When Royals catcher Sal Perez flew into Santo Domingo on Monday night, he couldn’t yet admit to himself that teammate Yordano Ventura had died in a car accident early Sunday morning.
Never mind that he had been reliably told and seen irrefutable reports, and had called first baseman Eric Hosmer to break the news, and heard Hosmer immediately burst into tears and shout, “No, no, no! Why? why?!”
With Ventura’s funeral scheduled Tuesday, Perez was restless all of Monday night, at one point thinking to himself, “Ventura, come on, let me sleep.”
“When I see him,” he said during a three-hour bus ride to services for the 25-year-old Ventura, “I’m going to sleep better.”
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So here were Perez and teammates and Royals coaches and front-office staff late Tuesday morning, walking off a bus to enter a visitation at the house Ventura had built near his childhood home.
Dozens roamed the grounds, from village elders to youngsters clad in jerseys from Liga Kelly, the local baseball program Ventura grew up with, to star slugger David Ortiz greeting all at the door as if they had met before.
Amid many long hugs of Ventura’s inconsolable mother, Marisol, the Royals’ entourage proceeded into the main room of the home and the casket draped in a Dominican flag. It had been opened for their visit.
Now Perez stared at Ventura’s face in a room engulfed in grief that general manager Dayton Moore somehow lent comforting sentiments.
Taking the hands of those next to him, and looking at Marisol and her sister, Rebecca, and other family members flanked by manager Ned Yost, Moore began.
“We’re very sorry, and you’ve reminded us today that Jesus speaks to us through pain,” he said. “We’re all family. We’re all hurting together. We loved Yordano, and we love (your) family.
“And we’re proud and honored to share in this sorrow and pain with you.”
That as much as anything else was what this excruciating day was about.
Perez may or may not immediately sleep better. But when he does, when we all do, the peace and reconciliation all seek will have started here Tuesday.
It was a day like no other, a day no one wants to ever see repeated … but an important day of love and grace and catharsis from here to Kansas City to eternity.
You could find that in the hundreds of mourners on the rooftops along the route to the main cemetery, so packed many had to be turned away, and where Ventura’s childhood idol, Pedro Martinez, appeared.
Or know it from the women on the way who held up a placard that read, “Thank You Kansas City For Your Love And Support,” or the stranger who hugged you because she knew you were walking with the Royals.
You could see it at Estadio Municipal, Ventura’s first baseball field, where thousands waited to see Ventura’s casket be brought in largely by members of the organization that signed him in 2008 soon after breathless reports from a performance seen on this very field.
And you could feel it in this:
With the road from the stadium to the cemetery snarled by the procession following Ventura, with the Royals players and former Royals for the most part ahead with the casket, Royals front-office men and women from president Dan Glass to Moore to manager Ned Yost and others walked some 40 minutes, sardined in the streets with the people of Las Terrenas.
If it wasn’t 90-degrees plus, it felt like that in suit jackets. Some in the group were soaked to the skin.
But they wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, particularly when it comes to a nation that adores its native sons, treasures baseball and has so much meaning to the Royals that Moore likes to send American prospects there for more than a week at a time to learn to appreciate from where so many of their teammates come.
The walk, Moore said, “brought healing. It brought a sense of unity and togetherness. The Dominican people are so passionate. They’re loving people. They’re caring people. And to be a part of this experience with them and their community is a privilege.
“It’s a privilege to mourn with them.”
The day began the way many days among these players had: on a bus, just like back in the minor leagues where Hosmer and Perez and Mike Moustakas and former Royals Greg Holland and Jarrod Dyson spent years growing up together.
Here, too, were Alcides Escobar and former Royal Chris Getz, who didn’t spend those formative years together but still are part of ties that bind like the ones that connected all to Ventura.
Those sorts of bonds, perhaps forged deeper by winning a World Series together, maybe helped explain why Hosmer and Dyson kept their sunglasses on when they spoke of Ventura in the back of the bus.
“We took care of him, raised him, watched him grow as a man,” said Dyson, who earlier this month was traded to Seattle.
A misunderstood one, he would tell you, because of the reckless rage he flashed at times on the field.
“I hate the fact that he was viewed as a knucklehead (by some) … That’s the fire and desire he had,” Dyson said. “If you didn’t know him or you weren’t close to him, you probably would have hated him if you played on the other team.
“But if you knew him you loved him, because you know what the kid represented: He was out there for everybody. If he had to take up for a teammate, he was down to do that. That’s what you want.”
Seconds later, Dyson bowed his head and said, “It hurts, it hurts.” Then he looked back up and let the tears fall.
Later, at the visitation, Dyson would leave the room similarly overwhelmed and move to the side of Moore, who stood and put his arm around him as Dyson sat down.
“To see one of our brothers gone, it’s just a sad day not only for us but for Kansas City and for baseball,” Dyson said. “This is going to be a tough day.”
He added, “I mean, I just wish he was here with us.”
Hosmer, too, made reference to the difficult circumstances in the life of Ventura, who dropped out of school at age 14 to work construction because of a falling-out with a teacher and an abiding sense that he needed to help support his mother and sister afer his father left them all.
“We all know what he had to go through as a child; we all took pride in those moments of teaching him and sharing our knowledge with him,” Hosmer said.
And learning from him.
“He brought a whole attitude and a whole new energy to us … an energy that you really can’t teach in somebody; it’s just instilled in you,” said Hosmer, adding that there had been nights “on buses like this” or in hotel rooms that he had had long talks with Ventura about his feeling “the whole world was against him.”
But the Royals always were with him, from nurturing Ventura through 18 months at their Dominican Academy to sticking with him through bumps and bruises and radical ups and downs.
That included monumental heights, such as winning Game 6 of the 2014 World Series just days after his friend and countryman Oscar Taveras had died in a car accident. And it included searching for ways to harness his temperament during spells where anger could rule his game.
Ventura knew that, knew the Royals had his back, and so he gave them his light.
“He had a joy for living every day,” Yost said.
Among those who knew that joy well is Rene Francisco, the Royals’ assistant general manager who signed Ventura for $28,000.
When Ventura’s mother saw Francisco on Tuesday, she just said, “Rene, Rene, Rene Francisco,” and wouldn’t let go of him.
Francisco, one of the most gracious people you’ll ever meet, just tried to show her love. He thought about the first day he met Ventura, and he thought about the last time he had contact with him:
Ventura sent a text saying, “Why aren’t you here?” when Francisco was traveling in Australia.
Now that’s the question all are thinking about when it comes to Ventura, a question with no truly palatable answer.
But Perez knows this: “I love him — I love him a lot,” he said, and he thinks to himself that sometimes things happen for a reason.
Even if he can’t understand it, he is ready to start trying to accept it now.
And even if it’s only incrementally so, that’s a better place to be than anyone had been before Tuesday.
“Thank you so much,” Moore told the family, “for Yordano.”