Royals players, coaches embrace Yordano Ventura’s family before home opener

Yordano Ventura’s mother, Marisol Hernandez, bent over and drew the word “Dios” in the dirt behind the rubber — just like her son used to do — before Monday’s home opener at Kauffman Stadium.
Yordano Ventura’s mother, Marisol Hernandez, bent over and drew the word “Dios” in the dirt behind the rubber — just like her son used to do — before Monday’s home opener at Kauffman Stadium.

Just half a year ago, during the Royals’ final home stand of the 2016 season, Yordano Ventura stepped out of the home dugout in front of a crowd of about 24,000 fans.

He walked over the first-base line to the pitcher’s mound at Kauffman Stadium, stooped to draw the word “Dios” in the dirt behind the rubber and then unfurled his lanky body in preparation for the first pitch of the game. Like he always did.

Monday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium, with just the ghost of Ventura lingering in Kansas City now, his mother, Marisol Hernández, carried on the routine.

The Royals flew Hernández and her father, Raul Hernández, in from the Dominican Republic hours earlier, just in time for a home opening pregame ceremony that honored Ventura’s life. It was her turn to throw out the first pitch.

She traced her index finger through the dirt in the shape of the Spanish word for God, stepped to the front of the mound and threw a one-hopper to catcher Salvador Perez.

Hernández did not speak publicly after the Royals paid tribute to Ventura, who died in a Dominican Republic vehicle crash in January.

She released a brief statement instead: “I give thanks to God because He is the only one who can help us. Through my pain and all my suffering I knew I had to come and do this and because (of) what happened to my son I know many people will know that God is the only way.”

But even from afar, as she walked off the field with manager Ned Yost’s arm around her shoulders, her stoic expression revealed strength — however fragile the base might be.

“She was sad during the tribute and crying,” said Perez, one of many Royals who stopped to hug Hernández while she waited in the dugout before the game. “But she is a strong woman.”

Some time after they came off the field, Hernández and her father were escorted to the team store by Royals employees, who helped them navigate the maze of merchandise. Ventura T-shirts and jerseys no longer hang on the racks, but a fan with a pack full of memorabilia on his back came up to the group and showed Hernández a baseball.

Sam Vargas Jr., a Royals loyalist who said he befriended Ventura when the pitcher was just 16 years old, briefly explained to her that it was a minor-league ball Ventura had signed for him during one of his stints at Class AAA Omaha. Vargas carried countless signed souvenirs with him Monday afternoon — but he knew that autographed ball, no matter how valuable, needed to end up in Hernández’s hands.

“That one was one I carried around everywhere. It’s been through a lot with me,” Vargas said. “But if it made her feel closer to her son, I wanted her to have it.”

Even after the ceremony ended, reminders of Ventura weren’t hard to come by at the stadium.

Above the home bullpen in left field, below the numbers retired by the Royals and under the 2014 American League pennant and 2015 World Series championship flags Ventura helped raise, is an ACE 30 banner.

That memorial is emblazoned on the pitching mound cover.

In the tunnel that leads from the Royals locker room to the first steps of the dugout is another ACE 30 banner, black with white lettering like the ones in the stadium.

And the list goes on.

“It’s motivation,” closer Kelvin Herrera said. “We’re going to give the best of us to honor him. He may not be with us physically but he is with us in spirit.”