- Associated Press - Friday, January 30, 2015

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Never mind that it was around midnight. This was an urgent matter to Royals scout Pedro Silverio: He had just glimpsed the future in the improbable form of a spindly 17-year-old.

“I can’t believe it, that guy,” Silverio thought after he’d watched the pitching of the runt who maybe was 5 foot 6, 125 pounds.

Yet he had seen it for himself. From the craggy mound of the weathered Estadio Municipale, the boy began by unleashing a pitch that lit up at 89 mph on Silverio’s radar gun, The Kansas City Star (https://bit.ly/15rFKha ) reports.

Again, the puzzled Silverio told the teen.

Again: 89.

Again: 90.

Again: 91.

Then he uncorked a curveball and a change-up so deftly that on Silverio’s report he wrote that he could pitch in the big leagues - that very day.

As soon as Silverio finished the three-hour drive back to Santiago from this remote resort town that night in 2008, he called Victor Baez, the field director of the Royals Academy based in the Dominican.

“There is a guy I have to send right now to the academy,” he said.

His breathlessness resonated with Baez. This wasn’t the sort of thing Silverio, a veteran scout, said casually.

Still, Baez retained a certain professional skepticism as he told Silverio, sure, send the youngster for a workout.

The day the prospect was expected, Baez pulled into his parking space at the Royals’ facility.

He looked up the hill to a covered outdoor reception area, waved to a man and child he saw sitting there, and walked into the facility, figuring the would-be player already was inside or running late.

Then a colleague said the gentleman outside had the pitcher.

Baez went back to ask where the pitcher was.

The man gestured to the scrawny boy with him.

“Him?!” Baez said, turning toward the kid. “You?”

Yes, Yordano Ventura said, “I’m the pitcher.”

As far back as Royals general manager Dayton Moore can remember, Ventura was “always very sure” of himself

That’s why, before he ever threw a major-league pitch, Ventura got a tattoo on his left forearm of a baseball leaving flames in its wake. It’s why, at least as early as age 7, Ventura fervently dreamed of being like Dominican hero Pedro Martinez.

But nothing was inevitable about Ventura’s ascent to the brink of stardom, his track from a remote part of this small Caribbean nation to becoming one of the hardest throwers in baseball and brightest stars of the 2014 World Series.

Nothing was certain about the rise of a boy whose father left the family behind, whose family couldn’t afford a bike for him to ride to the baseball field, who quit school at age 14 to become the man of the home and work construction.

Sure, maybe somebody else would have found him. But undersized as he was, this wasn’t likely.

What were the odds?

Only about 35 in 100 of the Latin American prospects invited to the 30 Major League Baseball academies in the Dominican make it to the minor leagues in the U.S., said Jeff Diskin, the former Pembroke Hill baseball coach who’s now the coordinator of cultural development at the Royals Academy. By about age 20, most prospects are considered over the hill.

Of the prospects that do reach the minors, just 3 percent make it to the major leagues.

Maybe that’s why, even now in the offseason, Ventura regularly spends time at Estadio Municipale, the modest stadium in his hometown of Las Terrenas where he learned to play the game.

On this day, dressed in jeans, a crisp white T-shirt and dark Oakley sunglasses, he stands on the infield as a dozen or so local boys sneak peeks at him. From their view, it’s as if they’re looking at the sun - glancing then averting their eyes.

He remembers what it was like to be them and nods, smiling.

“It all starts here,” proclaims a sign pointing the way to the current site of the Royals Academy in Guerra.

That it has for a chosen few of the hundreds who’ve passed through the program, which the Royals initiated in 1989 but neglected before Moore took over in 2006 and invigorated the investment.

No one epitomizes the essential value of the enterprise more than Ventura, who was nurtured here for some 18 months before being hatched into the Arizona rookie league in 2010.

That phase of confined refinement and drilled structure was the springboard for Ventura’s stellar rookie season, punctuated by a mesmerizing performance in game six of the 2014 World Series.

Now, Ventura, 23, is a prime building block of the Royals’ future, their best candidate to take the mound on opening day and among the hardest-throwing starters in baseball.

Just as significantly to him, he also is an emerging face of the game in this baseball-mad country of 10 million that once again will produce 10 percent or more of opening-day MLB rosters and fill 25 percent of minor-league spots.

