JUAN ADRIÁN, Dominican Republic
Ascending into the clouds, abruptly spiraling downward and weaving through cratered flood plains, the 30-mile road from San José de Ocoa to Juan Adrián is widely known to be treacherous.
A local will tell you that 50 people have died in the last year on the new second half of the route from Rancho Arriba, a number at which authorities scoff even while acknowledging the death toll rises routinely.
The passage is rife with every sort of caution sign. They plead with drivers to honk their horns moving into blind curves and implore them to slow down and get in low gear and turn lights on even by daylight and “Proteja su Vida” (protect your life) by wearing seat belts.
“It’s not a secret that it’s a dangerous road,” said Col. Diego Pesqueira of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, adding, “It’s a road people know they shouldn’t drive after dark.”
Yet on this unforgiving highway, largely unlit and shrouded in fog, here drove a heedless Yordano Ventura between approximately 3 and 5 a.m. on Jan. 22.
Following a festival in Ocoa with friends, the 25-year-old Royals pitcher took to a road he’d never driven before in the jacked-up Jeep, whose high suspension worried some who knew him.
Disdaining his seat belt as usual, he intermittently exchanged calls with his estranged wife, María del Pilar Sangiovanni.
According to a screenshot of her cellphone call log she provided to The Star, they last spoke at 4:23 a.m. before he hung up to search for a better GPS signal. He was lost, she said, on the way to her home in Constanza yet another 50 miles away.
Soon thereafter, he navigated the hairpin left turn at Arroyo Malo and steered through a deft right twist downhill before abruptly losing control of the Jeep.
Zig-zagging and over-correcting, police said, he skidded over rumble strips intended to provide traction and further alert drivers, plowed through a caution sign into a guardrail and flipped.
Pesquiera, a spokesperson for the agency investigating the accident, said Ventura died because air bags in the Jeep never deployed. Official police photos of the car that were viewed by The Star show an intact steering wheel.
The Jeep, detailed in Royal blue and embellished with “YVentura” in its front grille and headrests, wasn’t Ventura’s first choice for travel that night. He used it because he had been in a minor accident in his Cadillac SUV days before and because his more practical Toyota Corolla was out of gas, two friends said.
But the Jeep was the vehicle associated most with him. It was meant to make a statement about a young man who had demonstrated a certain flair for spectacle.
“Everyone knew whose Jeep it was when he drove it” in the Dominican, MC Customs of Miami wrote in publicity material after delivering it to Ventura between his signing of a five-year, $23 million contract extension in April 2015 and the Royals winning the 2015 World Series.
MC Customs, which declined comment for this story, in its literature would even call the Jeep a “good-luck charm.”
But its extravagance symbolized a dividing line in the arc of Ventura’s life.
“Life happened too fast for him,” said Victor Baez, who as director of the Royals Academy in the Dominican oversaw Ventura’s official tryout in 2008 and then nurtured him for 18 months at the academy. “He wasn’t prepared.”
While Ventura recently seemed to be emerging from a time of distress — he was in the best shape of his life — many close to him share the same lament:
Too much, too soon.
In the final year of his life, he was alienated from his mother, with whom he last spoke on Feb. 14, 2016, married a woman who was already married, and experienced a series of bizarre episodes involving Sangiovanni that would seem exaggerated in a telenovela.
One event, though, was more than mere drama.
In March 2016, Ventura was taken to a hospital in Arizona after overdosing on medication. Sangiovanni said he had attempted suicide, though some close to him are skeptical of that conclusion.
Whatever happened that day, Ventura’s personal life had become complicated for the young man from a remote Dominican resort town.
“I don’t think it was easy for him to get out of Las Terrenas and come into everything he accomplished,” said longtime friend Abel Padilla. “Not everyone can manage that type of pressure.”
Ventura expressed that burden soon after signing his breakout deal.
When he was home for the All-Star Break in 2015, Orlando Sarante remembers hearing his longtime friend — known to fellow Las Terrenas residents as Yafelín, not Yordano — yearn for the days when he was a poor teenager working for his grandfather’s hardware store and doing construction.
