In the days before camp, they hung a large black banner over the front exit to the Royals clubhouse. This is the first sign that this spring training will be different.
The memorial stretches close to three feet across and two feet high. On the front, in big white block letters, is the same tribute that you will see covering the sleeves of Royals jerseys this season: “ACE 30.”
Across the room is an empty locker where Yordano Ventura used to dress. In another corner, there are young teammates he used to laugh with. All around are reminders large and small, little memorials to Ventura, the right-handed pitcher who died on Jan. 22 in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic.
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“It’s not something we’re going to get over,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said, standing in front of his locker on Monday morning. “It’s not something we’re going to forget.”
Ventura is gone now, and the season is here, and those two realities collided once more on Monday morning as the Royals’ pitchers and catchers officially reported to spring training. In all, 31 pitchers and eight catchers were set to arrive Monday. Those players will take the field for the first time on Tuesday morning. The rest of the roster will officially report Thursday before the first full-squad workout Friday.
In truth, many of the Royals’ regulars have been in town for days or even weeks. A group of position players, including Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and newcomer Jorge Soler, took batting practice on the main practice field Monday morning. They did the same thing on Sunday, too. Some were doing this for a week. Maybe they needed it.
On Monday, they came together for another unofficial day. Moustakas, back from a season-ending knee injury, laughed and talked about feeling like a freshman again. Perez sported a new hairdo, a curly fauxhawk of sorts with frosted blonde tips. Hosmer stepped into the batting cage sometime after 10 a.m. and took a few rounds of healthy cuts, providing the soundtrack for a quiet morning in the desert.
In most years, this scene would not have seemed especially poignant. For years, this core of Royals players started spring training early, making the extra work part of their routine. But in the days after arriving last Wednesday in Surprise, manager Ned Yost realized the early start was more than extra reps.
“You get through these things like this — these types of tragedies — you get through them together as a group,” Yost said. “And it takes time. But I think our guys are really focused on just being here with each other.”
On Monday, the group continued to balloon. In addition to the pitchers reporting to camp, infielders Whit Merrifield, Christian Colon, Cheslor Cuthbert and Raul Mondesi joined the veterans inside the clubhouse.
“It just shows you that they’re rarin’ to go,” Yost said. “It’s a good sign.”
So now it begins. For more than six weeks, the Royals will be together in Arizona, preparing for another run at the postseason, hoping to bury the memory of a frustrating, injury-plagued 81-81 finish in 2016. But now this baseball season will also be defined in other ways, of course, and for the moment the Royals are still processing the death of a friend, still grieving a loss that feels fresh.
“It’s tough to deal with,” Moustakas said. “The only thing we can do is stay together as a family and play in his memory and keep remembering him all the time.”
In some moments, Yost says, he will think through his roster or sort through his starting rotation, and he will still instinctively insert Ventura into the equation. Then it hits him again, like punch to the gut, the pain surfacing once more.
It happened again late last week. It will likely happen again soon. This is Royals spring training in 2017.
“He’s always on your mind,” Yost said. “Always. I still catch myself thinking about him being in our rotation for a second. It just takes time to work through that. And we’ll work through that as a group.”