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Mourning After

For the second time in four months, the baseball world suffered the loss of a vibrant young pitcher, the Royals' Yordano Ventura
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THE LIFE OF Yordano Ventura was as unmistakable as the brilliance of the morning sun. It could be seen through his fearsome fastball, and from the grin on his mischievous face, which peered out childlike from beneath a hat that always seemed too big.

Ventura, a righthanded pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, lit up radar guns and he lit up rooms. He pitched and carried himself with a joyous purpose, delighting in what hard work and his wondrous right arm had wrought.

And now his life will forever be remembered more for what he never had the chance to accomplish than for what he did achieve. He is gone at the age of 25, not yet in full flower as a pitcher or as a man. A one-car accident in the Dominican Republic on Sunday morning killed Ventura, who was not wearing a seat belt, just as another collision did former major leaguer Andy Marte at age 33 that same morning—twin deaths on Dominican roadways about 50 miles apart. It was reminiscent of another crash on the island in 2014 that took Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras, a friend of Ventura's, and came just four months after another young, gifted and joyful major league pitcher died in an accident: Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, who lost his life at age 24 in a boating accident in Miami in September.

"Today I feel like I lost a family member," Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said on Sunday. "He was a great kid with a huge heart and a great smile. Just before Christmas he told [general manager] Dayton Moore, 'I'm going to win 18 games and throw 10 complete games this year.' He had all the equipment to do it."

Baseball does not just mourn, it hurts. Too many reminders. Too young. Ventura is the eighth active major leaguer to die in the past decade: in addition to Fernandez and Taveras, former Braves pitcher Tommy Hanson (2015), Mariners outfielder Greg Halman ('11), Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart ('09), Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock ('07) and Blue Jays pitcher Joe Kennedy ('07). Five were killed in boating or car accidents.

The last time I saw Ventura was in Detroit in September for what would be the penultimate start of his life. He always greeted me with a smile. It was an image that might surprise fans of opposing teams, for Ventura brought ferocity to the mound that bordered on bullying, and sometimes crossed the border. Few who saw him instigate skirmishes and brushback wars understood the origin of the fire within him.

Ventura grew up poor in Samaná, in the northeast corner of the Dominican Republic, where Columbus made his last stop on his first voyage to the New World. Growing up without his father, he quit school when he was 14 to work on a construction crew to help support his family.

When Ventura was 17, in 2008, a field scout for the Royals saw the tiny teenager throw a baseball and recommended him for a tryout at the team's academy in Guerra, near the island's southern coast.

Ventura traveled there with a buscón, or agent. Victor Baez, the field coordinator at the academy, saw the buscón walk in with someone he thought was too young for a tryout, according to The Kansas City Star. "Where's the player?" Baez asked.

"This is the player," the buscón replied.

"This kid? He looks 14."

Ventura stood 5'10" and weighed 137 pounds. His size seemed to matter less when he stepped on the mound and began throwing in the high 80s. The Royals loved his arm action and his fearlessness. They signed him for $28,000.

Ventura filled out to 6 feet and 195 pounds. As he progressed through the system people around the organization called him Lil' Pedro for his stylistic resemblance to Pedro Martinez, including the high-kick recoil after unleashing a pitch with particular fury. The great Martinez would become a mentor to Ventura, trading texts and phone calls with his countryman. Ventura's fastball gained 10 miles per hour, and he reached the big leagues in 2013 and helped the Royals to the World Series in '14 and win it in '15. In April 2015 he signed a $23 million extension.

Ventura quickly became one of the sturdiest starters in baseball. Only 28 pitchers qualified for the ERA title in each of the last three years, and Ventura was the youngest of them.

Nothing seemed to dent the kid's outsized confidence. He walked with a bounce in his toes and approached every start like he was back at the academy in Guerra: another opportunity to prove he was big enough.

"You could see the raw stuff," Eiland said. "The velocity, the breaking ball and of course the great changeup. He had it all."

Ventura's career ends with 38 major league victories, the same total as Fernandez. Those two men will be forever linked because of the short time between their deaths. More substantively, the two young athletes are linked by a special spirit within them, a power to move people with their charisma and artistry.

The Spanish have a word for this power: duende. It derives from the word for goblin or ghost, but in meaning conveys a soulful magnetism that captivates people. These young men, gone too soon, will be remembered for his duende, both in times when they had a baseball in their right hand, and when they did not.

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