After Ventura tragedy, Royals enter long season of mourning
There is no guidebook for grieving, so the Royals cope in different ways. They sit in groups and share old stories. They pull out their phones and watch old highlights. Sometimes they search the internet for old interviews, just to hear the sound of his voice.
The memories come in waves, triggered by a story or photo or a stray thought that cannot be explained. Sometimes the immense sorrow hits hardest in the darkness of night.
So it was for Danny Duffy on a Friday in March. As he laid his head on a hotel pillow in San Diego, a vision of Yordano Ventura came to him in his sleep.
It had been 54 days since Ventura, the Royals’ 25-year-old starting pitcher, had died in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. Duffy had spent those days searching for peace. He hugged Royals fans at an impromptu memorial outside Kauffman Stadium. An old friend visited from out of town, hoping to cheer him up. He scoured the internet for Ventura memorabilia, planning to send a care package to Ventura’s mother, Marisol.
Nothing seemed to dull the pain. But as the days turned to weeks, and February melted into March, Duffy kept having these vivid dreams. He kept seeing his friend’s face, kept hearing his distinct voice.
"All the time," Duffy says.
On the night of March 17, Duffy found himself in San Diego, preparing to start for the United States against the Dominican Republic at the World Baseball Classic. The game would be win-or-go-home, perhaps the most important start of his career. Duffy could barely control his nerves. But as he slept that night, he says, he found himself sitting in a car with Ventura.
The memory is a blur, as most dreams are. But Duffy can remember it all. Ventura is wearing dreadlocks, he says, extensions of the ones he had in the 2014 World Series. He is speaking perfect English, too. There is just enough time to ask a question or two.
"I was like: ‘Man, why did you have to leave us, dude?’ " Duffy says.
The dream finishes in an instant. Ventura calls his friend "Papi." He tells Duffy that he is in a better place. As he sits still in the car, he says: "I’ll always be with you."
"And then I woke up," Duffy says. "It was like weird. I’ve never had a calmer game in my life."
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Nearly three weeks later, the baseball season has started, but the grieving process continues. The Royals have passed through the initial shock. They witnessed a funeral and helped bury a teammate. They mourned together during private memorial in late January.
They have a season to play and jobs to do, and on Monday they returned to Kauffman Stadium for the first time, sharing their grief with a sold-out crowd. But after the sadness, the tributes, the sorrow and a long spring training, they are now entering the next season of mourning, a year of baseball with a teammate gone.
"I think the hard part is there’s no real blueprint with how to deal with something like this," Royals pitcher Chris Young says. "It takes time for all of us."
For some members of the team, the loss still feels surreal. For others, the most routine moment can still take their breath away. For most, there is one prevailing thought: There is no one way to grieve, no right way to process the loss.
"The grieving process is different for everybody," Royals manager Ned Yost says. "And you can deny them or try to cut short their process. Everybody deals with it differently."
The reminders are still everywhere. Last Sunday, on the night before the Royals opened the season in Minnesota, infielder Christian Colon found himself watching as Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez paid tribute to Ventura in St. Louis. Martinez drew Ventura’s No. 30 in the dirt of the pitching mound, and then hurled a gem against the Chicago Cubs. Back in Minnesota, Colon felt like he could have been watching Ventura.
Martinez, like Ventura, hails from the Dominican Republic. He is 25. He possesses a blessed arm and electric stuff, and even as Colon sought to turn off his mind and spend a few minutes watching baseball, here was another reminder of his late friend.
"You’re watching Martinez," Colon says, "And it’s Ventura."
All spring, there had been moments like this. The baseball clubhouse is a communal place. Players sit in groups and pass the time. They tell stories and share laughs. Bonds are built over months and years.
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As the Royals arrived in Surprise, Ariz., for camp, the dynamic felt different. For two months in Arizona, they would think about Ventura even when they did not intend to. His presence was everywhere.
They would pass under a black banner with his nickname and number: "Ace 30." They would walk past his empty locker. They would sit in a circle and the topic could be anything, yet it would inevitably drift back toward Ace. Somebody would bring up a pitcher, Colon says, or tell a story about an old play. The memory would jostle another, and the mind would wander, and then the group would go quiet.
