The guy with the fastball tattoo
Remembering Royals flamethrower Yordano Ventura five years after his untimely death.
He was unfinished and raw, a work in progress like the ink that snaked along his arm.
The tattoo depicted a baseball followed by a trail of flames. The first time I met Yordano Ventura, in November 2014, he had a bandage atop some touch-up work done that day. He readily showed off the progress. He was proud and excited. Coming into his own.
A few weeks earlier, he'd pitched a masterpiece for the Royals in the World Series. Just a rookie, all of 23 years old, he took the hill with his team facing elimination and threw seven scoreless innings to hold off the Giants for one more game. The gritty performance was punctuated by the letters written on his hat: RIP OT #18 in honor of Oscar Tavares, a fellow countryman and future star in the making who'd died days earlier in a car crash. Tavares was 22 when he died.
Ventura would die in tragically similar circumstances five years ago today, when he was all of 25 years old.
Yordano was skinny and scrawny, but his arm was TNT, pure power, every bit as explosive as his tattoo would suggest.
He grew up wanting to be like Pedro Martinez.
During the time I spent with him, Yordano was using his arm not to throw, but to sign baseball cards for Topps, where my wife worked at the time. We met Ventura at a house in New York City and brought along boxes and boxes of cards.
Autograph signings are tedious, especially for younger players. Where a superstar might command $50 or $100 or more for each card they autograph -- and thus will typically autograph fewer cards at a time to keep costs in check -- rookies might only get $8 or $10 for every signature. They're cheaper. And as a result, they often end up signing lots and lots of autographs to fill out a product.
Which means boredom and hand cramps.
But players typically have good reason to sign all of their cards. The $10,000-$20,000 a young player might receive per signing is good supplemental income, especially for those who might have relatives they support or who are still establishing themselves.
For the person guiding the signing, you're expected to sort and arrange the cards, make sure the player is using the right pen, ensure the pen is working properly, that the ink is drying, and that the player is signing everything, including sleeves of clear stickers that can be affixed to cards in the future.
A lot of stacking and watching and waiting.
Athletes approach their signings in a variety of ways. Some are rude, some are indifferent, some are chatty, some are friendly.
I found Yordano to be respectful and warm. He, like a lot of other players acclimating themselves to baseball in the states, was still getting comfortable with his English (he kept working on it and would give interviews in English in later seasons).
The signing began in the afternoon and stretched into the evening. Mostly, he signed Topps High Tek cards that day, writing his looping signature in blue Sharpie ink.
The product is a callback to a set from the late 1990s that features lots of different foil and holographic designs. The cards he had to sign included parallels such as a Disco Diffractor (numbered to 50), Cloud Diffractor (numbered to 25), Black and White Diffractor (numbered to 15), a Blue Dots Diffractor (numbered to 5) and then a series of cards and printing plates numbered 1 of 1.
And so many basic cards to autograph. Eight hundred? A thousand?
He would laugh at things and offer small talk. During the lulls when there wasn't much to say, there was comfort and ease in the silence.
I became a Yordano Ventura fan that day, and given that I handled the cards as they were being autographed, I vowed to pick up a few of the signed High Tek cards after they were inserted into packs and pulled by collectors.
I was proud of Yordano the following season when he tied for the Royals' lead with 13 wins and helped the team win the World Series. A champion at age 24. Sure, there were some moments of immaturity along the way, headline-grabbing confrontations with stars like Mike Trout and brushbacks, but I appreciated his tenacity. If only he could learn to channel his competitiveness a little bit more ... he was still maturing. There was time.
And there was goodness there -- I'd seen it.
I was reminded of that early in 2016, when I tagged along with my wife to Arizona for spring training. She was doing social media work on photo day, when the players all pose for pictures that may be used for future cards. One of the teams we ended up visiting was Kansas City, the reigning champs, and there was my guy, Yordano Ventura, and as he was coming through to get his photo taken, he made sure to say hello -- he remembered us more than a year later.
I shook his hand and congratulated him on the World Series, and wished him luck.
Who could ever expect that he would be gone less than a year later?
I've spent the past five years continuing to build my Yordano Ventura collection, focusing mostly on the cards that connect me to the times I crossed paths with him. In the weeks following his death, 2017 Topps Heritage was released, and his card featured an image from his photo day shoot the year earlier. He’s posing, preparing to wind up. There’s his blue glove, a blue bracelet on his wrist, and a peek at some of his tattoos.
It was his final card.
I keep collecting those 2014 High Tek autos, too. I have about a dozen of them at this point, including the Disco and Cloud Diffractor parallels. I typically pick up copies whenever they pop up on eBay.
It makes me happy seeing the cards come full circle. They remind me of the guy who was quick with a smile, who lived fast and threw faster -- the guy with the fastball tattoo.