. Too soon.
Fraternity that it is, Major League Baseball grieved as a group on this black Sunday, a day that reminded us that far, far worse than a baseball career that doesn't reach its potential is a life not fully lived. It no longer matters whether Ventura emerged as the second coming of Pedro Martinez, as he intended, and it no longer matters that Marte didn't fulfill those enormous expectations once placed upon him. All that matters are the families, the friends and the teammates who lost a person they loved.
"Today is a very sad day for our entire game and particularly for the many loyal fans in the Dominican Republic, the home of both Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte," said Commissioner Rob Manfred. "Yordano was a key figure in the Royals' recent success. His electric talent on the mound helped lead the Royals to two American League pennants and the 2015 world championship. Andy was a respected member of six organizations who played seven Major League seasons, including for the Cleveland Indians from 2006-2010.
"On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to the families, teammates, friends and fans of both players."
The game is still processing and coming to grips with the untimely death of Jose Fernandez, the 24-year-old ace of the Marlins who died last Sept. 25 in a boating accident off Miami Beach. The Marlins mustered up the strength to finish their final six games, but the new season will come with new, heartbreaking reminders of the hole he left behind. Just the other day, team officials attended a mass held in his honor in his native Santa Clara, Cuba, and later this season they'll retire Fernandez's No. 16.
Now, it's the Kansas City Royals thrust into a similarly painful position.
Ventura was like Fernandez in that his sheer stuff wowed you and made you expectant of excellence. And these were two men whose emotions in a given moment were never in doubt. The game doesn't always know how to interpret such an unbridled approach, as we saw when Fernandez and Brian McCann had their famous dustup or in the multiple instances in which Ventura's competitiveness led to conflict.
But what you come away with, ultimately, is an understanding that these men were absolutely passionate about the game they played.
For Ventura, perhaps that passion inhibited growth on the Major League stage, or, hey, maybe it got him where he was. Ventura once told me he had motivation to "do things like Pedro did." Ventura was at his best when he was willing and able to challenge hitters on the inside part of the plate. He threw a fastball that clocked in at 101.9 mph in his big league debut toward the end of 2013, and he showed some genuine flashes of brilliance in three full seasons. Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland was talking about Ventura at the onset of '14 and shaking his head:
"He's got a ways to go. But gosh, it's all in there."
We should be thankful we got to see "it" in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, when Ventura was at his absolute best (seven shutout innings with three hits and five walks allowed) on the biggest stage of his life. That night, Ventura not only helped force a Game 7 at Kauffman Stadium, but he did so with the heaviest of hearts, having only recently learned of the passing of his good friend and countryman, Oscar Taveras.
Yes, Ventura and Taveras met the same fate.
The game of life, like the game of ball, can be cruel like that.
And life and sport can create utterly mystifying coincidences such as this: Andy Marte's final Major League game came Aug. 6, 2014, against the Royals, whose starting pitcher that day was none other than Yordano Ventura.
Marte didn't have the spunk or the irrepressible competitive spirit of Ventura. That just wasn't his nature. Marte was an easy going guy who smiled through the unrelenting disappointments of his career and handled everything with charm, grace and good humor. He was always a solid defender at third base, but his bat never caught up to the projections created by his swing and his Minor League stats. He had the distinction -- or maybe the misfortune -- of being the top prospect in three different systems in a single offseason before 2006, when he was dealt from the Braves to the Red Sox and then the Indians, where he simply never panned out.
But we watched Marte one lost July night in 2010, retiring the side in the ninth inning of a game in which the Tribe ran out of pitchers. He even struck out Nick Swisher. We laughed, and the beauty of Andy Marte was that he was laughing, too.
"What'd you throw Swisher?" somebody asked. "A fastball," Marte replied with a smile. "They were all fastballs."
When he was an 18-year-old kid in rookie ball in the Braves' system, new to the States and trying to find his footing in professional ball, Marte had pondered walking away from the game. But he stuck with it then and through all the other multiple mishaps and missteps he'd face. Personally, I'll remember seeing him in the Spring Training camps of the Pirates one year, the D-backs the next. He'd joke about how his chances of getting back to the big leagues were slim, at best, but he was still trying.
"The only thing I know how to do is play baseball," he once told me. "That's why I didn't stop."
For Marte and for Ventura, the story ends here. For their families and friends and for the many teammates and fans they've touched along the way, they'll live on in memory. But losing them as we did, in such swift and unmerciful succession, was another gut punch to a game still broken-hearted over Jose.
Too fast. Too soon. And too much.