Royals hold private memorial service for Yordano Ventura before FanFest begins

Kansas City Royals speak following Yordano Ventura memorial

The Kansas City Royals gathered before Friday's opening of FanFest to celebrate the life of Yordano Ventura.
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The Kansas City Royals gathered before Friday's opening of FanFest to celebrate the life of Yordano Ventura.

The story is from three years ago. Maybe a few weeks after Yordano Ventura arrived at Class AAA Omaha. At least, that’s the way Scott Sharp remembers it.

It begins with a late-night phone call. Not that this was odd. Ventura would routinely call, Sharp says. Sometimes Ventura just wanted to talk about his career. Sometimes he needed guidance. Sometimes he needed to vent.

Sharp, now a Royals assistant general manager, was the club’s director of player development then. Before that, he had been the director of minor-league operations. He had watched Ventura grow from a rail-thin 130-pound right-hander to one of the most promising prospects in the system. So, of course, he was ready to listen.

On the other end was Ventura and Monica Ramirez, one of the Royals’ in-house English instructors, and for close to two minutes, Ventura began to rant into the phone. He was pitching terribly at Omaha, he said. He had never been hit like this. He was frustrated and emotional and worried — and he just wanted to go home.

Sharp listened to the translation from Ramirez, paused for a moment, and then formulated a response.

“OK, Yordano,” he said. “You can go home. But in your last start, you allowed three runs in six innings. They have a stat for that in the major leagues. It’s called a quality start.”

The story came on Friday morning as Sharp stood at a lectern inside the Colonial Room at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown. It was one of many. Maybe the people inside the room just needed to share and laugh and be together.

The Royals organization had gathered here for a private service to remember the life of Ventura, who died Sunday in a car crash on a highway in his native Dominican Republic. He was 25.

On Tuesday, a collection of Royals officials and players had journeyed to Las Terrenas — Ventura’s hometown — to pay their respects and lay the pitcher to rest. On Friday, the mourning came to Kansas City. As the Royals prepared for their first day of FanFest, their annual marquee offseason event, a few hundred people, including Royals players, officials, employees and their families, filed into a ballroom in downtown Kansas City.

They came to say goodbye to Ventura, the immensely talented right-hander who spent just three full seasons in the big leagues. They came to share stories about a skinny kid from the Dominican who came to be known as a brother and a son — a fearless pitcher with a stubborn side.

“His right arm was that of a man,” said Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre, who started the ceremony just after 10 a.m. “But his smile was that of a child.”

The stories began here, of course, but they did not stop. All day long, Royals fans came to downtown Kansas City to pay tribute. They stopped at the memorial set up inside Bartle Hall — a pitcher’s mound with Ventura’s jersey and number, a row of four photos hanging behind, a pair of walls where fans could offer a personal message. They listened to Ventura’s teammates tell stories on the stage across the convention hall.

“I think it’s kind of exactly what we needed,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said. “We needed to be around each other. We needed to see each other, be back hugging and loving on each other again.

“And I think when baseball comes around, everyone knows that we’re going to go out there and play with the same passion and energy we’ve always had. But we have a little more on our shoulders now.”

When the day began inside the Marriott, a collection of Royals players, coaches and front-office personnel took turns sharing stories at the private memorial. At the front of the room, a bouquet of flowers formed a baseball glove and ball. A video tribute was shown, offering glimpses and highlights from Ventura’s seasons in the big leagues. And then the stories began.

Royals manager Ned Yost spoke of the heartache, the feeling that there can be no peace in the death of a 25-year-old athlete. Then he turned toward his faith.

Assistant general manager J.J. Picollo remembered Ventura’s competitive streak and smile — and the challenge he offered the club’s development staff.

Ventura would make his major-league debut on Sept. 17, 2013 and become a rotation staple for a Royals team that won consecutive American League pennants, including the World Series in 2015. But in the weeks before his 2013 debut, Picollo said, Ventura was set to start a postseason game for the Class AAA Omaha Storm Chasers. He went out to lunch with a group of teammates that afternoon, then headed back to rest.

Somehow, Picollo recalled, Ventura was late to the ballpark. The staff decided to hold him out for the opening games of the playoff series, and there was much debate about how to proceed. But finally, they decided: He would pitch in the third game.

He was pitching for his teammates’ trust, and Ventura understood the stakes. He took the mound and performed admirably, blocking out the pressure and the noise. And when it was done, Picollo understood something else, too.

“He also knew he was pitching for a chance to go to the big leagues,” Picollo said.

Ventura could be stubborn, Picollo said. He could be difficult. But club officials saw the fire. They saw the innocence and insecurities. They saw a kid who had dropped out of school as a teenager and took a construction job in his home country, hoping to help his mother pay the bills. They saw the promise and desire and his devotion to his teammates.

“We loved him for his imperfections,” Sharp said.

The imperfections would follow Ventura to Kansas City. But few pitchers cared more, Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said. And nobody could throw a bullpen session with such beauty and electricity.

“I felt like I lost a son,” Eiland said.

As he finished his tribute, Eiland recalled a story from the days before Ventura’s famous performance in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series. It was late after a loss in Game 5. The Royals now trailed the San Francisco Giants 3-2 in the seven-game series. And the team was boarding a flight back home to Kansas City. The plane was packed, and Ventura couldn’t find a seat, so he ended up squeezing into Eiland’s row.

As they prepared to return home, Eiland turned to Ventura, reminding him of the stakes in Game 6. He was starting, after all. Maybe he should get some sleep.

“Don’t you worry, Dave Eiland,” Ventura said. “I’m about to show everybody who the real ace on this team is.”

As the service pressed forward, and the tears kept flowing, the stories continued. Hosmer called Ventura his “little brother.” Left-hander Danny Duffy remembered the ridiculous outfits that Ventura would sport inside the clubhouse, showing up on start days in a purple Polo shirt tucked into basketball shorts.

“There’s people in your life,” catcher Drew Butera would say later. “I’m sure everyone has come across this person — they always seems to uplift you, no matter how bad of a day you’re having or how good a day you’re having.

“There’s something about his smile that makes you want to smile, too.”

As the serviced neared a conclusion, Royals general manager Dayton Moore stepped to the microphone, sharing one more story about Ventura. On Tuesday, he had visited Las Terrenas, hoping to offer consolation to the family. But he also wanted to say thank you.

For so many years, Moore said, Ventura had made the Royals organization better. And not just on the field.

So as he stood inside a crowded house in Las Terrenas, he could hear the screams of Ventura’s mother, Marisol. He offered a hug. So did Hosmer and Salvador Perez and a group of Royals players. And then they headed out to lay Ventura to rest.

“I don’t want to forget those cries,” Moore said. “I want to use that for inspiration … for the next Yordano Ventura.”

Kansas City Royals say goodbye to their 'little brother,' Yordano Ventura

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