Sam McDowell: In appreciation of Alex Gordon, the ‘perfect ballplayer’ and a model Kansas City Royal

Tribune Content Agency

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — More than anyone else, Alex Gordon personified the Royals’ climb from punchline to parade.

He came here with so much promise. You remember that. College player of the year. Minor league player of the year. Dirty blonde hair, left-handed swing, third base. They compared him to George Brett before he ever played a professional game. What’s even crazier is Brett felt honored by the comparison.

Gordon received two standing ovations before his first big league at-bat, a strikeout with the bases loaded that foreshadowed so much struggle. Too many strikeouts. Not enough production. A devastating hip injury. You remember that, too.

Three years after that first game, the Royals asked him to change positions, and not because they knew what he would become in left field. The request came for two primary reasons: the next star prospect was ready for the big leagues, and the Royals had no more ideas about what to do with Gordon.

You know what happened next. Gordon felt freed. His mind reset. He found fun again, further away from the required precision of defending a spot 90 feet or so from home plate.

The results didn’t come, at least in the beginning. Gordon had a .665 on-base-plus-slugging percentage before the position switch in 2010, and .671 after. Stunk before, and stunk later. But he felt something, even if the rest of the world couldn’t see it.

Toward the end of that season — four years into a career going nowhere — Gordon promised to dominate the next year. He actually said that. Dominate.

Now, most of you know this already, but it’s worth emphasizing: Gordon is as outwardly cocky as a pot of soil. Unless approached or asked a specific question, he rarely speaks.

When the words come out, they are often efficient and occasionally cutting (like the time he told Billy Butler in no uncertain terms how badly another player could beat him up in a fight). But they are never self-promotional.

So when he said that — dominate! — it was so out of character he might as well have been speaking Chinese. This happened in Detroit, in the tunnel between the dugout and the visitors clubhouse. Bob Dutton, then The Star’s beat writer, asked Gordon to repeat the word. Gordon didn’t hesitate.

You remember what happened next, too. Danged if he didn’t dominate in 2011: .303/.376/.502 with 45 doubles, 23 home runs, 17 stolen bases and a Gold Glove.

Immediately, the talk turned from whether Gordon was part of the Royals’ future to whether the Royals could sign him long-term. They did, and from 2011 through the World Series celebration, Gordon was the game’s best left fielder measured by both FanGraphs’ and Baseball-Reference’s versions of Wins Above Replacement. He also won a Gold Glove in every full season he played in those years, including the Platinum Glove in 2014.

Gordon was the steady adult, partnering with a brash bunch of kids — including Mike Moustakas, the prospect who pushed Gordon to the outfield — to pull the Royals up. Last place in 2010, fourth in 2011, third in 2012, their first winning record in a decade in 2013, the American League pennant in 2014 and the World Series championship in 2015.

Late in games in those years, the Royals often paired Gordon with Jarrod Dyson in center and Lorenzo Cain in right. It was unquestionably the best outfield defense in baseball, and among the best ever.

Gordon played with a fearlessness that bordered on recklessness, crashing into walls all over the country. A familiar pattern developed: a sprint back, the catch made on the warning track, Gordon smashing against the fence, falling to the ground. He’d pause for a second, maybe three. Then he’d blow a bubble, pick himself up, and throw the ball back toward the infield.

It happened so often that teammate Luke Hochevar called it or anything like it the Total Gordo Move. Gordon’s own son took to mimicking the crashes against walls at home.

Here’s a Gordon story: Back when he was a third baseman, he always caught popups one-handed. Dutton noticed, and one day he told Gordon that if he ever dropped one, he’d be ripped in the paper the next day.

“Well, I better not drop one then,” Gordon said.

He did, eventually, and worse: The ball bounced up and split his lip. After the game, Gordon waited for Dutton at his locker.

“I knew you’d want to talk to me,” he said.

Another Gordon story: You might know he is obsessed with nutrition and fitness. His back looks stolen straight from the cover of Men’s Health. Grilled chicken, broccoli, maybe some sort of lean fish. That’s the Gordon diet. He went years without eating even a single slice of cake, or a cheeseburger.

A teammate — who adored Gordon, it should be noted — once joked that he could look like Gordon, but liked to keep just a pinch of fat around gut: “You know, just so the ladies know I’m not a square.”

Anyway, when the Royals won the World Series in New York, the Royals partied their faces off. Club officials pushed the return flight to Kansas City to the next day. The players, the coaches, their families — it was a scene. Asked later their favorite moment of the immediate celebration, several players cited Alex Gordon eating a french fry. Legend has it he even ate an entire slice of pizza that night.

One of the greatest careers in franchise history is ending this month. Gordon announced he will retire after this, his 14th big league season. Only Brett, Frank White, Amos Otis, Hal McRae and Willie Wilson played more games for the Royals, or collected more hits. Only White won more Gold Gloves.

Depending on what happens with Salvador Perez, who can know the next time a man will spend his entire career with the Royals?

He is just one ballplayer out of many who pushed the Royals to that championship. Cain was more dynamic, Moustakas hit more home runs and Eric Hosmer was always center stage. For many, those years will be defined by Perez’s smile, or the drop-dead certainty of Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland and Wade Davis in the late innings.

But those teams needed Gordon, too. They needed his defense, needed his steadiness, and they sure as heck needed that home run in Game 1 of the 2015 World Series, the one that tied it in the bottom of the ninth, making up for Hosmer’s error with two outs the inning before.

When Gordon got back to the dugout, Kauffman Stadium still literally shaking from the noise, Hosmer approached, screaming, “GIVE ME A (EXPLETIVE) HUG!”

The Royals won that night, of course. Hosmer even had his moment — he flipped his bat on a walk-off sacrifice fly in the 14th inning. Those teams always did that, didn’t they? They erased deficits. They won from behind. They covered each other’s mistakes.

Ned Yost, who managed Gordon’s rise, called him the perfect ballplayer. Dayton Moore said he’s prouder for Gordon’s career than any other in a lifetime working in baseball. Some players just work their way inside your heart.

The Royals’ next moments will come from new faces, with new personalities. Club officials hope they know some of those men already, but only time will tell. What we know for sure is that Gordon’s story will continue to be told, starting with the first day a player joins the organization.

Gordon’s story is one of failure, humility, adaptability, relentless work and, finally, success. He is not just the Royals’ rise personified. He is also as compelling an example as can be provided about how to manage baseball’s cruel and unending rhythms.

The stories will be passed down, and Gordon’s outfield work plan given to the most ambitious. If those players ever want to visualize what’s possible after failure, and tireless effort, perhaps soon they’ll see the statue of Gordon rounding first in the ninth inning of Game 1, finger pointed to the sky, a teammate’s mistake erased, a team’s beliefs restored, a lifetime of work rewarded.


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