That profile in his homeland increased exponentially during game six - 48 hours after Ventura’s countryman and anointed future Cardinals star Oscar Taveras died in a car accident. Taveras later was determined to have been driving drunk in the crash that also killed his girlfriend here in the Dominican.

The night the Royals played the Giants, a nation fixed its sad gaze on Ventura, who had written “RIP O.T. #18” on his hat and similar words on his glove and shoes. Channeling the presence of his friend through seven shutout innings, Ventura served up a dose of comfort and pride to a legion of mourners.

The moment was all about the Royals, of course, but it also was about being Dominican - particularly in Las Terrenas and the surrounding region, where many were emotional as they watched on a large screen rigged up in the town center.

“I cried a lot,” said Santo Castillo, Ventura’s first coach.

Days later, hundreds, if not thousands, greeted Ventura at a toll booth on his way home.

Ventura is quick to smile as he considers all these reminders of the places and people who formed him: family and coaches and the friends who have looked out for him forever and now seem a bit like his entourage.

Men like Castillo, who is grateful that Ventura still visits regularly and gives generously to local churches.

And Orlando Sarante, who serves as Ventura’s trainer during the winter.

And Abel Padilla, the childhood friend long trusted by Baez to watch over Ventura when he’s back home. Padilla runs a bar teeming with Ventura memorabilia and drives a white Jeep Wrangler with “Ventura 30” painted on the driver’s-side door.

Who Ventura is and from where he comes are as inseparable as the sound of the ocean and the breeze that caresses him on the beach at Restaurant Luis. The open-air cafe, owned by another friend’s father, is Ventura’s favorite place to eat - and just be - when he’s home.

This is where he savors lobster fresh out of the water on a January day - and the first place he went when he came home in November, after the Royals’ exhilarating run through the playoffs.

As he chews thoughtfully and speaks of life in Las Terrenas, people look at him but don’t flock to him - with the exception of a visitor from Puerto Rico, who asked to have a picture taken with him.

“I don’t want go anywhere else, because these are the people who love me: They treat me like the normal Yordano,” Ventura says. “I want to live here for the rest of my life.”

To really know that, though, Ventura first had to traverse a rugged and unknown path out.

To get to his audition that day in 2008, he began with an approximately three-hour bus ride to the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo with Castillo, his boyhood coach.

Then he traveled some 25 miles on the back of one of the mopeds on which Dominicans routinely ride three or four at a time.

The last stretch of road to the site of the academy, then at a different location in El Toro, made for a blunt contrast to the splendor of mountain and ocean scenes that Ventura looked upon as he began his bus trip.

The views on either side of the unpaved, cratered road provide an agonizing, slow-motion glance at the squalor of a country in which more than a third of the population lives below the poverty line.

The houses here are little more than dilapidated shacks, accorded electricity only a few hours a day. Air conditioning is non-existent; it’s a middle-class privilege on this Caribbean island where it’s 90 degrees on a random winter day.

Laundry is done by hand outside. In a nearby field roam beasts so emaciated it’s hard to believe they are cows.

Malnourished children wander about . playing, nonetheless.

One day, on his way to work, Baez drove by here with a U.S. scout who’d never been to the Dominican.

The scout started crying.

“A lot of players,” Baez said as he navigated past, “come from places like this, yes sir.”

This sort of wretchedness was new to Ventura. Or it would have been if he’d been paying attention.

As he bumped along on the moped that day in 2008, he was oblivious to all around him.

His only thought: “I want to do a good job in order to sign a contract. . I just wanted to be a Royal.”

To begin a tour of his hometown, the Royals’ ace-in-waiting wants to meet up at a gas station adjacent to La Bomba Sports Bar, which bears a mural in his image among those of other Dominican baseball players.

It is overcast and raining lightly when he arrives, but his sunglasses remain on . as they do for most of the next five hours or so, with the exception of a brief time inside his childhood home.

Ventura is nothing but pleasant during the visit. But whether it’s simply his personality, a matter of the culture or the language barrier, it’s more showing than telling, more a look around than within. Unless noted otherwise, all of Ventura’s words in this story were translated.

Las Terrenas was founded as a fishing village and was once so unspoiled that Dominican native Rene Francisco, the Royals’ vice president for international operations (and The Star’s guide and translator on this trip), remembers camping on its empty beaches as a child.

Now it’s relatively overrun with tourists, many of whom are from Europe.

Riding in a car here is a little like being in the middle of a video game, with walls closing in as pedestrians, mopeds and dogs suddenly materialize before you.

