Coming off a 12-6 season with a 2.19 ERA and 0.98 WHIP, as well as Rookie of the Year honors in 2013, Jose Fernandez was a hot candidate to be the No. 1 pick in the I-75 League’s 2014 draft. Mike Wilson wanted Jose Fernandez to anchor his rebuilding Hickory franchise’s pitching staff, but he feared Fernandez wouldn’t last until his fourth overall pick.
Destin had that top pick, and Wilson dangled third baseman Evan Longoria, as well as picks No. 4 and 204, and Destin manager Mark Gergel agreed to surrender the overall No. 1 pick, plus No. 40 and No. 152.
But Wilson wasn’t done with scooping up young fireballers; with the 54th pick overall that year, he also drafted Yordano Ventura, who in only 15 innings in 2013 had dropped jaws with a fastball with wicked movement that was hitting 100 mph.
Hernandez’s injury struggles, as well as some unexpectedly poor performances from other expected rebuilding blocks like Wil Myers (taken No. 3 overall by Hickory in 2014), outfielder Marcell Ozuna (taken No. 40 overall by Hickory in 2014) and outfielder Gregory Polanco (No. 3 overall in 2015) stalled Hickory’s rebuilding effort, and Wilson bowed out of the league following the 2015 season.
With two other clubs dropping out of the league and three new clubs joining for 2016, both Fernandez and Ventura were exposed in the dispersal draft, and Dyersville manager Ryan Renbarger, after considering his options, decided on a long-term strategy, opting for youth in his selections and counting on a down-the-road payoff. After selecting A.J. Pollock and Troy Tulowitzki with his first two picks, Renbarger followed that up with two young arms that he hoped would be the rotation foundation for the next decade: Fernandez with his third pick, Ventura with his fourth.
Fernandez, as you no doubt are aware, was killed in a boating accident in Miami Sept. 25 at age 24. And on Sunday, Ventura, just 25, was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic.
While the loss of a player to a Strat team can’t compare to the emotions the Marlins felt over Fernandez or the Kansas City Royals over Ventura, Strat managers still build up a connection to their stars, rooting for them in real life so they’ll do well on their Strat teams.
“(I’m) really just at a loss for words,” said Renbarger after learning of the death of the second of his two young pitching stars in four months. “Both were passionate players, Yordano a little more feisty than JoFer, and both very talented and young, with promising careers.
“In the virtual Strat world, losing them is obviously a huge blow to the Treblemakers. I was hoping for Fernandez to be my No. 1 for years to come, and was waiting for Ventura to get command of that fastball and live up to the hype.”
And Wilson, who continues to follow the league through the website, said the Ventura news “really brings the reality of life and how fleeting it is….”
But Wilson, a longtime Royals fan, said he was more stunned by Fernandez’s death after having made the decision to pursue him with the No. 1 pick in 2014.
“I had committed to him after reading about his exercise regimen in a Sports Illustrated article,” Wilson recalled. “Just knew he was going to be the real deal. Sad, but I assumed that there had to be drugs/alcohol involved. After-midnight accidents never bode well. Ventura, well I was never sure if he could figure it out. How can you throw 100 mph consistently and not strike out tons of batters? Had a decent curveball .. but I don’t think his head was glued on right.”
Ventura struggled to an 11-12 record for K.C. in 2016 and served an eight-game suspension for throwing at Baltimore star Manny Machado.
The strange connections between tragedy and Hickory/Dyersville don’t end there. Another major leaguer who died, Andy Marte, is also a former Hickory Nut, Wilson pointed out. Marte, 33, died in a car accident in the Dominican Republic Sunday as well, unrelated to Ventura’s accident. “I think I drafted, or traded, for him when he was a supposed phenom back in the day,” Wilson said. Marte played for Hickory in 2006 and 2007.
Are Hickory and Dyersville players cursed? A.J. Pollock missed almost the entire 2016 season for the Arizona Diamondbacks with a broken elbow after being taken by Dyersville with the first overall pick in the 2015-16 dispersal draft. His former club? Hickory, having been acquired in a trade with Savannah.
But maybe not. Consider that Ozuna, taken by Hickory in the third round of that 2014 draft, was a teammate and good friend of Fernandez and was invited to be on the boat that tragic night in September. But Ozuna turned down the invitation, sparing his life in the accident that killed Fernandez and two others.
Ozuna is currently on West Atlanta’s roster.