For much of Yordano Ventura’s career, MLB fans chided him for his short temper. Maybe that criticism wasn’t totally unjust — Ventura was a central part of multiple bench-clearing brawls during his time with the Kansas City Royals — but it wasn’t as simple as that, either. Calling out Ventura as a “thug” or a villain was the easy answer.
Never mind that Ventura grew up in Samana, Dominican Republic, where about one third of the citizens live in poverty. Never mind that he was raised without a father, and had to quit school for construction work at age fourteen to help his mom pay the bills.
Ventura grew up in a notably crime-ridden nation, where riding public transportation often leads to kidnapping and making money often leads to being robbed. It’s also a place where driving a car is about 1,000 times as likely to get you killed as it is in the United States.
Driving down a Dominican Republic highway is exactly how Ventura’s life was tragically taken from him this past week.
He isn’t even close to being the only MLB player to be killed in a car in the Dominican Republic. The very same day as Ventura’s death, former player Andy Marte was also killed. Not long before that, there was the stunning death of baseball’s top young prospect, Oscar Taveras.
In 2016 alone, there were three minor league players who also lost their lives on Dominican Republic roads.
Ventura’s death, though, brings more to the surface than the traffic problems in Dominican Republic. His short career and life are a reminder of the cultural differences within professional baseball that are often ignored—a reminder that in its own American way, the MLB is also a melting pot.
The two most dominant cultures that make up the league’s field of players are the guys who learned how to play in their freshly cut ballparks, working on their swings in Little League batting practice, and the guys for whom baseball was perhaps the only way out of poverty, the only path to safety.
Not only was Ventura a member of the latter group, but even within that group, he was an anomaly. When the Royals drafted him he was five foot ten and just 140 pounds, playing a position that is traditionally dominated by giants. By the time he had developed his 100 mph fastball (the hardest any starting pitcher has thrown in recorded history) he had filled out to 180, but he was still lanky compared to most other pitchers at his level.
Ventura was a maestro of the strikeout, with his fiery four-seamer and a curveball that could bite the dirt after showing itself in the center of the strike zone. But the real miracle, like all players who came up from similar backgrounds, is that he was ever able to get himself to such a point in his career.
How many young teenagers have the time and work ethic to hold a full time job as a construction worker and still become one of the best baseball players in the world? Between gritting it out in a struggling economy and proving himself among bigger players, Ventura was a player who fought for every inch of his success.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that when confronted by angry batters, he refused to back down from another fight.
His fellow Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie (one of the few teammates who could speak Spanish as well as English) had this to say:
“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.”
Opponents feared his fastball. His teammates adored his loyalty and competitive spirit. We can only hope that his much-too-early death serves as a reminder of the challenges that many MLB players have worked so hard to overcome.