A year after his death, Yordano Ventura’s unsettled affairs still linger
The grave of late Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura rests a few hundred feet from the seashore.
Everyone in this town on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic seems to know its location. Wander through the iron gates onto the sandy terrain and gently sidestep hundreds of above-ground tombs and free-standing crucifixes until you come to the northwest corner of the cemetery.
Ventura is buried in a concrete vault, tombs stacked three-by-two, roughly 5 feet high. His is painted royal blue, its vivid design standing apart in this crowded beachfront graveyard, where catacombs are weather-beaten and simply marked.
One year after Ventura died in a car crash in the mountainous interior of his home island, the burial site’s marble inscription is padlocked and occluded by iron bars, out of reach.
Fitting, perhaps, because for all the serenity that surrounds his final resting place there is an equal amount of chaos enveloping Ventura’s survivors: three different groups of people with overlapping interests, none of which are talking to each other.
Ventura’s 4-year-old daughter and her mother in America. Ventura’s mother, grandparents and relatives in his hometown. And Ventura’s wife, whose marriage to him is being challenged.
Their world, which shattered upon his death, has been further haunted by unresolved affairs.
Ventura left behind no will, and a settlement on what is left of his five-year, $23 million contract with the Royals has not been reached. Previous reports stated the contract payout would hinge on a toxicology report, which was never made public.
One person close to Ventura said he believed the report had to be positive based on a conversation with one of the pitcher’s friends. But another friend of Ventura told The Star he was with the pitcher in the hours leading up to the wreck and that he was not drinking.
“But he wasn’t himself that night,” the friend said.
While Marisol Hernández, Ventura’s mother, blamed her son’s wife for his death, Hernández remained close with her granddaughter’s mother, Ángela Martínez, who stood beside her during the funeral. But Hernández’s communication with her granddaughter has since been cut off.
“She used to talk to her every day,” said Raúl Hernández, Ventura’s grandfather. “That was all she had left.”
Still, Martínez has continued to serve as a guardian of Ventura’s memory, making arrangements to protect his grave from vandals and sending friends to clean up the site after hurricanes swept through the Caribbean.
Another piece of Ventura’s legacy is the stadium in the center of town where he learned to pitch and where he was eulogized. The Royals will remodel the ballpark and dedicate it in his name, hoping to inspire a new generation of ballplayers.
One of them is Ventura’s young cousin, a 13-year-old left-handed pitcher who’s chasing a major-league dream of his own.
Dubbed “the next Yordano Ventura,” Fabián Hernández had already learned from Ventura how to throw a curveball. Fabián might have continued to learn from a pitcher who made it out of this fishing village to start in two World Series.
Instead, Fabián is taught by his family and coach what not to do, reminded of how his cousin, who lived life too fast, died.
Ventura was known to shun goodbyes. He disdained talking about the future, too. When he died, it did not come as a shock to his lawyers that he had not made time to write a will.
But from the moment Ventura signed his contract extension in 2015, he made one thing clear to his management team: His daughter would be priority No. 1 if anything happened to him. He considered her the best part of his life, the most pure person in it.
Ventura still looked after his family in Las Terrenas. He bailed out his grandfather from his failing hardware store with hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ventura surprised his mother with a Toyota Rav4, the car she had always wanted. When an aunt asked for help fixing her house, he sent sheets of zinc to repair the roof.
Until Ventura married a Dominican woman named María del Pilar Sangiovanni in early 2016, forsaking the objections of relatives and close friends and widening a rift between Ventura and his mother. Soon after the marriage, Ventura was in the hospital because Sangiovanni said he attempted suicide. Days before, Sangiovanni called police to their home in Arizona, saying her father had sent men there to kill her husband. Ventura appeared upset when police arrived because he believed the threat was real.
Ventura was driving to see Sangiovanni when he was ejected from his souped-up Jeep and crushed by its weight in the early hours of Jan. 22, 2017. Ventura had left a festival in San José de Ocoa, where his friend said Ventura was so consumed by a cellphone conversation with Sangiovanni that he was hardly partaking in the festivities. Ventura asked on multiple occasions what was the best route to take to Constanza, then waited until everyone went to bed to leave.
The couple had been separated for months. Lawyers sent divorce papers to both parties. But Ventura, Sangiovanni said, wanted to attempt reconciliation.
