Sense of loss: Kansas City had a love affair with Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura

Royals fans gather at Kauffman Stadium to honor Yordano Ventura

Kansas City Royals fans have begun a memorial to pitcher Yordano Ventura outside of Kauffman Stadium. He died in a car crash in the Dominican Republic, the team confirmed Sunday morning.
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Kansas City Royals fans have begun a memorial to pitcher Yordano Ventura outside of Kauffman Stadium. He died in a car crash in the Dominican Republic, the team confirmed Sunday morning.

We lost a part of ourselves this weekend. There’s no other way to say it. Yordano Ventura’s wide smile and indefatigable exuberance touched us all in ways that slice deeper with each passing minute.

Just 25 when he died along a jungle road in his native Dominican Republic, Yordano was already long a part of Kansas City’s identity.

He came from a tiny island 2,000 miles away, but he was one of us.

Makes sense, when you think about it. Kansas City loves the underdog, and Yordano was certainly that. I remember watching him for the first time in the annual Class AA vs. AAA game the Royals used to stage each year at Kauffman Stadium. I think it was 2011.

The Kansas City Star visited Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura in his home country, the Dominican Republic, in January 2015.

All I could think as he climbed atop the mound that day was that this whippet-thin kid looked out of his element. Then he blistered a 100 mph heater across the plate and the crowd around me went nuts. He was blowing it past guys from Omaha, the Triple-A affiliate, and he had that swagger, even then.

Another fastball followed. And another. He smiled, adjusted his oversized cap, and you couldn’t help but smile, too.

So it went for Ventura in the five or so years he occupied our consciousness in Kansas City. There were ups and downs, strikes and balls, but KC and Yordano Ventura became a love affair.

As Vahe Gregorian and David Eulitt showed us in their brilliant accounting of Yordano’s life in the Dominican in January 2015, there was a lot to like. Yordano was a man of many talents, innumerable friends and countless complexities and joys.

I think we saw some of ourselves in Yordano. Our younger selves, anyway. We scuffled in our youth, didn’t we? Made some decisions in our early 20s that we perhaps came to regret?

This is how many of us looked upon Yordano when he struggled to stay astride his incredible talent as a pitcher, or contain the darker self that lurked behind the grins and bravado. We’d wonder what could possibly possess him to jaw at a guy like Mike Trout; couldn’t he just channel his mischievousness into pitching?

Even in these wilder moments, we held tight to his promise. He’d figure it out. He’d grow out of it. Sooner or later, he’d exhale into adulthood, the grown-up place where the lightning in his arm and fire in his heart could coexist.

In that moment, the music would be sweet as any symphony at the Kauffman Center.

Maybe he’d win 20 games for the Royals. Perhaps more. He’d challenge for the American League Cy Young Award, a conqueror of his own inner demons and the best story in baseball.

Royals players Danny Duffy and Christian Colon hugged fans who stopped by Kauffman Stadium on Sunday to mourn Yordano Ventura's death.

Until then, well, every love affair has its ups and downs. We’d contine to ride the roller-coaster alongside him, living vicariously through his successes and failures, because he was one of us. We wouldn’t give up on our best friend, our son or daughter, and we surely wouldn’t give up on him.

Another Yordano memory: postgame in New York, plastic sheeting hanging from the lockers inside the Mets’ visiting clubhouse.

Champagne flowed freely and the video cameras rolled, at one point catching Yordano clutching two Budweisers in those fancy aluminum bottles, one in each hand. The smile was ear to ear as he bit the cap off one of the bottles and contemplated a reporter’s question: How does it feel?

“Oh baby,” he said, bellowing with delight. “Oh, baaaaaaybeee ... we are World Series champions!”

Pondering the cause of the crash that took his life, we might wonder about that moment, about this kid barely old enough to drink going at it double-fisted. Tough questions should be asked about the accident, and will. Alcohol fueled the wreck that took the life of Yordano’s good friend, the St. Louis Cardinals prospect Oscar Taveras, several years ago in the Dominican.

If booze was at play in Yordano’s own demise — toxicology results won’t be known for three weeks, but Royals general manager Dayton Moore says Dominican authorities told him there was no sign of alcohol at the scene — his death would be more than tragic. It will have been senseless.

Whatever the cause of accident, Kansas City will remember Yordano in other ways. He was a free spirit, a good teammate and friend to many in the Royals’ clubhouse, a young man who overcame so much to reach the big leagues and become a star. He had some growing up to do, but who didn’t?

I know how I’ll choose to remember Yordano Ventura.

As one of us.