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A year after Ventura's death, KC still hurting

MLB.com @FlannyMLB

KANSAS CITY -- Shock. Disbelief and denial. Overwhelming sadness.

One year ago today, Royals players, club officials and fans awoke to the tragic news, likely sifting through an array of emotions as they stared at their cell phones, trying to comprehend the words: Royals star pitcher Yordano Ventura was dead at the age of 25 after an auto accident in the Dominican Republic.

KANSAS CITY -- Shock. Disbelief and denial. Overwhelming sadness.

One year ago today, Royals players, club officials and fans awoke to the tragic news, likely sifting through an array of emotions as they stared at their cell phones, trying to comprehend the words: Royals star pitcher Yordano Ventura was dead at the age of 25 after an auto accident in the Dominican Republic.

Some Royals players got the news on Twitter. Some got the news through a group text from veteran Alex Gordon, who confirmed Ventura's passing through the club.

• Posnanski: Yordano left indelible mark in KC

"It was just so hard to comprehend," Gordon told MLB.com by phone. "It was so hard to grasp. Why did it happen? How could it have happened?"

Royals general manager Dayton Moore's cell phone began ringing that morning as he boarded an early flight from Kansas City to Atlanta. Friends and other club officials wanted to know if the news was true.

At first, Moore was convinced they were referring to Andy Marte, a former big leaguer whom Moore had known in the Braves' organization in the early 2000s. Marte, coincidentally, also had died in an auto accident in the Dominican several hours earlier.

But by the time Moore's flight landed, the commissioner's office had confirmed to him the awful truth.

"It's almost impossible to grasp right away," Moore said, looking back. "We signed Yordano as a kid and we knew him before he became a man. But as the day went on and the more calls we made, the more it became real to me."

In his role as general manager, Moore really had precious little time to grieve. Duty called. He had a job to do, phone calls and arrangements to make. And above all else, he had to lead the organization, almost as a paternal figure, through this sorrowful time.

Later that night, several players, including Gordon, Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy and then Royals infielder Christian Colon, gathered at Kauffman Stadium for an impromptu vigil. As they neared the front doors, fans already had begun placing memorial flowers and tributes to Ventura outside.

"That night helped me a lot," Gordon said. "It helped to grieve with friends."

Two days later, Moore and other club officials, Royals players including Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez, and other Major League players arrived in the Dominican for Ventura's funeral.

Tweet from @LasMayores: Miles de adoloridos seres humanos despiden a Yordano Ventura en la RD. Escriben @JesseSanchezMLB y @FlannyMLB: https://t.co/4dqkFPNpJF pic.twitter.com/WWa0fLqHye

Thousands of Ventura's fans attended and walked the progression through the streets of his hometown of Las Terrenas. And to this day, Perez still can't bring himself to speak of Ventura's passing publicly.

"Everyone grieves differently," Duffy said. "There's no playbook for it."

But an unexpected blessing soon would appear on the horizon. Just a few days later, the club's annual Fan Fest would take place.

"To be honest," Moore said, "it couldn't have come at a better time."

Indeed, there were several hallmarks of healing ahead.

First, there was a private memorial service for players and club officials just prior to Fan Fest. As players and coaches and officials eulogized Ventura, sadness began to be replaced by the joyful memories of Ventura's playful persona.

Tweet from @FlannyMLB: Pitcher's mound at the Yordano Ventura memorial tribute pic.twitter.com/QVOeJ71Mpr

"He may have rubbed some people the wrong way," Gordon said, "but if you knew him, he didn't mean anything by it. He was just passionate about everything he did. And the kid loved to have fun."

Thousands of fans poured into Fan Fest that weekend to see a special tribute to Ventura's career in a room on the top floor at downtown Bartle Hall -- the tribute was complete with a mound decorated by an "ACE 30" banner.

"As an organization, as a city, as a community, I couldn't have been more proud of how everyone came together and rallied around each other," Moore said. "I don't think I'll ever forget that. I was very honored to be part of this organization through it all."

The next stage of healing came on the first day of Spring Training when manager Ned Yost gathered his players around for his annual first-day-of-camp speech.

Tweet from @FlannyMLB: Yordano Ventura tribute here in Surprise pic.twitter.com/pBaHJDx8mO

"It was a great speech," Gordon said. "Ned talked less about the sadness and grieving and more about just celebrating the person Yordano was, feeling grateful for having known him, remembering his smile, his silly laugh, just the funny way he pronounced things even in his own language. The kid had charisma."

There were more tributes to come, such as the one prior to the first Spring Training game in Surprise, Ariz., and then on Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium.

"Opening Day, to see all those people with tears in their eyes," Gordon said, "that was something. And as each moment like that passed, you move on. You remember but you have to move on."

Video: OAK@KC: Royals have a moment of silence for Ventura

Still, now a year later, the healing is not completely over.

"I still miss the kid," Duffy said. "Always. All those tributes helped. But it didn't make it any more real for me."

Added former Royal Chris Young, who lockered close to Ventura for two years, "I really can't believe it's been a year since Ace passed away. He was such a youthful, passionate, vibrant person ... a big kid. He had a big heart and was always so outgoing to me and my family. It still saddens me to think about the unfulfilled potential of Ace, not as a baseball player, but as a person."

For some, there are lessons to be learned from the tragedy.

"So often we get so wrapped up in our daily lives, the day-to-day existence, that we don't stop to realize how short life is, how fragile it is," Moore said. "I think Yordano's passing was a reminder to all of us of that, to take the time to stop and appreciate."

For others, the Royals clubhouse will never be quite the same.

"I want to keep his spirit around," Duffy said. "Sometimes I really believe he is still around.

"But yes, he's gone. I know that. But I also know we'll see him again. Just not in this place."

Jeffrey Flanagan has covered the Royals since 1991, and for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter @FlannyMLB.

Kansas City Royals