“If he’d been wise he would have left her sooner,” said Olga Hernández, Ventura’s grandmother. “Because he knew that there was no future there. But he didn’t think that way. He worshiped that woman like she was his God, his everything.”
Sangiovanni did not respond to a text message from The Star seeking comment.
Unable to reconcile with him before he died because of his relationship with Sangiovanni, Ventura’s mother has few tangible things to remember the final years of her son. The only living tie to Ventura, his daughter, was stripped from her in the aftermath of her son’s death.
The reasons are unclear.
“What can you blame Yordano’s mom for?” Olga said. “She hasn’t done anything to her.”
Martínez, through an intermediary, said she did not want to comment for this story because of concerns about her child’s privacy and safety.
Regardless of the current strain in the relationship, Martínez has put effort into making sure Ventura isn’t erased from their daughter’s vernacular.
Perturbed by the original state of Ventura’s grave, Martínez arranged for the marble tombstone to be installed. A black-and-white image of Ventura is etched on the front and long green stems with red-orange blossoms have been threaded through the gate. The marker reads:
We will always love you
Your daughter … and Angela
Rest in peace, love
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Phillipians 4:13
Neither Marisol Hernández nor Sangiovanni are mentioned.
The legality of Ventura’s marriage — Sangiovanni was still legally wed to someone else when she and Ventura married in 2016 — is being contested in court as Major League Baseball works to determine a payout on the remaining $20.25 million of his contract. An MLB official declined to comment on the contract.
There is lingering concern that failure to annul the marriage could give Sangiovanni claim to Ventura’s belongings.
Sangiovanni possesses Ventura’s 2015 World Series championship ring. She told someone familiar with the situation that she paid $1 million Dominican pesos (about $20,000 in today’s economy) to retrieve it after receiving a ransom note in a Facebook message. In a recording of a conversation heard by The Star, she told a friend, “I just wanted to get the ring because of what it meant to Yordano, to us. It was a symbol of lots of effort, lots of sacrifice.”
Ventura’s mother also clings to a piece of memorabilia. A life-sized portrait of her son, in his Royals uniform, is propped up in her dining room. She often eats at the table, as though her son’s image is enough to keep her company. When her parents told her they were haunted by the realistic detail of the image — even the eyebrows are perfect, Raúl Hernández said — Marisol waved them off.
“It looks just like him. You look at it and it’s like he’s a spitting image, alive,” Raúl Hernández said. “Every angle you look at it from, he’s right in front of you. I don’t know how she has it in the house.”
Marisol Hernández was unavailable to comment, bedridden because of an illness.
Other members of Ventura’s family also began to fall ill as the one-year anniversary, on Monday, of Ventura’s death approached. Both grandparents were overcoming colds when The Star visited them on the week prior to the anniversary. His sister caught a stomach bug.
“Just these days alone, knowing it’ll be a year. Every month, on the 22nd, I just, my God,” Olga said, trailing off to dry a tear with a scarf.
“I can’t get that child out of my head. The whole year, it’s been that way.”
Ventura had also distanced himself from others in his hometown after the 2016 season, including childhood friend Orlando Sarante. But Sarante was confident Ventura would come back once he sorted out his affairs.
“This was the year we would all see the best Yordano Ventura,” Sarante said. “When he came back and reunited with his family and all his people, he was going to be the same as before. He was going to be the best pitcher in the major leagues. There weren’t going to be any more problems.”
A happy ending never manifested.
The house Ventura bought, located outside the center of town, is uninhabited, its gates locked.
A pile of trash bags sits on the driveway beside an overgrown lawn. Debris stains the pathways, and paint peels off the outer walls. Weeds have wrapped around a weathered white plastic chair left near the front door.
Last year, the property teemed with relatives, friends and teammates who traveled to Las Terrenas for Ventura’s burial.
Young ballplayers wearing Royals blue warm up inside the municipal stadium, the first stop on the funeral procession that took Ventura’s casket to the mound where he had learned to pitch.
Perched atop their heads are KC-emblazoned caps so new they sport price tags and New Era stickers.
Where there was once a dearth of Royals paraphernalia in Las Terrenas, there is an abundance of gear a year after Ventura’s death, some of it donated by the Royals themselves when minor-leaguers visited Ventura’s family, paid respects at his grave and hosted a baseball clinic last weekend.
