As the years go on, and memory grows faint, it will be difficult to explain just what sort of impact Yordano Ventura made on baseball ... and an entire region of America. His back-of-the-baseball-card numbers -- 38-31 record, 3.89 ERA, 470 strikeouts, 211 walks, no All-Star appearances or American League Cy Young Award votes or seasons with even 200 innings pitched -- will not hint at it.
As we move farther and farther away from the Kansas City Royals' remarkable back-to-back pennants in 2014 and '15, those will lose much of their power. Already, everyone has moved on. In the intervening years, the Cubs won their first World Series in more than a century. The Astros won their first World Series ever. Time moves on. The Royals had their moment. And their moment is gone.
But for a big chunk of the American heartland, in the cities and towns and farms across Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska that endure the scorch of summer and the chill of winter, Ventura meant much more than the numbers and baseball achievements, and a couple of dusty pennants he helped win. Ventura was a symbol of what was possible.
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The Royals signed Ventura for $28,000. He was 5-foot-6 and weighed 135 pounds … not coincidentally, the Royals at the time were also roughly 5-foot-6 and weighed 135 pounds. Kansas City signed him in 2007, the same year that it lost 93 games -- a quantum leap forward considering the club had lost 100 games each of the previous three seasons.
Hopeless? Yeah, it was hopeless in Kansas City.
Royals scout Rene Francisco liked the way that Ventura's arm worked. This is scout-speak for that difficult-to-find pitching rhythm that some gifted pitchers simply have. The ball seemed to jump out of Ventura's hand. Francisco recalls Ventura breaking 90 mph with the fastball even then, though others doubt that he was throwing that hard. Either way, he was a Royals kind of player -- too small, too scrawny, too many things had to go right for other teams to have much interest.
They signed him for peanuts and, strangely for the Royals, things started going right. Ventura grew. He gained weight. And his fastball took off. After just a couple of years, he had the club's attention.
"We've got a kid down in the Minors," I remember Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo telling me in 2011, "and he's just 20, so we don't know what he can be yet. But he's throwing 100 mph. He looks like a young Pedro Martinez."
It was easy to be skeptical throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The Royals had a lot of future Pedro Martinezes ... and George Bretts ... and Greg Madduxes … and Frank Thomases. Somehow, they never turned out quite that way. But Ventura kept getting better and better. Before the 2014 season, he was one of the better pitching prospects in the game.
Ventura showed up for Spring Training and he changed the complexion of the Kansas City Royals. They called him "Ace" after the Ace Ventura movies, but the name fit better than they expected because Ventura absolutely saw himself as the ace. He was bold and cocky and, as the club's coaches and management said time and again, utterly fearless. His calculation seemed simple: "I have a 100-mph fastball. Who the heck is going to hit me?"
The analysts, the computer simulations, the projection systems predicted another lost season for the Royals. But they won anyway. Ventura was very good in 2014. He won 14 games with a 123 ERA+, had a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.3 to 1) and he allowed only 14 homers all season. But as mentioned, numbers do not explain him or what that Royals team meant to so many. They made Kansas City and towns 100 miles or more in every direction fall in love with baseball again.
That team was young and energetic and unflappable. They didn't mind people doubting them; they loved it. They put the ball in play, were aggressive on the bases, played otherworldly defense and closed the door in the late innings. And, they never really stopped believing they would win. When they were down, 7-3, in the 2014 AL Wild Card Game against the A's -- a game in which Ventura surprisingly had been brought in for relief and gave up a three-run homer -- Royals manager Ned Yost said, "I wasn't worried. I knew they'd find a way. I know people say that kind of thing all the time, but I'm serious. That group, I just knew they'd find a way."
They found a way. They made it to the World Series and all the way to Game 7, when a superhuman pitcher named Madison Bumgarner beat them almost singlehandedly. Then came 2015, and the Royals from Opening Day knew they were destined to win it all.
The team had leaders in every direction -- Mike Moustakas led with unfailing optimism, Alex Gordon led silently, Eric Hosmer led by just having more fun than anyone else, Lorenzo Cain led by running down fly balls no one else could reach.
Ventura was the fury. Away from the field, he was the nicest kid in the world, but on the mound, he was dangerous, and he wanted to be sure everyone knew that. "Fear and arrogance," Crash Davis said was the secret in the movie "Bull Durham." Ventura walked that tightrope. Some days he was unhittable. Other days, he got beat up. He was involved in bench-clearing incidents in three consecutive starts in 2015. He never doubted.
A championship team, especially a surprising one like the Royals, needs to have everything in balance. For two years they did, and Ventura was a big part of that. He made some mistakes, sure, and he had some great moments, sure, but more than that, he left his imprint. When he died a year ago, the Royals and baseball surely lost a good young pitcher, a 25-year-old young man with a 102-mph fastball and a bright future.
But more than that, Kansas City lost a part of itself. Yordano Ventura's Royals took the region on the ride of a lifetime. Suddenly, everyone wore Royals hats. Suddenly, there were blue Royals flags waving on every street. Suddenly, the talk of just about every office building was, "Did you see what Yordano did in the game last night?"
The ride ended when Ventura died in a one-car crash in the Dominican Republic. People still love the Royals as much as ever, and they will stick with the team through its seemingly inevitable rebuilding process, and they will hope for success on the other side. But it will never be the same again, never like it was when everyone was young, and Hosmer and Moose and the rest were clowning around in the clubhouse, when Wade Davis was a late-inning terminator, when Yordano Ventura took the mound and threw harder than seemed reasonable, and Kansas City was on top of the baseball world.