"All of a sudden, here comes his name," Colon says. "And it’s like: ‘Man, it’s not a happy vibe after that.’ "
As spring training pressed on, Colon, 27, found little ways to cope. He would talk with his wife, Kayla, and tell her stories about Ventura, about how stubborn he was, about how loved he was in the clubhouse. He would pull up interviews on the Royals’ website. He missed the sound of his voice.
"I still do it," Colon says. "It’s hard to watch. After that, I’ll tear up. But that’s just my way of coping with it, I guess."
In the aftermath, Colon struggled to talk about Ventura without being overcome with anguish. He bawled that first day. And then again the next. It’s easier now, he says, but only slightly. Time can heal. It can’t replace the lonely void.
Colon’s eyes still well with tears. He still can’t believe this is real, he says. But he doesn’t want to stop talking about it, either. He wants people to hear the stories, to remember the name.
"I’m glad his name comes up," Colon says. "It’s like losing a family member. You just have to accept it, and know that it’s real, and let time heal everything."
Colon clutches his cellphone in his hand. If he needs to, he says, he’ll scroll through old photos. He has also kept a text conversation that he maintained with Ventura. On some days, he’ll go back and read through the messages, just to feel connected.
"I don’t know when I’ll delete that," he says. "He was special to all of us. He’s like a little brother – as close as you’re going to have to a little brother that’s not your blood."
Inside the clubhouse, everybody had a routine. During games, Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland always looked for Ventura on the dugout rail. On bus rides, Eric Hosmer would occupy a row by Ventura and Raul Mondesi, cracking jokes and offering little nuggets of advice. On long flights, infielder Cheslor Cuthbert would plan a trip to the bathroom, messing with Ventura on the way back to his seat. As the Royals departed spring training last week, flying from Phoenix to Dallas, Cuthbert got up and walked to the bathroom. On the way back, his heart began to ache.
"When I looked, I didn’t see him," Cuthbert said. "That’s when I realized: ‘He’s not here anymore. It’s hard to accept that.’ "
Cuthbert, a 24-year-old native of Nicaragua, spent years playing with Ventura in the minor leagues. They shared quiet afternoons in small towns. They built a friendship. When Cuthbert debuted in the majors in 2015, Ventura invited him to stay at his house. The gesture, Cuthbert said, offered a glimpse into Ventura’s generous nature. After years of receiving guidance from Kelvin Herrera, Colon, Hosmer and others, Ventura longed to pay it forward. He viewed Cuthbert, Mondesi and right-handed pitcher Miguel Almonte as little brothers.
"He always looked out for us," Cuthbert said. "When I got here, I didn’t have anywhere to live. He took me to his house and said I can live with him, no problem."
As Cuthbert arrived at spring training, he wondered how it would feel. So did his veteran teammates. In the minutes after the news hit, Alex Gordon had been on a text chain with his teammates, delivering updates. In the hours that followed, Hosmer made plans to attend Ventura’s funeral in his hometown of Las Terrenas. He would travel to the Dominican, witness Ventura’s open casket and pay respects to his family, standing alongside Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Jarrod Dyson and others.
As they took in the scene, they thought of their teammates. Herrera and Mondesi, both Dominicans, had been "too crushed" to come, Hosmer says. Others were grieving back home. As he watched from his home in Dallas, Young kept thinking about his teammates.
"There was nobody else that you wanted to be around," Young says.
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As the 2017 season approached, it was clear: This season was going to be unlike any they had experienced.
"It hit us all pretty good," Gordon says. "Sometimes you don’t realize how close guys are."
One day last week, Scott Sharp was cleaning out some stuff in his Kauffman Stadium office when he stumbled upon the speech he gave at the Royals’ private memorial service for Ventura in January. Sharp, an assistant general manager, began to scan the remarks, re-reading what he’d told to a collection of players, coaches and front-office members, and for the first time in weeks, he began to get choked up.
As the club’s former director of minor-league operations, he had watched Ventura grow from a skinny Dominican teenager with a big arm to one of the most promising prospects in the organization. He had tracked every season, celebrated every advancement, worried about Ventura’s obstinate ways and personal life. He had answered phone calls from a frustrated Ventura, who simply wanted to quit minor-league baseball and go home. He watched the same young man throw seven scoreless innings in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series.
