Yordano Ventura's death leaves baseball in shock

The news of Yordano Ventura's death spread quickly Sunday morning and pierced the veneer of a sports world focused on the NFL playoffs and Grand Slam tennis. With each new expression of grief or tweet of confirmation, we experienced the same sequence of emotions: shock and disbelief, followed by a grudging sense of acceptance and an emptiness that words can't convey.

The timing -- on a Sunday morning, so close to the death of Jose Fernandez -- created a symmetry that made the news even harder to bear.

Nearly four months after Fernandez perished in a boat accident off the south Florida coast -- leaving a void in the Miami Marlins' locker room and eliciting a sense of disbelief among fans in his native Cuba -- another dynamic young pitcher has passed too soon. Shortly after reports surfaced that former big league infielder Andy Marte had died in a car accident in the Dominican Republic early Sunday morning, police confirmed that Ventura was killed in a separate accident on a highway about 40 miles from Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital.

The natural, human response is a question: How could this possibly be? When St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend died in a car accident in the Dominican Republic in October 2014, it was hard to think of a ballplayer dying so young under such tragic circumstances.

Now we have to process the loss of Fernandez, followed by the loss of Ventura, a close friend of Tavares who inscribed the outfielder's initials and uniform number on his cap before taking the mound for Kansas City in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series against San Francisco.

During a media conference call to address the news of Ventura's death, Royals general manager Dayton Moore said one of his first phone calls Sunday went to Miami president of baseball operations Michael Hill, who had to steer the Marlins' organization through its grief in the aftermath of Fernandez's fatal accident. Whether Moore was looking for advice or simply wanted to commiserate is impossible to say.

"The Marlins organization handled the situation with Jose with such grace and heart and innocence,'' Moore said. "There's no playbook for this. There's no script. Mike was able to provide me [with] some insight and just give me some comfort, really.''

Comparisons are inevitable. Between the lines, atop the pitcher's mound, Fernandez had attained a level of stardom and achievement at a younger age. He was a born showman and competitor whose name appeared in any discussion of baseball's elite starters. Fernandez had already won the Rookie of the Year Award and made two All-Star teams at age 23, inspiring Latino fans with the tale of his family's escape from Cuba by boat.

Ventura had yet to reach that level of performance in Kansas City, but he was making his way to the top in increments of 98-100 mph pitches.

Watching that arm and the natural zip on the ball when it left Ventura's fingertips, it's hard to believe he signed for just $28,000 out of the Dominican in 2008. Ventura was a mere 5-foot-11 and 140 pounds at age 17, but he carried himself with an undeniable swagger. He wanted to crack triple digits on the radar gun with every pitch, and the coaches entrusted with teaching him his craft had to quietly admonish him to focus on trusting his stuff and repeating his delivery.

The Royals referred to Ventura as "Ace," in honor of Jim Carrey's pet detective. And the prospect publications that heralded him as the Next Big Thing routinely referred to him as "Lil Pedro," in honor of another undersize, rocket-armed right-hander.

"He looks small," Royals manager Ned Yost said of Ventura during a 2013 interview. "But Pedro Martinez was small, too."

Too many times, Ventura's temper and competitive instincts would get the better of him, and he would land in the middle of Pedro-caliber dustups. During a regrettable stretch in April 2015, Ventura buzzed Mike Trout and elicited a seven-game suspension for drilling Brett Lawrie. The narrative of Ventura as a hothead continued in August, when he received an eight-game suspension for hitting Baltimore's Manny Machado in the back with a 99 mph fastball.

But the Royals spent $23 million on a contract extension for Ventura in April 2015 with the expectation that he would harness his emotions and graduate to the next level. And the teammates who fed off his energy were united in the faith that professional growth would come with time and he would be an All-Star. He was simply too talented and driven to settle for anything less.

"Yordano always had a zest for life and an innocence about the game,'' Moore said. "A freshness. A fearlessness. He was a passionate human being who loved to compete.

"No doubt he challenged us, but that made us better. No one can doubt how much he cared about the fans and how much he loved to compete and to pitch.''

And now, suddenly, baseball is left to mourn Ventura in much the same way it mourned Jose Fernandez in September. Two of the game's young, charismatic pitchers have been taken on Sunday mornings less than four months apart.

It's almost impossible to comprehend.