Yorman Landa was quiet, unassuming and somewhat shy. And, by all accounts, he did not have a mean bone in his body.
“His nickname was Teddy Bear, to give you an idea,” said Mike Radcliff, Twins head of player personnel.
Landa saved the fire for his fastball. It could reach triple digits, and it was going to be his potential ticket to the majors.
But those dreams ended early Saturday morning when Landa was killed in an automobile accident outside Caracas, Venezuela. The pitcher was one of four passengers in a car driven by his father, Osvaldo, on a dark, winding road during a storm. A tree had fallen across the road, and the car struck it.
“They drove right into the tree,” said Jose Marzan, the Twins’ Latin American operations coordinator. “And the tree hit Landa. A branch came through the window.”
The other passengers were not seriously injured. Landa was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Landa, who was born and resided in Santa Teresa, Venezuela, was 22.
“I had just spoken with him a few days ago,” Marzan said. “A tremendous loss of life. A nice kid.”
Landa re-signed with the Twins last week after being nontendered a few days before the winter meetings. That move freed up a spot on the 40-man roster, enabling the Twins to select a player — pitcher Justin Haley — in the Rule 5 draft Thursday.
“The Minnesota Twins are deeply saddened by the heartbreaking loss of Yorman Landa early this morning in Venezuela,” Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey said in a statement. “On behalf of the entire baseball community, we send our sincerest condolences to the Landa family as well as Yorman’s many friends, coaches and teammates.”
Twins minor leaguers took to Twitter to express their feelings about the tragedy.
“Life is precious,” wrote lefthander Stephen Gonsalves, one of the Twins’ top prospects. “God has gained an angel.”
Landa’s closest friends in the organization were pitchers Randy Rosario and Felix Jorge and shortstop Engelb Vielma, who all worked their way up the farm system together after signing as teenagers.
“I spoke to all three [Saturday],” said Daniel Szew, Landa’s agent. “Everyone is distraught. I think Vielma the most of anyone; they both are Venezuelan. Jorge doesn’t go out. The only guy he would go out with was Landa. Those guys were boys.”
Landa signed for $220,000 at age 16. Blessed with a powerful arm, he regularly threw over 95 miles per hour and was part of the wave of hard-throwing relievers the Twins expected to see in the near future. He was in major league camp this past spring, hitting 97 on the gun with his first pitch in an exhibition game.
During the 2016 Florida State League All-Star Game, Landa’s fastball sat at 98-99 mph, and one was measured at 102. However, he didn’t pitch after July 24 because of a lat strain, finishing 2-2 with a 3.24 ERA in 31 games with Class A Fort Myers.
The Twins felt he could be a special reliever once he figured out a breaking pitch. He began last season throwing a curveball, but he had trouble commanding it. So they switched to a slider that remained a work in progress.
The lack of breaking command and the injury likely factored into why the Twins nontendered him. With Landa free to sign anywhere, Szew said about 10 clubs contacted him.
“They said it was the easiest 99-100-mile-per-hour fastball they had ever seen,” Szew said.
Landa decided to re-sign with the Twins — and even got a raise in the process. The team was looking forward to him picking up where he left off.
Those who knew him will miss him more for the person he was.
“One thing that always stood out to me, especially after he was added to the 40-man roster last year, was that he really tried to help out the younger players,” said Brad Steil, Twins director of minor league operations. “Just being unselfish like that, you don’t see that from everybody.
“He was a little bit of a quiet kid. A little laid-back. But well-liked by his teammates.”