“‘I sometimes wish I was still driving around town in my grandpa’s truck,’” Sarante recently recalled him saying, “‘and that I wasn’t Yordano Ventura.’”
Someone who appeared to have it all, someone who thrived among his teammates and on the field, struggled to cope with some of the ramifications of his success.
The sorts of things that any other young adult might struggle with as he makes his way were amplified by his rapid rise from humble means to a stature in which many had a stake in his every move.
“It’s hard to talk about him, but here’s the thing: Yordano didn’t belong to us anymore,” said Ventura’s uncle, Rubén Hernández. “He belonged to the world.”
Who could he trust among all the new voices and faces and social-media personas throwing themselves at him?
“For our players,” Baez said, “it’s hard to judge why someone is getting close to them.”
Contrasting the serene sense of home he and his family demonstrated in January 2015 when The Star visited them in Las Terrenas, Ventura came to feel tugged and pulled and commodified in the months that followed.
In the process, he embraced others who those who knew him longest didn’t know well and believed sought to manipulate and take advantage of him.
“On Earth, there are no friends … All friends betray,” said Raúl Hernández, Ventura’s grandfather, not specifying the perceived offenses but referring to the new elements in his grandson’s life. “You can only count on family.”
To some of the newer people in his life, though, Ventura only was getting his wings.
“You were an eagle that left the nest because you couldn’t stand having to ask permission to fly or pay a toll …” Sobeida Felix, a friend who would refer to him as her own child, wrote in an Instagram post after his death. “He wanted love and someone who would hug him without expecting something from him in return. That’s the truth. …
“And here in Puerto Plata … there were people who offered him friendship without expecting anything in return.”
Nothing illustrates and embodies what Ventura had been contending with more than the presence in his life of Sangiovanni, 26, whom he married on Jan. 28, 2016 …
Despite the fact she was already married at the time.
She said the previous marriage was a business arrangement designed to allow a foreign student to study in the Dominican. She had already filed for divorce, she said, and had assumed the papers had gone through and that she was clear to marry Ventura.
“I filed (for divorce) in November and we got married in January,” she said. “The case closed after I married Yordano, about a month and a half later.”
Although the wedding was in Ventura’s home in Las Terrenas, no immediate family members attended in the wake of tensions aroused by a relationship that many who knew Ventura intimately were suspicious of from the start.
“To me, she’s at fault for everything. She was the one who distanced him from me and the rest of the family,” Ventura’s mother, Marisol, said through a flow of constant tears Wednesday in Las Terrenas. “She lied to him, told him things that weren’t true.
“After she came into his life, I never heard from him again.”
In response to that assertion, Sangiovanni noted the couple had separated last July and added, “Had it been my fault, Yordano would have started talking to his family in July.”
The relationship was convoluted from the moment Ventura and Sangiovanni connected on social media.
Sangiovanni began communicating with Ventura on Instagram in August 2015, days after a Twitter spat between Ventura and Toronto Blue Jays outfielder José Bautista, whom Sangiovanni said she used to date. Ventura and Sangiovanni met in person a few months later, when the Blue Jays visited Kansas City for the American League Championship Series.
Sangiovanni said Bautista was a family friend from years before, when he and her older brother played baseball together in the Dominican. She said she came to Kansas City with her family in October 2015 to watch Bautista and the Blue Jays play the Royals.
“When he came out to see me, he said, ‘I imagined you this way, but you’re prettier in person,’” Sangiovanni recalled. “And I told him, ‘I imagined you a different way but you’re way uglier.’ Then he asked if I was leaving town the next day, which I was. And he asked me to stay.
“I was supposed to go back to the Dominican with my family, but he insisted I stick around ... I was supposed to be in town seven days. By day 21, that’s when I realized I had missed my flight ... He said, ‘Well, you were leaving, but you’re not leaving now.’”
Five days after the wedding, Sangiovanni said, she suffered a miscarriage of twins she’d been pregnant with by Ventura — who had a 3-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.