“We have a feel for the flow,” Baez said, laughing, “or you’re going to crash. You have to be watching everywhere.”

The area still is known for tranquil waters and miles of undeveloped beaches . as is evident when Francisco has to weave between palm trees to follow Ventura to the ocean.

This is near where a young Ventura rode horses and snorkeled and swam. Swimming, he believes, is the root source of the arm strength in his shoulder.

The rise from the region of other big-leaguers such as Wily Peralta, Hanley Ramirez and Fernando Rodney once made Francisco joke that there must be something in the water.

Now, though, he believes Ventura just has a gift.

Whatever the case, this water remains the epicenter of his daily offseason workouts. If the current is tame, he swims 30 minutes. If it’s strong, he goes about 15. Then there’s the running in the sand.

“You see that little palm tree, a little farther than that?” Francisco says, pointing several hundred yards away. “That’s where he sprints in the sand, eight to 12 of them every day.”

Every other day, Ventura “warms up” by running eight to 10 sets of 146 stairs among lush greenery at an obscure spot, passed down as some mystical tradition among athletes in the area.

The area, of course, has poverty, too.

But it also apparently has something above that, if not quite what we’d see as middle class - such as the home Ventura grew up in with his mother, Marisol, and an older sister, Dory, who works as a tour guide for a local hotel.

It’s modest and small, yet bright and comfortable enough that you might wonder if it was purchased after he cashed in his first major-league paycheck, which is displayed on a wall along with numerous tokens of his achievements.

In fact, his mother said with a shrug, Yordano’s breakthrough really hasn’t changed the way they live.

And why would it? It’s not as if she had been counting on it.

“To be honest, I never thought that he was going to make it to the big leagues,” she said, smiling, as Francisco translated.

Yordano laughs at this from his mother, whose splendid traditional cooking and deep Christian faith he admires, and with whom he is in contact daily through text messages even when he’s in the States.

He is proud to quietly suggest she is living more comfortably now as a beneficiary of his $500,000 annual salary.

If she doubted the baseball future of the son who could never stop moving, well, he almost always seemed to think it possible.

Down a hallway adorned with family photos is a laminated wood plaque featuring 7-year-old Yordano, a Bible verse and images of Martinez - Ventura’s idol by the end of that school year and now a mentor.

On Jan. 6, during Ventura’s recent visit home, Martinez joined Juan Marichal as just the second Dominican elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“A day of pride for all Dominicans” Ventura wrote in Spanish on his Twitter account.

Ventura’s passion for baseball at least in part accounts for why he dropped out of school at age 14. By then, he already was thinking of a pro baseball career and was of the mind he wouldn’t make it in school.

Then a teacher talked to him rudely, he believed, in a way he’d never been addressed at home.

Just the moment he was waiting for: His schooling was over.

Ventura also had been conscious of making money for the family, apparently more so because of the absence of his father. He had moved to Germany for reasons that Ventura preferred not to expand on, saying only that it made him sad but that they still have a relationship.

So young Yordano worked at his grandfather’s hardware store and for a construction company. He drove a truck, mixed cement and lugged heavy blocks . increasing his incentive to seek a life in baseball and perhaps explaining further arm strength.

That throwing arm already had seemed “incredible” to Castillo when he saw him as an 8-year-old, though the coach didn’t move him from shortstop to pitcher until Ventura was about 13.

By then, Ventura’s aim had been honed through the Dominican street game “la plaquita,” an offshoot of cricket that typically features bent license plates as targets and rewards pitches whistled low.

Even as he toiled at his jobs, Ventura remained lasered in on baseball. The reality of the dream seemed to crystalize in 2006, when Castillo took a group to a tournament in Puerto Rico by overnight ferry.

“Ay, mi madre,” Ventura said, smiling at the memory of the churning ride.

The thought of the trip jarred loose some English from Ventura, who understands much but is uncomfortable speaking it.

Asked if the cabins had been crowded with, say, five players apiece, he laughed and said, “Five? Maybe 10!”

Undeterred by the cramped conditions and a bout of seasickness, he won every game he pitched over the few days there and was chosen MVP of the tournament.

Soon, Ventura would routinely be pitching against and overpowering much older players.

Soon, he would get the chance of a lifetime.

Even after apologizing for thinking he was a kid of 14, Baez was dubious as he perfunctorily told Ventura to put on his uniform and went with him to the bullpen.