"It just still seems really kind of surreal," Sharp says. "Did that really happen? Not that you’re expecting him to come around the corner. You realize the finality of it. But it just seems like it always happens to another team, and when it happens to your team, and somebody that you knew, and somebody that was that vibrant … it’s never going away."
When the shock subsided, and the funeral was over, the Royals’ front office began to focus on the baseball repercussions. Nobody in baseball was going to take pity on them on the field. General manager Dayton Moore believed they owed it to the other players. A job in baseball can require tunnel vision, an ability to compartmentalize the emotional from the rational.
Or, in the words of Eiland, the club’s long-time pitching coach, Ventura just would have hated the idea of anybody being soft.
"He’s never going to be forgotten," Eiland says.
For Eiland, the opening weeks of spring training were strange. He had thought about Ventura’s career essentially every day since he debuted with the club in September 2013. As he made bullpen schedules and pondered the five-man rotation, his mind kept churning. And then came the first exhibition game in Texas, the Royals’ first trip to a big-league stadium.
The game began, and Eiland looked over at the rail, where Ventura spent every game that he wasn’t pitching.
"I’m used to seeing him up on the railing," Eiland says, "a smile on his face, joking around. I think that’s when reality really slapped me in the face."
There are happy memories too, of course. There was the time catcher Drew Butera offered a bottle of wine for a complete game – and then had to pay up almost immediately. There were the times Ventura would plead with Colon to come to his hotel room to place a room-service order. There was the sight of Ventura walking into the clubhouse, a Polo shirt tucked in basketball shorts, sunglasses on his head – an ace entering the room.
"They’re hiked up to almost the middle of his stomach," Duffy says, "and he just thinks he looks like a baller."
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The Royals cling onto the good memories. They tell old stories. They focus in on the grind of baseball, an escape from the sadness. They seek to do it together.
"Everybody in Kansas City cared about him as much as we did," Duffy says. "It’s kind of up to us as leaders in the community to help the grieving on our end, and explain how great he was, and how awesome he was, and help the community as a whole."
On a recent day, Young said he was talking to Jeff Davenport, the team’s director of travel, about the 10-year anniversary for the 2015 World Series team.
"There’s already one person who will not be there," Young said. "And it’s just shocking to me that Yordano is that person. Because he was such a part of this group."
At just past 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Kelvin Herrera finished a workout and returned to the visitors clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, pulling a set of headphones from his ears. In another year, Ventura might be sitting at the locker next to his, gazing at his phone or chattering at his teammates in Spanish.
Of all the people inside this clubhouse, Herrera, a 27-year-old closer, knew Ventura as well as anyone. Herrera watched Ventura at the Royals’ Dominican Academy. He met his family. He tried to offer guidance and support as Ventura adjusted to a foreign culture.
"He was a guy I basically raised," Herrera said. "I taught him a lot of stuff about baseball – in the field, off the field. We shared a lot of stuff."
In the days after the crash, Herrera says he couldn’t bring himself to attend Ventura’s funeral. He couldn’t bear the thought of seeing Ventura’s parents. The grief still too raw. These days, Herrera is willing to talk about it. But as he remembered his friend the other day, his voice quivered and his eyed turned red.
"Everybody dies," Herrera says. "But unfortunately, he died in a way that nobody was ready for or expecting. That just shocked me, like, ‘Wow, how did that happen?’ "
As the season began, Herrera prepared for the sight of an empty locker every day. He remembered Ventura, and he thought of his story, how a skinny kid from the Dominican Republic worked his way to the major leagues and left a mark on a baseball franchise and a city.
For now, Herrera is still coping. Baseball helps. So do the memories. But there are no perfect answers, no right way to deal with this. There is no finish line. There is no moving on. There is only time. There is no guidebook for grieving, so the Royals cope in different ways. On this day, Herrera thinks of Ventura’s passion. It’s all he can do.
"We just feel his energy and obviously his presence," Herrera says. "It’s hard to understand."