The Kansas City Royals trickled through the clubhouse Monday morning, and hanging high above the entrance to the field, was a huge black banner.
The exhilaration and excitement of the first day of spring training, at least momentarily, was suddenly displaced by reality.
They were swiftly reminded that Yordano Ventura is gone forever.
Ventura, the Royals’ homegrown charismatic pitcher, was killed three weeks ago in a car accident in the Dominican Republic.
He was 25.
The Royals’ tears have since dried, but the pain Monday still was seared across their faces.
“It’s tough,’’ says Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, part of the Royals’ contingent who attended Ventura’s funeral in Las Terrenas, D.R. “It’s not something we will get over. It’s not something we will forget.
“But we will continue to live our lives, and play for his family, and himself.’’
They simply have no choice.
“Even though it’s a tragic accident,’’ Royals manager Ned Yost says, “the fact remains is that he’s not with us anymore. I still catch myself thinking about him being in our rotation, and it just takes time to work through that.’’
The anguish will be felt in South Florida too, with the Miami Marlins gathering Tuesday for their first spring-training workout of the year.
They will be without their ace, Jose Fernandez, who was killed along with two friends on Sept. 25, 2016, in a late-night boating accident.
“There’s no script, there’s no way to handle it,’’ Marlins president Michael Hill told USA TODAY Sports. “ “Everybody deals with it differently.
“I think probably the biggest distinction for us is that we got to mourn at the end of the season. It was very therapeutic. We were together and there for each other. It was a really unifying event.
“The Royals now will have to go through those things.’’
Their tragic deaths have had a dramatic impact, not just in the communities of Kansas City and Miami, but throughout the baseball industry. Their memories will be shared in every major league spring-training camp this week.
“My last message to them at the end of the season,’’ says Yost, “is that life is fragile. You have to remember that. It just goes to show you that young players, and old managers at times, think we’re bullet-proof.
“You have to be careful in everything you do. Consequences can happen. It’s a hard message to think about it, because we don’t think about those things.’’
The Marlins will wear honorary patches on their chest in Fernandez’s honor this season. They have sealed and preserved Fernandez’s locker at Marlins Park. They also have tentative plans this summer to retire his number.
The Royals, who also will wear patches on their uniforms in Ventura’s honor, have yet to decide what they will do with Ventura’s locker in Kansas City.
Yet, for this spring, his locker – sandwiched between pitchers Joakim Soria on the left and Kelvin Herrera on the right – is empty.
The nameplate – Ace 30 – remains.
There will be constant reminders this spring for the Marlins and Royals. Friends of Ventura and Fernandez will share stories when they see one another. Even those players that barely knew them, but will forever have the bond of sharing a major-league uniform, will feel the emotional impact.
“I remember when [Fernandez] passed away,’’ Hosmer said, “we felt it over here. When something like that happens, everybody feels it throughout the game. Baseball is a fraternity, a brotherhood of players.
“We got a lot of calls from people checking on us.’’
Los Angeles Angels MVP Mike Trout had a skirmish with Ventura two years ago – arguing with one another at home plate – but that didn’t stop Trout from telephoning Hosmer before the funeral and offering his condolences.
Baltimore Orioles All-Star third baseman Manny Machado charged the mound, punched Ventura and threw him to the ground after he was hit by a pitch last June. Still, Machado telephoned Royals catcher Salvador Perez, expressing his sympathy.
“Everyone cares in this game,’’ Yost says. “It’s like when that happened in Miami. That crushed all of us. It was just like something nobody could believe.
“It was a terrible feeling throughout all of MLB.’’
One of the first telephone calls Royals GM Dayton Moore received after Ventura’s death was from Hill. They consoled one another through the tears. Hill provided guidance, knowing the anguish and heartache that lay ahead for an entire organization and community.
“I tried to be there and help him the best I could,’’ Hill said, “the way people were there for me. It will be difficult for them because it’s so fresh. We got a chance to get together, mourn together, and I feel like we grieved.
“I’ve never seen our guys as close as they were during that tragedy, the way they were there for each other. I think that is something that will carry over, and will take with us forever.’’
The Royals, scattered everywhere during the winter at the time of Ventura’s death, were able to mourn together a week later at the Royals’ fanfest in Kansas City. There were prayers. A candlelight vigil. And a time for reflection.
“It’s hard, and yes, it still hurts,’’ Moore told USA TODAY Sports. “This has always been a close-knit group, but now the bond between our players and our organization have deepened because of it. We also all understand the brevity of life, and Yordano reminded us that tomorrow isn’t promised to us.
“But I think our players will get through this. These players adapt better than most people on the planet. They’ve dealt with similar adversities in their life, and that’s what provided the toughness and grit to make them major-league players.’’
Certainly, it’s rare to lose a young teammate, but players lose relatives. They have friends, acquaintances, who have died far too early. No one, it seems, is spared the anguish of losing a loved one.
“Something like this absolutely brings guys closer,’’ says former New York Yankeesfirst baseman Mark Teixeira, an ESPN analyst who lost his best friend at 16 in a car accident. “It allows guys to have a common bond that they may not have.
“In baseball, we all come from different backgrounds. Sometimes, other than just being a teammate, you don’t have a lot in common. But when you lose a teammate, and have a tragedy like this, now there is a common bond that you never had before.’’
The healing will take time. No one will rush the grieving process. There will be times when it emotionally hits the Royals and Marlins, and other times their opponent. But the game, cruel as it may sound, stops for no one.
“The one thing we can do is stay together as a family,’’ says Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, “play in his memory, and keep remembering him.
“Not seeing him will be the toughest thing.
“But what we can do is try to make him proud.’’