Others wore Royals gear Ventura handed down to them when he returned to this field after he reached the big leagues. Many of the children remember playing catch, joking and roughhousing with him.
Now his presence looms 300 feet from home plate, where the concrete center-field wall bears a black ACE 30 mural.
“I’m sad he’s not here to help a lot of people,” Sarante said. “To help the kids too. He was a role model. … That’s what we really wanted from him. That he’d give back to his hometown.”
So the Royals are doing it on his behalf.
With money from the ACE 30 Fund — so far Royals Charities has raised $70,000 — the Royals will remodel the dilapidated stadium. There is standing water in the patchy grass, cracks in the outfield wall and weeds curling through the chain-link fences.
Among the Royals’ plans: a bullpen tunnel with cages for batters and pitchers, a repaired field, fresh paint and nets.
Upon completion, the renovated stadium will bear Ventura’s name.
“I don’t want to exaggerate, but I don’t think people heard about Las Terrenas a lot before Yordano,” said Victor Báez, longtime field coordinator at the Royals’ Dominican Academy in Guerra. “That town became better known because of him.
“We want Yordano’s legacy to live on in Las Terrenas and the stadium.”
Ventura’s influence extends farther south, too.
In the coastal town of Puerto Plata, ballplayers for Liga Bernardo Perez still wear uniforms he had made for them last winter. They say “Y. Ventura” on the back. Ventura donated boxes of baseballs to the league, like he did for Liga Kelly, the league he played in as a child in Las Terrenas.
Near the Royals’ academy in Guerra, Ventura accompanied Royals Charities and a group of prospects on the organization’s annual cultural trip to the unkempt neighborhood field in a poor community. He announced to Mata de Palmas on Jan. 11, 2017, 11 days before his death, that the Royals would donate $15,000 and help put the baseball field in playing condition.
A year later, the Royals and a new group of prospects visited the site to finish what Ventura started. Concrete outfield walls had been erected where overgrown weeds once served as boundaries, dugouts were built and a fresh coat of powder blue paint was applied to the existing backstop. An ACE 30 logo was also painted on the structure.
“To have this field there that he helped plant the seed for is pretty touching,” said Ben Aken, vice president of community relations for Royals Charities.
When The Star visited, young children were riding bicycles across a well-manicured infield, doing cartwheels on grass made lush by rains and flying kites in what is now a small enclosed stadium.
One child who frequented the field before its renovation said he and his friends had to play on weeds. Baseball games were hard to organize.
“I want to put it in Yordano Ventura’s name,” said Evaristo González, a communications specialist for the town.
Yordano Ventura inherited his talent from his father’s side — no one from his mother’s family had played baseball.
“Yordano made me bother with it,” Raúl Hernández said.
For all the pain, all the things unresolved, Ventura’s family hasn’t given up on baseball. Fabián is the manifestation of the connection they have to the game.
He’s already wielded the craft well. Raúl laughed at a recent memory of Fabián pitching in a youth league outing. Fabián shut out the opponent in a 16-0 walloping with a fastball that still hasn’t been measured on a radar gun and a curveball Fabián said he doesn’t throw as well as Ventura.
“He has the genes,” said Báez, who joined the Royals minor-leaguers in Las Terrenas last week. “We’ll see what time says. But baseball is played there a lot. If he can continue that and he can go to school, if he prepares himself, who knows?”
A unabashed kid, Fabián is the sort to admit he overslept and missed school the morning he was interviewed for this story. He can rattle off the same list of warnings — don’t let money influence you; your family members are your only real friends; be wary of women who come into your life after you find fortune — warnings that family members tried to impart to Ventura.
When teased for hesitating to answer a question about his fledgling baseball career, he waved his friend off and shot him a side-eyed glare.
“Embarrassed about what? Come on, now,” he said, scoffing. Then Fabián peeled off into a youthful giggle.
They teasingly call him prospecto, or prospect.
He is a near-perfect mirror image of Ventura.
His leg swings forward like a pendulum when he releases a pitch. His left forearm shoots up perpendicular to the ground. A hearty pop sounds in his coach’s glove.
The embellishments are textbook Yordano Ventura. The only difference is he’s a lefty — and Ventura is no longer here to guide him.
“He has a good head on his shoulders,” said Sarante, who has coached Fabián for years. “We pray to God that he stays that way and doesn’t go down the wrong path.”
One year after his famous cousin’s death, that is the only hope that remains.