The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

Adalberto Mondesi has been forecast for greatness since he made his MLB debut in the World Series, and while injuries and tragedy have delayed his emergence, his talent screams his time is coming.
photo of Scott MillerScott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistAugust 21, 2020

Patience. It is a virtue, but it can also be a Royal pain in the neck. Just ask the baseball fans in Kansas City, who have been wondering just when, oh when, will Adalberto Mondesi finally barrel up into the rocket-fueled, switch-hitting, game-changing, Gold Gloved, Silver Sluggered, fence-busting superstar his skills, and his heritage, have long suggested he'll become.

Royals fans have been waiting since 2015, when the kid with the soft voice and warm smile affectionately known as Mondi became the first player ever to make his major league debut in a World Series game.

Baseball fans have been waiting since they first learned of him as a legacy kid, a guy once known as Raul Mondesi Jr., the son of the former All-Star and Rookie of the Year who smashed 271 home runs over 13 major league seasons.

Teammates have been waiting ever since they first saw this lanky blur flash his five-tool skills on the back fields of spring training when Baseball America tabbed him as the organization's top prospect in both 2015 and 2016. Since back when Kansas City leadoff man Whit Merrifield led the American League in stolen bases in both 2017 and 2018 and, after that second title, conceded it likely would be the end of that run, figuring his up-and-coming teammate would swipe that mantle.

"If Mondesi stays healthy and the game situations are right, he'll steal 80 easy," Merrifield told B/R this spring before the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shuttered the game. "He's that fast."

If and when. They are words that Mondesi is working daily to outrun in this shortened season when the world is different and everything is uncertain. But in a strange way, just maybe the odd feel of all of it will give him that final boost.

See, Mondesi, still just 25, has awakened to a jarringly changed world and numbing uncertainty on far more mornings than anybody his age ever should.

On his left wrist, he wears a black band that reads ACE 30 and is never removed. It is in memory of his dear, departed friend and onetime upcoming Kansas City ace Yordano Ventura, who died in a heartbreaking automobile crash in their native Dominican Republic in January 2017. The two were roommates, best friends, brothers. Mondesi still isn't fully over losing Ventura.

On his uniform, he wears the name Mondesi, though before the 2018 season, instead of Raul Jr., he began going by the first name "Adalberto." Publicly, he says, that's the name everyone knows him by at home in the Dominican, anyway. But it also appears to be a move designed to distance himself from his father, who, a few months earlier, had been sentenced to eight years in prison and fined 60 million pesos (approximately $1.25 million U.S. at the time) for embezzlement and corruption as mayor of San Cristobal, a town roughly 15 miles west of Santo Domingo.

Despite some early separation and the public embarrassment his father's arrest caused the family, Adalberto says his father regularly watches the Royals and that: "I talk to my dad every day. He tells me to keep working hard."

On his back he wore a big coat last winter, the result of remaining in Kansas City to rehabilitate his left shoulder following surgery in September. The injury wiped out more than a month of his long-awaited first full season in the majors.

"He was hurt physically, but he was hurt emotionally too," Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore says. "He was visibly wounded. He wanted to be out there playing. He's worked extremely hard to get back."

His comeback was almost to the finish line this spring when he was scheduled to appear in his first Cactus League game Friday, March 13, but he never made it: Baseball and much of the country closed shop on Thursday, March 12, because of the pandemic, and Mondesi traveled home to the Dominican and continued his work.

Though he struck out against Noah Syndergaard, Adalberto Mondesi still gets excited at the thought of his at-bat in the 2015 World Series.
Though he struck out against Noah Syndergaard, Adalberto Mondesi still gets excited at the thought of his at-bat in the 2015 World Series.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

"To lose patience is to lose the battle," Mahatma Gandhi once said.

The Royals, and Mondesi, are determined not to lose this battle.

Ice-covered windowsills. Snowy roads. Mondesi had heard all the stories, and one look outside his Kansas City home last winter confirmed that, indeed, he was so far from his native Dominican Republic that he couldn't even reach it with a perfect relay throw.

