Column: Ventura’s death reminds us to cherish sports and life while we can    

Nothing lasts forever.

That’s true of many things, but nowhere is it truer than in sports. Dynasties, winning streaks, losing streaks and healthy quarterbacks — they’re all cut short eventually. The Curse of the Billy Goat at Wrigley Field collapsed this year, and Connecticut’s 94-game run will someday come to an end. Even Steph Curry couldn’t keep his team at the top of the league forever.

It’s odd because, for most of us, sports are a constant. We wear the same jerseys every year, grumble about the same coaches and curse the same rivals. There’s upheaval, yes, when the underdog takes the championship or a star player is traded away. But sports themselves are always there.

Which is why, when something does end, it feels like such a shock. When the Cubs win the World Series. When Kevin Durant puts on a Warriors jersey. When Peyton Manning retires. There’s a bittersweet quality to this sudden change, an understanding that nothing will ever feel quite the same.

When a player dies, it’s something entirely different. It feels like something has been stolen.

On Sunday, Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura died in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. He was only 25. The news moved quickly. I found out from a Bleacher Report notification as I headed to the Daily Trojan office in the rain, wiping water off my screen to reread the words.

It was a sinking feeling, made almost overdramatic by the rare L.A. rainstorm soaking through my jacket. I didn’t have words for the feeling.

My hometown lowered flags to half-mast and lit up downtown in our colors of blue. Fans gathered outside Kaufmann Stadium with flowers and candles in hand. A dozen Royals players caught the red-eye to the Dominican, unable to stop crying during their phone interviews with ESPN.

The day taught me what I’d always known and yet always forget — how sports, in all their grit and beauty, tie us together and tear us apart over our love of these talented strangers whose time is often cut too short.

Ventura didn’t exactly fit the typical mold of the Royals. He was tall and scrawny and baby faced, the brim of his cap always seeming too wide for his head. He mouthed off from the mound and incited every bench-clearing brawl over Kansas City’s two-year run to the World Series. He was scrappy and hot-headed and fiercely competitive, and my God, his fastball was a thing of beauty.

As fans, we didn’t mind his rough edges. We liked the young guy, barely older than a college kid, who slung 100 mile-per-hour pitches and snarled at opponents and snatched balls straight out of the air. And for every fist fight that he started — and, of course, lost — there were equal times that we caught that puppy dog smile that he flashed when he shut down the top
hitter in the league.

“You were a tough one to deal with,” Royals infielder Cristian Colon said after Ventura’s death. “But your love and smile could always make everything OK.”

Colon’s words sum up who Ventura was to us. Something about him captured the spirit of being young and being an athlete, of being in love with a game and a team. He was just getting started. Which is why, in part, his death felt so devastating.

Here’s the thing about Ventura — he was supposed to be a success story.

This was a kid who dropped out of school as a 14-year-old to pick up a construction job to support his family. He tried out for the Royals with not much more than a lofty dream and a brilliant fastball, and he came up alongside Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez on the Royals’ famed farm teams.

Ten years after dropping out of high school, Ventura became a World Series champion. It’s one of those stories, the type of happy ending that makes your heart feel warm and fuzzy.

A year and a half later, he died in a car crash as unexpected as it was inexplicable. It’s horrific and devastating, and it just doesn’t make sense. It’s not how the story is supposed to go.

There was already a taste of tragedy in Ventura’s past. On the morning of Game 6 during the 2014 World Series, Ventura’s friend and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras died in a car crash in their home country.

Ventura wrote Taveras’ initials and number on his cap, dedicating the game — a victory for the Royals — to his friend’s legacy. He spoke afterwards about the impact that the tragedy impressed upon him.

“You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Ventura said after Game 6. “[My] biggest goal is to not leave anything behind, to give everything you have knowing that that could be the last game.”

That was a truth that Ventura knew, a truth that ended up spelling out the end of his life — that life is short, that every game, every season, could be the last.

It’s a painful lesson to learn in this way, but it’s one that I think must be remembered as often as possible. Things end, no matter what we say or do. And if Ventura taught us anything, it was how to live with fire, no matter the day or the game or the opponent.

My family loves baseball movies, and we have one favorite: Field of Dreams. In the days since Ventura’s death, I’ve thought often of that film, of the nostalgic image of an eternal baseball diamond for the greats of the game.

I hope Ventura found that diamond. I hope he’s playing ball with Taveras, slinging fastballs past Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. Because life is short, and an athlete’s prime is even shorter, and Ventura didn’t get enough of either. And if a player like him deserves anything, it’s a lifetime or two more of throwing from the mound.