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Ventura’s flame will always burn

Forever Royal.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

With their backs against the wall, the Kansas City Royals had no room to spare. They were down three games to two in the 2014 World Series against the San Francisco Giants. Beautiful Kauffman Stadium was the backdrop, a ravenous crowd with nothing to lose the soundtrack. The energy was palpable and thunderous.

A few weeks previous, the Royals played the American League Wild Card game on the same ground. There are many, many great postseason games, many great elimination games. That Wild Card game was truly special, an exquisite example of the ultimate unpredictability of baseball. The Royals, in their first playoff game in 29 years, played with their hair on fire. The game ended on a walkoff single by Salvador Perez, the ball skidding past a helplessly diving Josh Donaldson. It was total elation.

Kansas City’s victory and the game’s relative insanity (17 total runs! 13 total pitchers! 7 stolen bases by the Royals!) obscured a gigantic mistake earlier in the game. James Shields, Royals starter, began to struggle in the sixth inning. At the beginning of the frame, the Royals led the Oakland Athletics 3-2 and had a 67% chance of winning the game, per Baseball-Reference. Shields allowed two batters to get on base—Donaldson and Sam Fuld—and then Royals manager Ned Yost pulled him. Rather than placing one of his seasoned bullpen guys in, Yost went with a relatively obscure choice: a rookie fireballer named Yordano Ventura, who had only been a starter in the Major Leagues. After the game, Yost said he wanted to force the Athletics to deal with Ventura’s triple-digit fastball.

Ventura promptly served up a meatball to his first batter, Brandon Moss, who promptly crushed the pitch for a three-run homer. After giving up another single and grabbing a flyout, Kelvin Herrera came in to try to clean up. With a man on third base and no room for error, Herrera did get the final two outs of the inning, though he yielded two additional runs in the process. Ventura’s painful badness was the catalyst for an inning that saw Oakland gain a 7-3 lead—and a 91% chance of victory.

Almost a month later, a young man by the name of Oscar Taveras, a rookie outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, died in a car accident in the Dominican Republican, along with his girlfriend Edilia Arvelo.

Taveras was a top prospect, a rising star. He was full of potential, if nothing else. There’s a world out there where Taveras just won a National League MVP and is a superstar with a Subway commercial. But not this one. Taveras had been drinking heavily, with a reported blood alcohol content of .287, almost six times the legal limit of .05 for the Dominican Republic. He was also speeding, and the confluence of poor choices led to the tragic death of two individuals.

Things are sad all the time, and their ubiquitous commonality yields a gulf between trivial and terrible that is gigantic. If the Dr. Pepper is out at Quick Trip, that’s a little sad. The Kansas City Chiefs frustrating series of divisional round losses is sad. A grandparent who lost their battle with cancer or who passed away in the night is extremely sad.

But tragedies are a different beast together, and are qualitatively different. Sadness is there when there is loss. Tragedies also exist when there is loss, but only when that loss is great, brutally unfair, and often when the loss is totally preventable.

The death of Taveras and Arvelo was a tragedy. Taveras was drunk to hell, and his preventable recklessness brought death to him and an innocent woman who he loved. Taveras was 22 years old.

With their backs against the wall, the Kansas City Royals had no room to spare. They were down three games to two in the 2014 World Series against the San Francisco Giants. Beautiful Kauffman Stadium was the backdrop, a ravenous crowd with nothing to lose the soundtrack. The energy was palpable and thunderous.

Yordano Ventura, close friend of Taveras, slowly sauntered to the mound after the Kansas City Symphony finished their impeccable rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Ventura’s baseball cap read ‘RIP O.T #18’ in white marker, a tribute to Taveras’ death only two days previous. In the biggest stage and role possible, Ventura stood against the world, with that same world on his shoulders.

Ventura threw fire. He struck out the very first batter of the game. Seven shutout innings later, he had only allowed three hits. Kansas City was losing its mind. The stadium creaked and rattled and shook with the standing ovation of 40,000 individuals rabidly cheering Ventura’s name on the most important night of his professional life.

The Royals lost the next game and the series. But they won the 2015 World Series, Ventura making an additional five starts in that postseason. Thirty long years had passed since Kansas City last saw a major sports championship. It was, as Dayton Moore wrote in a book a year later, more than a season.

On January 22nd, 2017, Yordano Ventura’s flame flickered out in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic. He was 25 years old. The very same day, retired baseball player Andy Marte died in a car crash in the same country, the crash unrelated. In September 2016, Miami Marlins’ star pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident off the coast of Miami.

The pain of hearing of an athlete’s untimely death is always there, even if it is to a player with which you have no connection. It’s so easy to empathize with the other fans, so easy to see how a death of a beloved figure affects a fanbase and organization.

For Royals fans, this is not just a tragedy, but a nightmare. There is no empathizing here. This pain is pointed and our own. For years I’ve wondered what just how different it would be like if a Kansas City player died like Taveras or Fernandez, how it would feel. I don’t have to anymore.

None of us know Ventura. We can think we do. But we don’t. There is no way to apply our standard for judging human character for a celebrity; we don’t know if Ventura is trustworthy, selfless, kind, loyal, and we don’t just know if he used his money and influence truly for good.

For Royals fans, though, that line of reasoning is a dead end from the start. For us, in a world of car crashes, hatred, pettiness, and cruelty, Ventura gave us moments of pure joy. Every pitch had the capacity to be special, every outing the possibility of something new. Ventura’s best moments, like 2014 Game Six, will be firmly burned in our minds for a long time, and his contributions directly led to the greatest Kansas City sports achievements in an entire generation.

Success in life can be measured in wildly different ways, and discussing a life’s success is so complicated to be a non-starter in most cases. But it’s hard to argue that a life well-lived is a life that gives others joy, one that isn’t easily forgotten, one that leaves a legacy, and one that leaves behind people who miss you.

Christian Colon wrote this about Ventura in the hours after his death went public:

How can I even begin to explain how much I cared about you? You were like a little brother to me. You were a tough one to deal with but with your love and smile you could always make everything ok. We would have long conversations about life, about how much we wanted to be great in all aspects of life. I knew the struggle you had to overcome to get to where you where and I could always see it in your eyes that you wanted more. I knew your secrets and I knew your strengths. I knew anytime you needed a teammate to help you with something, that teammate would be me. I’m so happy to be able to say I knew you. I’m gonna miss you more than you know. I know at times you were tough but I knew u were just misunderstood. Love you bro and you will forever have a special place in my heart.

It seems like Ventura’s life was sucessful to me.

Rest in peace, fireball.