Winter freeze or no, he knew he couldn't go home. His shoulder needed too much work during rehabilitation, which meant spending hours each day under the care of Royals head athletic trainer Nick Kenney, team physical therapist Jeff Blum and strength and conditioning coach Ryan Stoneburg.

"Everybody went home for vacation," Mondesi says. "I wanted to go home with my family. But what I think is, [baseball] is what I love, and you have to put that first.

"It was my only option, to stay here and work and to come back stronger. I think it was the right thing for me to do."

Outrageous talent can be fleeting to those who fail to properly tend to their gifts. And Mondesi's are immense. They are enough to draw natural comparisons to another AL Central shortstop, one who, at 26, already is a four-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glover and Silver Slugger award winner and who darn near led the Cleveland Indians to a World Series title in 2016 before losing an epic Game 7 to the Chicago Cubs.

"Francisco Lindor with some speed," Merrifield says. "I think Lindor at a younger age had a better grasp on a consistent approach. But I think Mondi's tools are as good if not better than Lindor's.

"He's faster than Lindor, and he can probably hit the ball further. I mean, Lindor is one of the best defensive shortstops in the American League, but Mondi's right there with him. I think that's a good comparison."

Pedro Grifol, the Kansas City bench coach who is so close with Mondesi as to have become a father figure of sorts during these past few years, is even more emphatic.

"They both run," Grifol says of the Mondesi-Lindor comparison. "They both steal bases. One thing Mondi was doing was playing Gold Glove defense last year. They both have power. Mondesi is capable of hitting 25-30 home runs.

"Mondesi is faster than Lindor. Way faster. He's a full [scouting] grade faster than Lindor."

With a combination of power and speed, Mondesi reminds many in the Royals organization of Francisco Lindor.
With a combination of power and speed, Mondesi reminds many in the Royals organization of Francisco Lindor.Orlin Wagner/Associated Press/Associated Press

Mondesi's break-in period has included several fits and starts, some of them caused by his own overeagerness, some of them simply by misfortune and life's curves.

Months after debuting in the '15 World Series—he struck out as a pinch hitter in Game 3 against the New York Mets' Noah Syndergaard—Mondesi was benched by a 50-game suspension when he tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug, in 2016. Initially set at 80 games, the suspension was reduced when baseball agreed with Mondesi's explanation that the offending substance was an over-the-counter medication purchased in the Dominican Republic to treat cold and flu symptoms.

At the time, MLB.com ranked him as the top prospect in the Royals' system and No. 33 overall.

He made his first Opening Day roster in 2017 but wasn't ready and was shipped back to Triple-A Omaha ("It got to the point where when we sat him down, he was relieved," former manager Ned Yost says). In 2018, the Royals decided it was best for him to continue his baseball education in the majors, so they recalled him on June 17. He ranked fourth in the AL with 32 stolen bases that season and became the first player in history to produce at least 14 homers and 32 steals in 75 or fewer games.

He's left the crowds wanting more ever since.

"I know it's not my plan; it's God's plan, and I'm OK with that," says Mondesi, who first suffered the left shoulder subluxation while diving for a foul ball against the White Sox last July and then hurt it again in September while diving for a ground ball in Minnesota. "I've been patient. I pray every night, every day, every month. I just have to be ready now, and every day."

His work is not simply physical. What so many others so often take for granted is the emotional trauma an elite athlete suffers when undergoing his first major surgery.

"It's a big deal," Moore says. "When you're expected to make a living with your body and you've got an important part of your body that needs to be repaired, there's a wonder, there's a doubt, if it will ever be the same again. Because it's not the same. You've had a repair. It's different."

One of the silver linings of the delayed season, from Mondesi's perspective, is it allowed extra time for him to strengthen his shoulder even more.

"When I went home, I knew I was going to have a little more time for my shoulder," says Mondesi, who finally returned to the Dominican for the early part of this summer. "And I think that was perfect for me."

The heavy lifting, though, was done over the winter. Mondesi shared a place with his younger brother, Paul, 22, who is a catcher in the Kansas City system. It was a new experience for both of them, but it was good. They cooked—chicken, rice and beans, spaghetti—and they dialed up Netflix. La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) was a favorite.

