The inspiration was Salvador Perez’s, first articulated on the bus ride back from his friend’s open casket funeral. In the darkest moment, the idea for a most beautiful tribute.
Yordano Ventura was near the center of everything the Royals did for three years, from his debut on a Tuesday night in September 2013 until his tragic death early one Sunday morning in January 2017.
In searching for a way to help, Perez kept coming back to Ventura’s mother. When Perez was a boy, around 12, he lost a brother and a sister. It was hard for him, but what he remembers most is how hard it was for his mother.
So in Ventura’s death, he thought about the most important person in his life, and wanted to help a loving woman through her own life’s worst moment. Right then, on the bus ride back from Ventura’s funeral, Perez went to Royals general manager Dayton Moore with an idea about how to help Marisol Hernandez.
“Something come to my mind,” Perez remembered telling Moore. “I want to make this moment for her, the first day in Kansas City.”
They came to the Dominican Republic for the service, to show the family what Ventura meant to the Royals, but Perez wanted to show the family what Ventura meant to Kansas City. The thought was tender, and sweet — and in the moment the timing impossible. Moore loved the idea, but they hadn’t even slept yet after the funeral.
He asked Perez to talk with Rene Francisco, the Royals scout who signed Ventura as a short, skinny, fiery 16 year old. The idea bounced around the organization’s power structure, from Moore to Francisco to vice president for business Kevin Uhlich and eventually to president Dan Glass.
They would bring Hernandez to Kansas City, and have her throw out the first pitch if she wanted. Victor Baez, field coordinator for the Royals’ Dominican academy, was as close to Ventura as anyone in the organization. He called Hernandez a month or so ago — waiting as long as possible, while still allowing time to plan.
Hernandez had been here before. First for the 2014 World Series. Again for the announcement of his contract extension the next spring. Those were joyous. This, more painful.
Hernandez did not talk to reporters on Monday but released a statement saying she wanted people to know that God is the only way she is feeling well. Before the game, she sat in the Glass family’s suite with Moore for 45 minutes.
“I told her today will be a day she’ll always remember,” Moore said. “She’ll feel the warmth, the love, and the compassion of our great fans and community. Hopefully, she’ll feel and understand Yordano’s importance to the Kansas City Royals and our community.
“I have no idea what Yordano’s mother can be going through. But nobody was closer to Yordano Ventura than his mother. For her to be here, in this moment, it’s important, and it’s also a reminder of taking advantage of opportunities while people are alive.”
The Royals have made sure Ventura is everywhere. “ACE 30” is on their sleeves, ready to tap as they cross home plate after home runs. “ACE 30” hangs on the Hall of Fame building in left field, and on a flag in the hallway behind the Royals’ dugout.
“He always comes up,” pitcher Danny Duffy said.
Duffy wore a T-shirt with Ventura’s name and number on Monday morning. Eric Hosmer hung a picture of Ventura in his locker, and got help from his teammates to speak on the organization’s behalf in the pregame tribute.
What a tribute, too. “Amazing Grace” played on a saxophone as pictures of Ventura flashed on the scoreboard — of him pitching, of him laughing, of him posing, of him celebrating.
Duffy, Kelvin Herrera, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar, Raul Mondesi, Chris Young, Christian Colon, Drew Butera and two team staffers held a large ACE 30 flag as the music played.
Professional ballplayers weeped.
“We’re all grown men,” Hosmer said. “We think we’re going to be alright through it. When it’s actually happening on the field, it just hits you different.”
Francisco wasn’t there. He had planned on it. He wanted to be there. To see Marisol, to hug her. He hasn’t seen her since the funeral.
But we all grieve in different ways, don’t we? Francisco thought about Ventura. About his drive, his orneriness, his intensity. Around the Royals, many have settled into a groove of attempting to honor Ventura with the way they live. To, in pitching coach Dave Eiland’s words, “attack each day like he attacked each hitter.”
Francisco thought about that, and decided Ventura would want him to work, so he was in the Carolinas watching baseball players.
“I lived with him when he was alive,” Francisco said. “I spent a lot of time with him. Good times, and bad times. To me, that’s more important.”
The starting catcher never catches the ceremonial first pitch. This is a job for a young player or bench player or someone else who hasn’t yet earned the right to say no.
Nobody even had to ask to know Salvador Perez would catch this ceremonial first pitch.
Hernandez walked to the mound wearing her son’s jersey, with her father beside her. She knelt behind the mound, and wrote “Dios” — God — in the dirt.
Her pitch to Perez skipped a time or two, and then her son’s friend gave her what may have been the biggest hug on a day full of them.
This happened at 3:08. Perez walked off the field, through a dugout that Yost said was full of tears, and did not talk to anyone for the next six minutes. Too hard. At 3:14, he came running back on the field in full catchers gear to warm up the starting pitcher, his friend’s death on his mind but a ballgame to play.
“I know how hard it is,” Perez said. “My mom...”
There is a pause. Perez’s voice stayed quiet. More than a whisper, but soft enough you need to lean in a little to hear.
“This reminds me a little bit. I know this is hard. It’s part of life, but this is hard.”
Perez shook his head again. Maybe this day could help his friend’s mother heal. He’s seen this type of tragedy before, far too closely. He knows enough to know there are answers, or at least none that make sense.
He planned on having Ventura’s mother over for dinner after the game. Maybe that could help, too. He doesn’t know what to do other than try.