'A terrible pain': Dominican Republic mourns Ventura, Marte
By Jesse Sanchez
Yankees first-base coach Tony Pena was already crying when someone leaned over and told him about Yordano Ventura's tragic death early Sunday morning.
New tears ran over those that had already dried.
Pena was in Pimental, Dominican Republic, at the funeral for former Major League infielder Andy Marte, who had also died hours earlier Sunday morning, when he heard the news. Marte, 33, and Ventura, 25, died in separate car accidents on different parts of the island. That two young lives would be taken within hours of each other upended the baseball community in the Dominican Republic and beyond, leaving family, friends and fans grappling with the sudden deaths of the men, and wondering how they would overcome the pain.
The deaths also renewed the lingering grief from the losses of several other players to car accidents in the Dominican Republic in recent years, including Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras in October 2014.
"The circumstances around these accidents. ... We just keep losing players year after year," Pena said. "I hope that these tragedies that happen can be a good lesson for some of the younger players. They get to the big leagues so young and just go away just like that, so quick. It's a very tough time for us. Yordano was very respectable and a great kid. He had his downsides, but he was a great human being and he loved to compete. We are going to miss him."
On Tuesday, following services that will commence at 9:15 a.m. CT and stream on LasMayores.com, Ventura will be laid to rest in a cemetery near the ocean in his hometown of Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic. The funeral procession will weave through the small northeast coastal town and stop in front of the ballpark where Ventura fell in love with the game as a child. Members of Kansas City's front office and several players are expected to meet with the Ventura family early Tuesday morning at their home.
Former and current players from other Major League teams also are expected to attend.
The details surrounding the Ventura accident are still unknown, although Royals general manager Dayton Moore said Sunday that speed was not a factor, but that Ventura was not wearing a seatbelt. Toxicology reports won't be available for 21 days.
The search for answers has led to one possible solution. Fernando Cuza, Abel Guerra and Giovanni Rodriguez, Ventura's agents at Independent Sports & Entertainment, are working with their clients and local baseball officials to help players have a safer offseason by providing drivers or a car service. The agency hopes to discuss the plan with Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association in the future.
But for now, there is just grief. Sadness has overtaken Las Terrenas.
"Every single time we played against Kansas City, he would look for me to give me a hug and say 'Hello Mr. Pena, how are you, sir?'" Pena said. "This is very sad and it's going to be very tough to deal with. Everybody is going through a terrible pain right now. We have lost two young players in one day."
Ventura, who signed with the Royals as an amateur free agent in '08, became a rising star in Kansas City and will be remembered for his zest for life, his passion for the game and the pride he felt for his beloved Dominican Republic. He emerged as an American League Rookie of the Year candidate in '14 and was a fan favorite with his dazzling fastball and infectious personality. At times, he also drew the ire of opponents.
"When he was pitching, he was a totally different guy, and that's the guy you want," Pena said. "When he was on the mound, everything was about him and the hitter. He didn't care who the hitter was. He was a young kid with a great future and great talent and he went away just like that."
Pena was hoping to spend some quality time with Ventura this spring. The manager of the Dominican Republic's World Baseball Classic team, Pena had penciled in Ventura in his rotation. It's almost certain his countrymen will find a way to honor Ventura at the tournament, maybe with a patch on their sleeves in his honor, his initials on their caps or his jersey hung in the dugout.
"I don't know how it will be. Hopefully, everybody can think about him and honor him, but at the same time, you have to put everything on the side," Pena said. "I know we are going to miss him like a brother. I know I'm going to miss him like a son."
He's right. Today's focus is on Las Terrenas, the loss of another young life and preventing the loss of more in the future.
"It's just a difficult time for the Dominican Republic," said Moises Alou, general manager of the Dominican Republic's World Baseball Classic team. "I can't believe it. I care about the players, their families and their careers. I had a long career and that's what I want for every single one of these kids, to take care of themselves and their families. You just never know what is going to happen."
Jesse Sanchez, who has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.