"It helped me, not being alone here," Adalberto says. "It was nice. We liked it.

"Only thing was, the weather was too cold. I'm OK playing baseball in it because I know we need to play baseball. But in the Dominican, we don't have that weather."

There's a companion piece to that black ACE 30 bracelet Mondesi wears in honor of Ventura: a silver chain around his neck featuring a large baseball with the No. 30.

"I never take it off," he told me last May, clutching the necklace with his right hand. "I always think of him. He's always on my mind. It's hard. I play every night … and always have him in my mind."

Over a FaceTime call last month, Mondesi held up his wrist to display the bracelet. But the necklace was in his locker. A new one is on order.

Yordano Ventura and Mondesi had become close friends before a car accident killed the Royals' up-and-coming pitcher in 2017.
Yordano Ventura and Mondesi had become close friends before a car accident killed the Royals' up-and-coming pitcher in 2017.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

It's been three years since Ventura died, but Mondesi still aches. Even this winter, holed up at home against the elements, there were moments when Paul would visibly see the grief.

"Sometimes, he's crying," Paul says. "I'd see red eyes. Sometimes he talks to me about Yordano because he misses him."

Ventura was four years older and debuted in the majors in September 2013. Mondesi was just 17 and playing at Class A Lexington that summer. But soon they would be living together during spring camps and, eventually, in Kansas City.

"In 2016 when I got called up, they were two peas in a pod," says Matt Strahm, now pitching for San Diego following a 2017 trade with Kansas City. "Any time you saw one, you saw the other.

"They were living in a hotel near the yard. You'd see one, you'd see the other one following, going to lunch, going to dinner."

Their closeness was visible, and touching.

"You could tell from the point when Mondi came up, him and Yordano were the best of boys," says Pittsburgh outfielder Jarrod Dyson, who was with Kansas City from 2010 to 2016. "They'd hang out. Ventura was trying to show him the ropes."

On what turned out to be the last night of Ventura's life, he and Mondesi were together at a festival in San Jose de Ocoa in the Dominican Republic.

Adalberto was traveling back to Santo Domingo, about a two-hour drive, and invited Ventura to come with him. The pitcher declined, telling Mondesi he was going to stay in Ocoa. The next morning, Mondesi woke to news of the fatal one-car crash. Ventura had decided in the middle of the night to visit his estranged wife, Maria, in Constanza, roughly an 80-mile drive. He only made it about 30 miles, as far as Juan Adrian, before losing control of his Jeep on a mountainous and extremely dangerous road.

"I think if Yordano had listened to my brother … my brother told him three times, 'Come with me to Santo Domingo' and Yordano said no," Paul says.

That Adalberto couldn't convince his friend to come with him, Paul says, "I think that's why my brother feels bad."

The night still haunts him.

"I still sometimes wake up and think and can't believe something crazy like that happened," Mondesi says. "I was used to being with him all the time. When I came into spring training, I was always with him. It's difficult. I pray. I ask God for the power to keep going."

He says he stays in touch with Maria and with Ventura's daughter, now six, via texts. Mondesi displays one of Ventura's Royals jerseys on the wall of his home in the Dominican Republic, along with several favorite pictures.

It is a heavy burden for such a young man to carry.

"I don't do that because I want people to see me doing it," Mondesi says. "It's because we were so close, and that thing happened too quick. We didn't have a chance to talk.

"I still remember him, and I do all that because of my heart. I don't know…"

Satchel Paige famously said Cool Papa Bell was so fast that he could flip the light switch and be in bed before the room darkened.

After getting his first extended look at Mondesi this season, first-year Kansas City manager Mike Matheny flips another switch.

"It is so much fun," Matheny says. "I think I would run everywhere I went if I could run like that. He's just a joy to watch."

Yet experience has taught the Royals that, sometimes, the best thing they can do is throttle him back. Early in Mondesi's career, he was overeager at the plate. Throw him a slider down and in, and he would hack away every time. Just because you have all of these abilities doesn't mean you have to display them every day, Grifol reminds him. You can bunt, but that doesn't mean you're going to bunt every day. You can run—maybe one day you run the bases, but you don't hit a home run.

