Royals FanFest is supposed to be a celebration of all things Royals, a way for fans to meet their favorite players, coaches, and commentators in the final days before Spring Training. FanFest 2017 will go down as something else: a memorial to fallen pitcher Yordano Ventura, who died in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic just five days before the first day of FanFest.
A memorial near the FanFest entry included a spotlighted mound with Ventura’s No. 30. Illuminated photos of the fallen ace stood where home plate would have been. Video and audio commentary filled the crowded room, and fans were able to sign memorial walls or leave behind memorabilia.
On the main stage, players spoke often of Ventura’s life and death and shared memories of the 25-year-old.
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Infielder Christian Colon talked about how he and his teammates ended up at the makeshift memorial outside Kauffman Stadium on Sunday, Jan. 22, to offer hugs to fans who had gathered at the stadium to pay their respects.
“I think when it happened, we didn’t know what to do or where to go,” Colon said. “(Danny) Duffy came over and we decided to go to the place we thought we needed to be. Seeing all you guys there, it was so special for us. We’re happy that we’re here and we get to see all you guys and grieve together.”
Ventura was learning English but had to lean on Colon as a translator in his first years in Kansas City.
“He asked me for a lot of random things,” Colon recalled. “He called me at two in the morning to order food for him. He was very particular about what he wanted. He wanted sauce on the wings or on the side. We’ll remember him, we’ll love him, and he’ll be our brother forever.”
Royals announcer Ryan Lefebvre gave a speech at a team-only event to honor Ventura. In front of the FanFest crowd, he shared his favorite memory.
“In 2014, I had no idea, obviously, we were going to win the World Series in 2015. But I knew this: thanks in large part to Yordano Ventura, I got to experience a Game 7 of a World Series with our team in our stadium. I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to do that again. Even though we lost that game, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I did when I drove to the ball park for a game seven, thinking wow, I get to broadcast a seventh game of a World Series with our team in our stadium. That will always be my greatest memory of him.”
Mike Swanson, Royals vice president of communications and broadcasting, said one of Ventura’s biggest rivals was the first to offer his condolences in the wake of the tragedy. Ventura and Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado had their well-known spat last season but left it on the field.
“You can only imagine the amount of calls and emails all of us got when word got out about this,” Swanson said. “But to see a message that soon after the fact from probably one of his biggest rivals, it just tells you how important everybody is to each other in this game and how we have each others’ backs.”
Pitcher Chris Young spent plenty of time with Ventura on off days. He recalled a positive young man who was full of energy. “When I think of any of our teammates, if somebody really epitomizes being alive and vibrant and active, it was Ace. To think he’s no longer with us, it’s just really hard for me to comprehend. He had such an amazing personality; free spirit and upbeat and always in a good mood. That’s what I remember. I can still hear his voice, just the excitement and energy of a young kid but somebody who had accomplished so much. It’s just such a tragedy and I still haven’t wrapped my head around it. I don’t know if we will at any point but we’ll do our best to go out and honor him the best we can.”
The upcoming KC Royals season
FanFest 2017 was not just about Ventura. Royals fans had the opportunity to meet new players signed in the offseason. Kansas City acquired pitcher Nathan Karns in the Jarrod Dyson trade to Seattle. Karns spoke of the home run he hit in July 2015. The homer was Karns’ first major league hit in six at bats, and his home run was the first one hit by an American League pitcher in four seasons.
Karns will be looking to have a bounce-back season. In 2015, he started 26 games for Tampa Bay, posting a 7-5 record and 3.67 ERA. Last season, he started just 15 games for Seattle with a 6-2 record and 5.15 ERA. Karns is a strikeout guy with 246 punchouts in 241.1 innings of work over those two seasons.
Royals General Manager Dayton Moore, speaking during a question-and-answer segment on the stage, said most of the free agent pitchers have already signed with teams. Kansas City will likely have to look within to fill the gap left by the death of Ventura.
Slugger Peter O’Brien saw limited time in Arizona over the past two seasons with just 74 at bats. He hit five home runs in just 64 at bats last season, and hit 34 homers in 399 at bats as a minor leaguer in 2014. He is hoping to make his mark at Kauffman Stadium.
Back-up catcher Drew Butera provided a much-needed moment of levity during the infielder’s stage session on Saturday when a pregnant fan asked the players to sign her baby bump. Butera, thinking he heard something else, immediately agreed with the request. It was only when the pregnant woman got to the stage that Butera realized he was signing her belly and not a baby book.