Soon they were engulfed in chaos.
From Ventura’s home in Surprise, Ariz., six weeks later — March 15, 2016 — Sangiovanni called 911 to report a threat to Ventura.
According to a Surprise Police Department incident report obtained by The Star, she told police that two men she believed were from Puerto Rico and Colombia had come to Ventura’s door earlier seeking Ventura.
Per her statement to police, they told her to leave because they were going to kill him.
The two men left, she told police, but she then “heard numerous gunshots come from outside.”
When Ventura returned home, she told him what happened, leaving Ventura upset, the report said, because he believed her father was going to have him killed in the wake of recent arguments Ventura apparently had with her.
“Both M. Ventura and Y. Ventura stated they both believe M. Ventura’s father is capable of having Y. Ventura killed,” the reporting officer wrote. “I was advised that M. Ventura’s father is close family friends with the president of the Dominican Republic and because of this relationship he is able to have people killed.”
Asked Friday about what that relationship might be, Sangiovanni said her uncle, José Hidalgo Díaz, is a political activist in her hometown of Constanza. His Twitter profile lists his affiliation with Partido de Liberación Dominicana, the political party to which Dominican president Danilo Medina belongs.
Police reported that Ventura was distraught and crying on his bed during the interview.
Their investigation found no shell casings outside the home, and neighbors officers spoke with said they heard no gunshots. Sgt. Norm Owens of the Surprise Police Department told The Star that his officers were not able to substantiate the reported threat.
Even so, Major League Baseball and the Royals were alerted. Surprise Police said the Royals sent a liaison who works with Dominican players to stay with Ventura as they tried to sort out the situation.
As a precaution, police did follow-up work for several days — including a “welfare check” at Ventura’s residence on March 19.
That same day, Sangiovanni on Instagram posted an ode to her father, José Miguel Sangiovanni.
“#MissingYouDaddy #TeAmoJoseMiguelSangiovanni I wish God in an oversight made you eternal daddy!” she wrote in text attached to a photo of her father puckering up to her.
She told The Star that she later learned her father had only intended to scare Ventura by sending the two men. She eventually shared that information with Ventura, but it is unclear if she informed police.
Ventura did not travel with the Royals on a trip days later to San Antonio and was said to have flu-like symptoms. He did not pitch again in a game until March 24.
Sometime in between, Ventura spent a few days in an area hospital. Sangiovanni said he had attempted suicide by ingesting at least 10 Benadryl pills and four doses of another medication and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
Citing federal patient-privacy regulations, the Royals declined comment.
About a month after the incidents in Surprise, Sangiovanni alleged Ventura was the target of a second threat back in Kansas City.
Someone — police never identified a suspect — vandalized Ventura’s Toyota 4Runner in the parking garage of his apartment complex on Madison Avenue near the Country Club Plaza.
A Kansas City Police incident report states that officers observed flattened tires, ripped interior consoles, a broken display monitor in the dash and the message “Volvemos Por Ti” scratched into the front passenger window.
Translation: “We will be back for you.”
It remains unclear who did it. Sangiovanni told police she discovered the damage about 11 p.m. on April 16, when she went down to the garage where she had left the 4Runner unlocked two days earlier.
After seeing the damage, Sangiovanni said she called Royals officials, who called police. A detective checked for surveillance video but found none.
Two days later, the case was closed because Ventura declined to prosecute, according to Sgt. Kari Thompson, a Kansas City Police spokeswoman.
Police said there was no indication in the case file that investigators in Kansas City knew of alleged incident in Surprise. The Royals alerted MLB security about both matters. No proof of a credible threat was found.
Although privacy laws prevent the Royals from speaking specifically about what they did to help Ventura, they learned of the two threats and utilized their off-field resources and support system to try to help him.
“I’m at complete peace with everything that we did to support Yordano on the field and off the field,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “And in those two circumstances, we informed Major League Baseball security and Royals security immediately, and the appropriate steps were taken to support and to counsel and to protect Yordano.”
