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SURPRISE, Ariz. – Day after day, the locker kept filling up. At first, Danny Duffy tried the surreptitious route, jumping on eBay with an anonymous account, bidding on memorabilia, gathering items to send to a grieving woman he never has met. This was his duty. A million things would be said about Yordano Ventura, a million more written, a million more thought. But what could he do? That’s what Duffy kept asking himself.
He could help her remember. The Kansas City Royals lost a pitcher, and the players lost a friend, and the fans lost a beacon, but Marisol Hernandez – she lost a son. He was 25, driving on a Dominican highway, and a crash took him from her forever. She would never forget, of course, but if even for a moment she did, Duffy wanted her to be able to look at a few things that captured him at his finest, in a Royals uniform, and remind her the impact her son created in but a quarter century.
So Duffy logged into the auction site, bid $100 on a bobblehead, won it and put in the address: 1 Royal Way. The seller noticed, someone tweeted about it and the kind gesture found an unexpected audience. At first, Duffy chafed at the publicity, but then something wonderful started to happen. Someone sent him a limited-edition baseball card of Ventura, 1 of 1. And another person sent a different Ventura bobblehead. And a different person sent Ventura’s Lego likeness. And others sent handwritten notes. And the mail just kept coming, volumes of it, enough that Duffy’s locker at Kauffman Stadium turned into a makeshift memorial to his teammate, his friend.
“It just speaks to how awesome Kansas City is,” Duffy said. “We’re lucky to play there.”
Nobody inside the Royals organization knew quite how to react when Ventura, a resplendent talent who they believed was on the cusp of greatness, died Jan. 22. Sadness overwhelmed them, but the immediacy of the shock would pass, and that’s when the confusion set in. It crystallized here on the first day of spring training, where pitchers and catchers reported, where almost all of the Royals’ players were already because being early is practically mandatory, where a locker sat empty, memorializing the man that should’ve been there.
“It’s becoming real,” Duffy said. “That’s the reality of it, man. We’re not going to see him again. It’s tough. It’s definitely tough. But we’re going to have a year that all of us will not soon forget.”
The Royals are still trying to find the right balance to their cocktail of optimism and grief. Duffy was smiling at the special handshake he and Ventura shared before every game and their back-and-forth about how they spoke – Ventura’s gigabit-speed Spanish and Duffy’s languid California monotone. Spend eight months in a clubhouse with a guy … spend all those days you’re not pitching on the bench with him … spend pitchers’ meetings with him … spend a magical October together, as they did in 2015 – do all that, and you get to know a guy.
And as much as Ventura could annoy the Royals, and as much as his partying did make them fear something like what happened, he was their little brother, the one they expected to grow into something even better than them. Like Ventura before him, Duffy signed a long-term contract extension with the Royals this offseason, locking him in for half a decade. They were going to do great things together. They were going to win another championship.
Then the text came. Duffy saw it after a run. Alex Gordon, the longest-tenured Royal, sent it to a group of players. Ace was gone. He’d died in a car accident. Duffy tried to process it. He struggled. He needed … something. So he reached out to his teammate, Christian Colon, and suggested they head to Kauffman Stadium, where fans had gone to pay their respects. When he arrived, Duffy started to embrace strangers.
“Selfishly, it helped us out a lot, too,” he said. “We saw people who cared about him as much as we did. I thought it was the right thing to do. If anybody out there needed a hug, I’d hug on them.”
Time has passed, and the sting fades a little every day, and he realizes, just like the Marlins did with Jose Fernandez, like the Cardinals did with Oscar Taveras, like the Angels did with Nick Adenhart, like every team that loses a brother to something so senseless, that life continues and all they can do is honor Ventura in a deserving fashion.
“We’ll play for him,” Duffy said. “We’ll play for each other, really, really hard. Harder than you’ve ever seen us play. I’ve never been through something like this before. Neither have any of these other dudes. It’s going to be difficult. We’ll have to lean on each other a lot.”
In seven weeks, when spring training is over, when his time pitching for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic is exhausted and another season beckons, Duffy will head back to Kansas City for another year. He’s excited for the season, for everything it holds. He’s excited, too, to go to the stadium and see the new treasures that have arrived, the notes, the cards, the trinkets, all the things to send to Marisol Hernandez to let her know that her son may be gone but Kansas City cannot, will not, forget him.
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