Raul Mondesi hit .306 with 16 homers and 11 steals to win the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1994. He played 13 years in the majors with seven different teams but has struggled in his life after, as his recent conviction for embezzlement attests.
Raul Mondesi hit .306 with 16 homers and 11 steals to win the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1994. He played 13 years in the majors with seven different teams but has struggled in his life after, as his recent conviction for embezzlement attests.George Gojkovich/Getty Images

"He can impact the game in so many ways," Grifol says.

Awareness, both of himself and of game situations, is a vital point of emphasis. The shoulder subluxation that wrecked 2019? Mondesi hurt it last July in a game in which the Royals were leading the White Sox 6-0. Talk about a painful lesson.

Now, Grifol says, Mondesi knows that maybe the smart play when a game is in hand and a Mike Trout is running a 3.9 down the first base line is to make sure you're healthy for the next game.

Grifol's go-to analogy is that of a Ferrari.

"You don't just take it right off of the lot with no miles and go zero to 60 mph in a second and then hold it at 100 mph for 200 miles," Grifol says. "You prepare it. You take care of it. You make sure you're constantly maintaining it.

"That's him. His speed and explosiveness is at another level. When he kicks it into fifth gear, it's a gear few people have."

Despite playing in just 102 games last year—his career high—Mondesi tied for the league lead in triples, becoming the first American League player with 10 triples in 102 or fewer games since Glenn McQuillen (12) in 1942.

For a guy sprinting to catch up to expectations, it hasn't been easy.

"One of the first things I asked him was his goals, and he said, 'I want to hit .300,'" Grifol says. "I said, 'I don't think you're a machine; you're a professional.'"

So Grifol asked: Is .300 your ceiling?

Well, no, Mondesi replied.

So, then, Grifol asked, why set that as a goal?

"There's no cap," Grifol says. "I told him, 'I'm not sure if you'll hit .400 with 10 home runs or .280 with 25 home runs, but you have the ability to do both. Get better physically, mentally and emotionally every day. Those are your goals.'"

The process continues: After hitting .095 with nine strikeouts in his first 21 plate appearances this season, Mondesi then went on an 11-for-24 rip that included two three-hit games. Still, a little more than one-third of the way through this abbreviated season, Mondesi is hitting only .227 and has been dropped from the top of the lineup to the bottom third.

Like that Ferrari, the fine-tuning is never-ending.

"The other part with Mondi is the switch-hit thing is a very interesting skill," Moore says of a fading art in the game. "It requires a lot of naturalness, and it also requires a lot of work to maintain a swing from both sides at the highest level when you're trying to compete in the major leagues. Some of his injuries in the past have put a wedge between him and what he needs to continue to do from an offensive standpoint."

Catching up to a tantalizing future sometimes takes longer than expected, even for a young man in a hurry. The World Series debut? The Royals strategically thought his speed might have been a key in the battle with the New York Mets, and he aches to return.

"It was something beautiful," he says. "I want to be part of a World Series again."

His jersey from that day is with his mother. As for his famous father, he's made it clear to both the organization and outsiders, from the name change to the uncomfortable silence when the topic comes up, that he doesn't want to go there.

"I'm not going to waste my time explaining to people what they want to hear," he says. "I don't talk about those problems."

Instead, with light feet and, at times, a still-heavy heart, he is determined to gallop forward. There is ground to cover, at shortstop and beyond. It was Aristotle who is credited with saying, "Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet."

"He's learning," Grifol says. "I don't know if the kid will figure it out at 24 or 27, but his body and explosiveness is so good that when his game comes together, you have a potential MVP. That's how I feel."

Mondesi smiles when thinking back to that World Series at-bat against Syndergaard, his first time on the big stage: ball one and then three straight strikes blowing in at 96, 96 and 98 mph.

His eyes twinkle and his smile gleams.

"I will face him again one day," Mondesi says, "and we'll see what happens."


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.