SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Yordano Ventura's brashness gave rise to a public perception that could be less than flattering. From brushes with Major League Baseball justice to stare-downs and combative exchanges with Manny Machado, Mike Trout and others, Ventura played the game with an edge that was too robust to fit in his 6-foot, 195-pound package.
That combustible Ventura was a world removed from the playful side on display within the confines of the Kansas City Royals' clubhouse -- or the tender, nurturing side that Ventura showed while dispensing acts of kindness in a children's cancer ward.
People who came to know Ventura during his eight seasons with the Royals' organization recall that he loved spending time with kids at local hospitals, and he had a gift for relating to them. His outreach efforts stemmed in part from losing his friend, former minor league teammate and fellow Dominican Republic native Carlos Fortuna, to cancer at age 22 in 2013.
One particular interaction with an ailing child continues to resonate today, three weeks after Ventura's death in a car accident in the Dominican Republic.
The little girl's name was Amelia Meyer, and she met Ventura last spring in conjunction with a calendar photo shoot for a cancer-related charity. The day before Amelia turned 9, Ventura handed her a baseball with "Happy Birthday'' written on it and spent time with her at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium playing catch, swinging a bat and bonding amid shared smiles.
"He was quiet and soft-spoken with her and her family, and made an indelible impression on her,'' Deliece Hofen, president of Braden's Hope for Childhood Cancer, said in an email. "There was no way to know that a few weeks later, tumor growth would be seen and in October Amelia would earn her angel wings.''
Amelia died in October but lived on with Ventura in a photograph that served as January's entry in the 2017 "A Year of Hope'' calendar. Before the month was over, Ventura flipped his Jeep on the Juan Adrian Highway in San Jose de Ocoa and died at age 25. And the irrepressible joy expressed in the photo they share has been replaced by an unspeakable sadness.
Those little, personal touches are foremost in the thoughts of teammates who know it will be a long time before they come to grips with the magnitude of the tragedy.
As the Royals begin spring workouts at Surprise Stadium, the void of Ventura's absence is most acute at the far end of the clubhouse, where relievers Kelvin Herrera and Joakim Soria sit on opposite sides of an empty locker stall with an "ACE 30" placard at the top. Soria was at his offseason home in Arizona getting ready for spring training on Jan. 22 when he received the news that he called "heartbreaking.''
Pain is also evident in the quiet recollections of pitcher Danny Duffy, one of Ventura's starting rotation mates in Kansas City. Both pitchers endured their share of setbacks while establishing themselves in the majors, eventually striking up a friendship that transcended language and cultural barriers. Duffy, a California native, received a $365,000 bonus as a third-round pick in the 2007 first-year player draft, and Ventura signed for $28,000 as a scrawny 140-pounder a year later. But they developed a special rapport that was manifested by their pregame handshake ritual and good-natured ribbing in the clubhouse.
"I always used to say he spoke Spanish like an Italian guy,'' Duffy said. "The way he would just rattle things off and there was so much emphasis on every word. He would say 1,000 words in 10 seconds in Spanish. I didn't know what the heck he was saying, but we would make fun of it. And he would make fun of me because I talked slow and I'm monotone. It was funny. He was a good kid -- a really good kid.''
The Royals are wearing "Ace 30'' patches on their uniforms and plan to honor Ventura this season, but in many ways they'll be flying blind in their mourning. Manager Ned Yost steered his team through tragedy during the Royals' 2015 championship season, when Mike Moustakas, Chris Young and Edinson Volquez all lost parents during a painful 10-week span. But it will take a collective effort for the players to soldier on in Ventura's absence. Yost still catches himself writing out his starting rotation and inserting Ventura's name by force of habit.
"This happens every day to countless people all over the country,'' Yost said. "They lose family members and it's very, very difficult to move on. It takes time. There's no statute of limitations on missing somebody. When this happened, I don't think anybody thought about his contributions on the field. What we're going to miss is the relationships we built over the last three or four years with him. That's where the hole is.''
The 2017 season will be equally challenging for Royals assistant GM Rene Francisco, the man who signed Ventura as a teenager, and the array of coaches who invested so much time and patience in his development and had begun to see signs of greater maturity and commitment.
Shortly before Ventura's death, assistant GM J.J. Picollo spoke with Dominican field coordinator Victor Baez, who told Picollo that Ventura was as focused as the Royals' coaches had seen him. Ventura spent more time than ever working out at the team's Dominican academy this offseason, and he was scheduled to throw his first side session of the winter two days after his fatal crash.
"He always had that smile, and no matter how mad you were at him, he was going to make you laugh. The impression that people in the game had of him was different than the actual person"Royals assistant GM J.J. Picollo on Yordano Ventura
Picollo's mind still flashes back to September 2013, when the Royals summoned Ventura from their Triple-A Omaha farm club. Barely a week after Ventura's arrival, the team held a banquet to honor its top minor leaguers, and Ventura texted Picollo and asked for permission to attend. A half-hour into the dinner, Picollo noticed Ventura paying close attention to Miguel Almonte, another top pitching prospect from the Dominican Republic.
"He sat next to Almonte,'' Picollo said. "He was ordering dinner for him and speaking English for him. He was helping. He had been up in the big leagues for a week, and he was there because he wanted to take care of the young Latin kids. You could see that.''
These moments when Ventura showed an inherent goodness help explain why the Royals kept their faith in him -- even when he could be so exasperating.
"He always had that smile, and no matter how mad you were at him, he was going to make you laugh,'' Picollo said. "The impression that people in the game had of him was different than the actual person.''
Of all the attributes the Royals will miss in Ventura, his genuineness will rank near the top. He was immature and still learning how to handle setbacks, but every last emotion was real.
"There's a void in all of our hearts,'' Duffy said. "We're not going to see him again. To not see him walking in from the bullpen with the focus and the intensity he had, it's going to be hard.
"You just remember what you had with him and try to look back fondly on his life and everything he accomplished in his short time here on earth. And you know he's in a better place now.''