“I had a better year than Hoover.”
— Babe Ruth, upon learning he was paid more than President Hoover
“You come from the DR, and you been poor your whole life, and now it’s $5 million in your bank account? Well, of course, that’s a blessing. But also that can do things to you.”
— Edinson Volquez
Kansas City Royals pitcher
It was 2015 and the Kansas City Royals, a small market team 30 years removed from the only championship in its franchise history, were in the World Series for a second straight year, and trying to avenge their 2014 loss. Their pitching rotation was led by an unlikely figure — a flame-throwing 24 year-old from the Dominican Republic who had notched 27 wins in the previous two years.
The Royals won that World Series, and among the players celebrating in the clubhouse, and later in their championship parade, was that young, Dominican pitcher, Yordano Ventura. At the start of that 2015 season, Ventura had signed a five-year contract worth $23 million. The contract got him some financial stability, and got the Royals a pitcher who could help them for years.
But it was not to be. Shortly after the 2016 season, Ventura, on his way to visit his estranged wife, crashed his Jeep through a guardrail near the town of Juan Adrian on a mountainous road. He was thrown from the vehicle and killed instantly, ironically just miles from another motor vehicle crash that claimed the life of his teammate, and former Cleveland Indian, Andy Marte on the same day.
Ventura’s sole heir was his daughter, then just three years old. Because of her age, her mother has served as guardian over her inheritance, and in that role is now involved in a unique legal situation with the Royals and Major League Baseball.
Before that legal situation can be analyzed, several facts need to be established. First, Ventura, like many professional athletes, was extremely generous with his earnings and gave money away to friends, relatives and acquaintances. Second, although his daughter inherited a substantial life insurance policy from him, his estate is currently “insolvent,” meaning that it has greater debts than it has assets. Third, at the time of his death, the Royals still owed him $20.25 million on the remainder of his contract. And unlike NFL contacts, Major League Baseball contracts are guaranteed.
An insolvent estate is not a rare thing. In Ohio, there is a statute, O.R.C. 2117.25, that provides a specific order in which creditors of the estate are to be paid, with the executor or administrator going down the line until the estate funds are gone. First paid are the costs of the administration of the estate itself. Second are funeral and burial expenses (with a limit on the amount that can be spent there). Third is the ‘family allowance’ paid to the surviving spouse or children. Next are debts owed to the federal government, such as income taxes. Then expenses of the “last sickness” of the decedent. From there, an additional allowance for funeral expenses, monies for nursing home expenses, amounts owed to the State of Ohio, certain bills for “manual labor” and finally, all other unsecured debt.
Ventura’s estate is insolvent because he died before the high paying years of his contract. Normally, if a Major League Baseball player signs a long-term contract and then gets injured, the team is still on the hook to pay them. Because of this, teams sometimes take out insurance policies on long contracts. While lawyers for the estate and team representatives have both declined to comment, one thing that is clear is that the Royals have not paid the balance of the money owed on the final three years of Ventura’s deal. It also appears that this is the first time that a major league player has died in the midst of a long-term contract, and so there is no legal precedent about the legal responsibilities of the parties.
The Royals are likely to have a payroll of about $86 million this year, down about $40 million from the year they won the World Series. But that amount could increase substantially if they have to pay Ventura’s estate the balance of his guaranteed contract. Whether a lawsuit is necessary to get that money paid is yet to be seen, but it appears that Ventura’s estate is more than ready to take legal action if that becomes necessary.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.