As a child, the only thing Ventura really desired was to work alongside his grandfather.
Raúl Hernández opened a hardware store in Las Terrenas in 1995, and as soon as Ventura was able, he was outside hefting concrete blocks onto the flatbed of a Daihatsu delivery truck.
He’d watched his grandfather peel out of the gravel lot often enough by then that he was driving it as a 9-year-old.
“Ever since he was a little boy,” Hernández said, “he was very motivated.”
Strewn throughout the tales of Ventura’s childhood is that singular theme: The only person who could tell Yordano Ventura what he could or could not do was Ventura himself.
As a 14-year-old, Ventura dropped out of school, in part because of an issue with a teacher he felt treated him rudely and in part to help his mother financially after his father left and moved to Germany.
Ventura was 17 when the Royals signed him for $28,000 following a tryout at their academy, and he spent an unusually long 18 months there as the Royals sought to lend more structure and discipline to a boy prone to doing everything at once very fast.
He arrived in Arizona for rookie ball in 2010 and moved steadily through the minors before feeling stalled at the Royals’ Class AAA affiliate in Omaha and calling Marisol in anger and sadness.
Within seconds of hanging up, he texted her a photo of his face, two big tears on his cheeks.
Not long after, Hernández got a phone call from Ventura that started the same way.
He said he was leaving, packing his bags.
But this time it was for the majors, where he made his debut on Sept. 17, 2013, against Cleveland, giving up one run in 5 1/3 innings to hint at a bright future ahead.
Just over a year later, Ventura was called on to pitch Game 6 of the World Series. The Royals’ season was on the line just days after the death in a drunk-driving wreck of his countryman and friend Oscar Taveras and Taveras’ girlfriend.
“It was incredible to see the kid who arrived in raggedy clothes, skinny as can be … transform into someone who was on the verge of pitching a decisive Game 6 of the World Series and wearing an elegant Gucci suit, so self-assured,” Baez said. “That’s unforgettable.”
With an homage to Taveras visible on his cap, Ventura’s performance in the Royals’ 10-0 victory became his mother’s proudest moment.
“I never thought I’d see him in the big leagues, pitching like a man,” she said. “He had the mind of a child, but he pitched like a man.”
To any observer, the scene was similarly joyous when Ventura signed his contract extension just days before pitching for the Royals on opening day in 2015.
Behind the scenes, though, his mother already was worried by what she perceived as a change in his demeanor.
“As soon as I arrived for the signing (of the contract), I could tell something was different, that money was starting to change him,” she said. “And I told him, ‘Don’t let yourself be driven by money.’
“He said, ‘No, no,’ he wouldn’t. But he did.”
Many blamed the contract for what came next.
Despite a belief within the organization that Game 6 had proved his poise, for weeks Ventura presented high drama nearly every time he pitched.
He acted out at opponents for having the temerity to hit the ball off him, or be hit by his pitches, and went from being known for competitiveness to coming unhinged.
It would be rationalized as Ventura feeling he had to earn his contract or his place as the Royals’ ace. But Baez offered another perspective.
What really was happening, he said, was that after generally keeping a lower profile on the field as a rookie in 2014, Ventura now felt he could assert his true self — full of bravado and determined to seize command of the plate.
The problem, Baez said, is that Ventura wasn’t mature enough to know how to harness his own energy and often overreacted to his own miscues.
Despite being sent down to Omaha in late July, Ventura never left Kansas City thanks to an injury to Jason Vargas just before he was to depart. Ventura made the most of this second chance, going 10-3 the rest of the regular season and helping the Royals win the World Series.
After the season, he returned to Las Terrenas and rode on a truck in a parade held in his honor.
“You can imagine what he was like on that float,” said Migúel Gómez, one of Ventura’s youth coaches. “He was excited. He drove down the whole street, greeting and waving at people. It was a beautiful moment.”
It was a moment that belied Ventura’s changing relationship with Las Terrenas. As he became closer with Sangiovanni, he also spent more time with friends around the Dominican instead of with his family.
