SHAWNEE, Kan. -- There are few dry eyes in Royals country. The crash that took the life of Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura, 25, has left fans heartbroken, upon learning their up-and-coming star was gone.
That's certainly the case for one family from Johnson County, Kansas, who became friends of "Ace." Theirs was a friendship that began with a visit in the parking lot.
It was October 30th, 2014, and the Royals were gathering at Kauffman Stadium, celebrating their American League championship, one day after dropping Game Seven of the World Series to the San Francisco Giants.
Two of Jason Neland's five children, Joshua and Luke, were at the rally with their father, and the two boys tiptoed past a security guard into the players' parking lot.
"It was a shock that I was able to," Joshua Neyland, a fourth grade student at Maranatha Christian Academy, told FOX 4 News.
The first Royals player to summon the boys' attention was pitcher Yorando Ventura, who was sitting in his white SUV.
"It was cool meeting him because he was friendly and acting like he had known me for a while and I wasn't just some random kid," Neland said.
From that point on, Ventura and the Nelands became friends. Ventura enjoyed having Joshua cheer from the stadium seats while he warmed up in the bullpen before starting appearances. Joshua, who is known to his friends as "Bubba," even had Ventura's nickname, "Ace," embroidered on his hat.
"I just wanted to have the fastest pitcher be my favorite. Ever since I asked my dad who it was, and he told me Ventura," Neland said.
Sunday's bad news hit the Nelands like a hurricane. The family was walking out of a church service when they learned of the crash.
"I looked down at him, and he looked up at me, and I told him, "Ace is gone, Bubba. He died." It was like everything kind of paused," Jason Neland said.
"I just burst out into tears because I loved him, really, like a lot. I was crying really hard," Joshua Neland said.
The Nelands say they'll always cheer for the Royals, even thought their famous friend is no longer in uniform. When the season begins in April, they'll watch, but things will never be the same.