Yordano Ventura never looked like he belonged in the club of 100 mph pitchers. Aroldis Chapman has the hulking body of a defensive end, Justin Verlander is 6-foot-5 with arms that seem to extend to the light towers, and Noah Syndergaard’s nickname is Thor for reasons beyond his blond hair; they all have monster bodies.
Ventura’s frame was nothing like that. He was so thin across his chest that he could’ve used a dish towel as a blanket. While his listed height of 6 feet might have been accurate, he seemed smaller than that. Maybe he felt smaller, too, after years of being told he wasn’t large enough, wasn’t good enough. But Ventura proved to the world that a supernatural arm was attached to his body. Long after he reached the big leagues, the natural defensiveness remained, as if he had to fight for ground he already owned with every pitch of every inning of every game.
His teammates with the Kansas City Royals understood him, and this is why they seemed to protect him in the way that big brothers hover over a smaller sibling. They saw his joy and gregarious nature away from the field, away from the competition that would often draw a competitive anger out of him, and they helped him, as best they could, as much as he would initially allow.
Jeremy Guthrie played with him for three years. "When he arrived in the big leagues," Guthrie wrote in an email exchange Sunday evening, "I had never met him. He brought a high level of confidence but, underneath it all, I felt like he also was vulnerable and appreciated the help and confidence of others.
"He was relatively quiet in his personal interaction but on the mound is where his youthful exuberance showed brightly. On the mound, he was in his element. A competitor, a fighter in a few senses of the word. I always viewed him as having a 'me against the world' type mentality, one likely shaped during what I understood to be a tough upbringing without a father."
Guthrie believes that Ventura was drawn to some father figures within the Royals organization, like general manager Dayton Moore and assistant GM Rene Francisco.
"With that I think he found many brothers within the organization that would stand by him, lend him support, love, and guidance," Guthrie wrote.
Ventura was 22 years old when he threw his first pitch in the big leagues. After distinguishing himself initially with his fastball, his rocket arm, he sparked a series of bench-clearing incidents by pitching inside to opponents, or hitting them outright. In those moments, it was striking how quickly teammates such as Salvador Perez moved to protect him. You could see it when Ventura sparked a dust-up with the Los Angeles Angels (four minutes into this compilation). Their frustration with his instinct to fight climbed last summer, when he appeared to throw at Manny Machado after exchanging words with the Baltimore Orioles third baseman.
But his teammates seemed to always be able to separate Ventura’s actions in those moments from the person they knew in their clubhouse.
"I know what it is like to live in a foreign country and have to learn the language and culture," Guthrie wrote. "When you feel like people around you care for you and help, it is extremely comforting. I would like to think the Royals team was there for him."
During the Royals’ championship run in 2015, Guthrie served as an interpreter for Ventura in Ventura's news conferences. Guthrie is bilingual and Ventura did not do formal interviews in his second language in that setting, and so they would sit side by side at a dais, the byplay between them always comfortable, open and friendly. Despite the age difference of more than a decade, they were like two college buddies enjoying a cool experience together. Guthrie had done this before, like when Ventura signed the long-term contract that was affirmation of Ventura's long fight against peers a lot bigger than him to reach the big leagues.
Ventura was set to earn his first really big paycheck this year, $3.45 million, with another $17.4 million guaranteed in the following two seasons. Folks within the Royals organization indicated that the Machado incident last summer seemed to be a crossroads for Ventura, as if he was chastened by the frustrated response of teammates who had always helped him. He pitched more effectively, his command of his fastball and his emotions improving. Maybe he was learning, through his success, that there was no need for him to constantly prove to others -- to himself -- that he was big enough, tough enough, good enough.
Now his peers are left feeling nothing but loss -- inexplicable, senseless, awful loss.
Royals fans had a love affair with Ventura, writes Jeff Rosen.
The deaths of Marte and Ventura hit home for the Marlins.