Rather than driving into town in his custom Jeep, his friend Sarante said, Ventura would arrive in modest cars and “hole up in his house with his friends and never really come out.”
Between Ventura’s apparent breakaway and enchantment with his social life, Padilla believes Ventura at least temporarily lost his edge for baseball leading into the 2016 season.
“He only started preparing for 2016 a month before spring training; that’s not how it works,” Padilla said. “You need to start 10 weeks out.”
Perhaps one of the most anguishing aspects of Ventura’s death is that despite all this confusion, by several accounts he had enjoyed a fresh start in the last few months.
His relationship with Sangiovanni had crumbled by mid-2016, she acknowledged, though she said they were seeking to reconcile.
In his last known interview, given to multiple media outlets in Puerto Plata in late October, Ventura said he was single.
Though never reconciling with his mother, he had frequently seen his grandfather as he returned more regularly to Las Terrenas this offseason.
He also had dedicated himself to the game with a renewed zeal by taking a residence near Santo Domingo and working out with Baez and others at the Royals Academy. He was excited to represent his country in the World Baseball Classic, Baez said, with a Cy Young Award bid and the chase for another World Series title at the forefront of his mind.
“It made sense,” Padilla said. “He could be calm; he could be focused on what he had to do. He had work to do.”
Or as Baez put it, he “wanted to be peaceful” and have some distance to just focus on training and not having “to appease everyone.”
Moreover, Ventura all along invested in Las Terrenas, whether it was ongoing contributions to his childhood church or youth baseball programs.
Against the advice of some, Ventura even intervened in the impending shutdown of his grandfather’s business after two decades of serving the town.
With the operation in financial peril, Ventura bought the family business.
He outfitted it with three newer-model Daihatsu trucks, slapped a decal with the initials YVH — his family name, Yordano Ventura Hernández — on the front of the store and made sure Las Terrenas continued to have his family’s support.
“He did a lot with us in very little time,” said his grandfather, choking back tears. “The biggest thing was when we sold him the store. … He just helped me so much, in such little time together.”
Yet as she thought about her son last week, Marisol grieved not just his death but the distance that separated them at the end of his life.
She thought he’d have time to mature and that he’d come back home and they’d make up.
“I never saw him again, except for when they brought him back dead,” she said. “Even when he lived with me, he would never say goodbye. He’d say, ‘See you later.’ He hated saying goodbye.”
Five days before Ventura’s death, a longtime Royals scout had seen him in the Dominican and suggested he go out to Arizona early for spring training.
But Ventura was in a groove working out at the academy, so much so that Baez beamed as he remembered one of his last sessions.
In the modest dining room of the academy, a radiant Ventura told Baez, “I’m laughing at the way I feel; I never felt I was in such great shape.”
As Baez spoke in the lobby of the academy, he glanced outside and thought of playing catch with Ventura.
“It’s really not that hard to keep the happy memories at the forefront of my mind,” Baez said, smiling.
And that was how Baez remembered seeing Ventura on Jan. 21 after he finished a Saturday workout, headed out into his weekend and said, “See you Monday.”
Photos and videos from the festival in Ocoa show Ventura enjoying the revelry around the town square before embarking on the drive that Sangiovanni said she had urged him not to make.
The site where his drive ended now bears a small memorial in his honor.
What compelled him to leave in the middle of the night to drive a perilous road he’d never been on before may never be known — a notion that further agonizes the family.
“From every angle,” Ventura’s grandfather said, “there’s something weird about this.”
But maybe there were some answers in what Marisol told a group of young ballplayers at a visitation the day after her son died.
When you’re young, she warned, you think you’re indestructible.
“One day he told me, ‘No matter what you tell me, if I say I’m going out, I’m going out even if I break my neck,’” she told those gathered around his coffin. “I’m not telling you this so you can follow his example. ... You’re young. You’re still children.
“You don’t know what path your life is going to take.”
The Star’s Rustin Dodd and Ian Cummings contributed to this report.