Ventura already was jittery, knowing he had “get it right” to make the academy. This might be his only chance.

He anxiety increased when he saw standing by the plate what he called “a doll” - a dummy-like training aid named “Rafael” that was designed to mimic a batter.

Ventura made an instant impact. Just not the sort he’d meant to.

He thumped the fake batter in the head on his first two pitches.

“Boom. Boom - wow,” Baez said, laughing.

Once Ventura’s butterflies subsided, Baez saw something more than the damage to one of his “poor dummies.” There was this “whip in his arm,” Baez said, and “that fire he has in his eyes.”

This was enough for Baez to tell Francisco that he, too, needed to see this kid.

Francisco instantly was struck not just by Ventura’s heat and ability to control his secondary pitches but his “free and easy” flow of arm motion - a trait he considers almost uncoachable.

Knowing few might take a risk on someone his size, Ventura signed on sight for a mere $28,000 . even as Francisco was calling Moore.

“‘Dayton, I don’t want to compare anybody to a big leaguer who’s probably going to be a Hall of Famer, but he’s kind of built like Pedro (Martinez),’” Francisco remembers saying.

Not that he’d be Pedro - just that he was built like him.

“Now he’s totally different,” Francisco said. “He’s almost 200 pounds, and he’s a lot stronger than Pedro, the way he’s built now.”

To develop that strength and hone his focus, Ventura would spend the better part of 18 months at the academy, where the Royals convinced him it was better to stay even on weekends, when other young players were free to go home.

While that phase of confined refinement and nagging structure was the springboard for what’s come since, it wasn’t an easy time for Ventura.

“He was so important to us that we wanted to keep him close,” Baez said, smiling and adding, “It would make him angry.”

It wasn’t just because of whatever off-field behavior the Royals might be concerned about for a young man in his late teens . though that was part of it. How much trouble could anyone get in bunking with seven other guys in a room with a 10:30 curfew?

“He was like any teenager,” Baez said, “but we need to remember he grew up with no father.”

At the academy, Ventura demonstrated a competitiveness that at times consumed him and led to squabbles with teammates.

“No limit,” Baez recalled.

The Royals wanted to be sure he wasn’t throwing extra or playing on subpar fields where he could get hurt. They also wanted to make sure he stayed regimented in his workouts and diet as they tried to beef him up.

“His arm motion was fine, but his body was so weak,” said Baez, who now is something between a father figure and a guru to Ventura. “It was frail, so he was on a very strict pitch count. He wanted to be the best.

“But you see it sometimes in the big leagues, too, that he does crazy things and kind of overthrows the ball.”

With a laugh, he added, “But that’s being Yordano. That’s part of being Yordano.”

It still is.

To some, this fuels concern that his arm is destined to blow out. Baez just hopes that Ventura will learn to do what he can - nothing more, nothing less, because even that will be special.

By the time Ventura left the academy, Baez told him his goal shouldn’t be merely to become a big-league pitcher.

It was to be a Hall of Famer.

“Last season, that’s a start,” Baez said, smiling as they stood together in Ventura’s house. “Next step: Cy Young.”

Ventura made his big-league debut with three exhilarating starts in September 2013 and blossomed last year as a rookie, with a 14-10 record and 3.20 ERA.

But maybe the 2014 postseason said the most about who he has become.

It started dreadfully when he gave up a three-run homer, albeit in an unprecedented relief role two days after a start, in the Royals’ wild-card game against Oakland.

He cried afterward and was so despondent that he texted Francisco, “Please tell them not to lose confidence in me.”

What followed was a memorable run that included giving up just two runs in 121/3 innings in the World Series - highlighted by the game six pitched just two days after the death of his friend, Taveras.

In the dugout between innings that night, with the weight of a team and his homeland and a lost friend hovering over him, Ventura found solace and energy in looking at the homage to Taveras he’d scrawled on his glove.

“My mind flew to some other place, and I needed to come back to the reality and pressure of the game,” he said, adding, “Every time I saw the name (on the glove), it helped me.”

So much so that after the game, Ventura’s inscribed cap was immediately bound for the Hall of Fame.

Whether or not Ventura himself might one day follow, of course, is uncertain.

But he already is an impossible distance from the boy whose dream started only with faith, flourished with a furious will and overwhelmed one skeptic at a time . so who can say what limits he has now?


Information from: The Kansas City Star, https://www.kcstar.com

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