Joel Frias remembers the morning he heard the news about Yordano Ventura’s death. It was a Sunday, Jan. 22.
Frias received a phone call from his brother in New Jersey around 9 a.m.
“One of my friends died,” Frias heard him say, referring to Andy Marte. “They say there was another accident, and it looks like Ventura’s car.”
Frias got up and sent a text to a friend on the team, who later called to confirm the news. Ventura had been killed in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic. He was 25.
“I thought I was dreaming,” Frias said. “Everything is on social media, so I went and looked on Instagram, Twitter, and it was him. I saw the car. I saw the car and everything then. It was him.”
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Frias, who plays third base at Tabor College, glances at his phone.
“I even had a video with him,” he says as he scrolls, finds it and presses play.
In the video, Ventura is seen in a hotel room, celebrating after Kansas City won the World Series in 2015.
The Royals had defeated the New York Mets in five games to claim the title, and when Ventura and the team returned to Kansas City, he invited Frias and a handful of others to join him to celebrate.
“(We) spent time together,” Frias said. “Talked about a lot of things. What he’s been through and all that. People remember him as—I don’t know what would you call it—if he was cocky on the mound or whatever, but he was a great person. He was competitive. He believed in himself. How he started in the big league, that’s how he ended, because he was all in.”
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Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Frias said school and baseball were two separate entities.
“School doesn’t have anything to do with baseball,” he said. “If they see a kid that has talent and think he can get signed, they’ll take him out of school. He will practice baseball 24/7. You have to make a choice.”
With no financial aid available in the Dominican, Frias said most players do not have the chance to attend college. The pressures of making a living cause many to join the work force, or, if talent indicates, to pursue a professional contract.
For aspiring athletes, baseball provides hope for a ticket to a new life in the United States.
“Some people play baseball down there either to help their family or just to get out of the country, because once you get signed and then you do somewhat alright, then you get a visa to come (to the U.S.),” he said. “Here, there is more opportunity to achieve your goals. Dominican is my country—I love it—but it’s a tough country to live in.”
Frias and Ventura played ball on opposing teams as teenagers in the Dominican. Frias met the future Royals right-hander when his baseball team traveled to Ventura’s hometown of Las Terrenas to play. Frias was 13 or 14 years old at the time. Ventura was a few months older.
Even at that age, Frias said Ventura’s talent was evident.
“He always had a good arm, since he was little,” he said. “He used to be an infielder, too. He wasn’t a pitcher. But they made him a pitcher, and it worked out well for him. (He) always threw hard.”
The two lost touch after that, until their paths crossed again years later in Kansas City.
In the meantime, Frias came to Kansas City via New York at age 16, not speaking any English at the time. Not long after, the 17-year-old Ventura signed with the Royals organization, making his minor-league debut in 2009.
Frias attended his final two years of high school at Fort Osage, the school where his second cousin, Albert Pujols, attended and played ball. Frias played baseball, too, for Pujols’ former coach.
After graduating from Fort Osage in 2011, Frias took a year off, then enrolled at Hutchinson Community College in fall 2012. He spent three years on the baseball team there. He suffered a labral tear his freshman year, which required surgery. He returned to the field his second year but said he was still in pain, then came back for a third season only to see the field in a limited number of games.
With the hope of continuing his baseball career, Frias played summer ball in Newton, where he was named an All-American when the Rebels went to the NBC World Series.
Frias then came to Tabor. He played in 49 games for the Bluejays in 2016 and is back in Hillsboro for the 2017 season. He is majoring in sports management and anticipates being the first in his family to graduate from college this May.
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As Ventura moved up in the Royals organization, Frias was not unaware of his accomplishments. A good friend of Frias’ played on a minor league team with Ventura, so Frias knew of the Royals prospect’s rising success.
When Ventura arrived in Kansas City—he made his major league debut in September 2013—Frias reconnected with him.
“He came up to the big leagues, and he was staying with my friend at his house, and then I saw him,” Frias said. “He couldn’t remember me that well, but he knew. He knew he saw me around.”
Frias said he’d go to Kansas City to watch Ventura and the Royals play.
“I loved watching him pitch,” he said. “He just did it with a passion. He wasn’t one of those guys that was in there just for the money. He was there to win.”
Asked if he had a sense of what Ventura’s transition to the majors was like, Frias said the opportunity Ventura had to pitch was a gift.
“It was something he was proud of,” Frias said. “He worked hard for that. There are thousands and thousands of baseball players that wish to be in that spot, and he was one of the chosen ones. He was beyond happy and blessed to be in that position. A kid coming from nothing to something, having nothing to having it all.”
Frias said his favorite pitching memory was when Ventura took the mound in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series and paid tribute to Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras, who had been killed a few days earlier in a car accident in the Dominican Republic.
In a win or go home situation versus the Giants, Ventura threw seven scoreless innings, scattering three hits and five walks in the outing, while recording four strikeouts. Kansas City went on to win, 10-0, to force a Game 7.
“That was my favorite game,” Frias said.
Although the Royals lost in Game 7 that year, they returned to the national stage the following year, where Ventura was part of the team that won it all.
“He used to love what he did,” Frias said. “You could tell by the way he played. He was competitive. He believed in himself.
“Everybody’s dream is to make it to the World Series and win it, and he did. He was happy about that. I remember, when I went to celebrate with him, he showed me his ring—they won their league the year before and he showed it to me—and was like, ‘In February, we’re getting the World Series ring.’ The way he was telling it to me, it was one of the biggest things he wanted to accomplish in his life. Because not everybody gets to win the World Series.”
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Frias would talk periodically with Ventura via FaceTime, he said. The last time he saw him face to face was in late July 2016. The Royals were hosting the Angels, and Frias went up to Kansas City to watch.
The roots of a friendship were starting to take hold.
“This year now coming up, we were going to have more of a friendship,” Frias said. “Our friendship was growing. It was going to be fun, but God took him away.
“It was his time, I will say, because people say, ‘Oh, he wasn’t wearing a seat belt.’ I feel like when God says it’s time, it’s time. I asked God questions, like, ‘Why?’ ‘Why you took him?’ But you don’t try to put a question mark where God puts a period.”
Frias said he will remember Ventura most for his personality, a combination of humor and competitive fire.
“He was a funny guy,” Frias said. “You hang out with him and he’ll make you laugh. From the outside, you will say he was an a–hole, but he wasn’t like that. He was a great person. He was competitive. I’ll never forget that night that we hung out. You could see on his face how happy he was.”
The events of Jan. 22—still fresh in his mind—left Frias in confusion and shock. It appeared the young Royals star had his best days ahead of him.
“He was so young,” Frias said. “He was just now starting to be good—because he was good, but he didn’t have (his) head in the right place. He was a little too cocky, but he was getting better. He was taking it more to a professional level. He was going to be great.”