Commentary

No more doubters for Sox's Beckham

Rookie third baseman down to earth, but full of confidence

Originally Published: August 5, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- James Beavers gets a lot of phone calls from struggling baseball players.

As coach of the premier summer league team in the great state of Georgia, Beavers is on speed dial with dozens of alumni scattered across the country, from the Southeastern Conference to the New York Penn League to the National League. Everyone calls Coach, and he has long been accustomed to the highs and lows of a baseball player's life.

But this voice mail was different. After all, how often did White Sox third baseman Gordon Beckham, the happiest kid in Georgia, sound ... depressed?

"I had never heard Gordon with that tone," Beavers said. "He wasn't used to not being successful. He was saying he couldn't get one ball to drop."

This was in June. Just two months earlier, Beavers, the coach of the famed East Cobb Yankees in suburban Atlanta, was hearing a different tune from Beckham as he took the minors by storm.

[+] EnlargeGordon Beckham
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesWhite Sox third baseman Gordon Beckham does not lack for confidence, or talent.

But Beckham's debut with the White Sox wasn't going as he had planned. He was hitless in his first 13 at-bats, then 2 for his next 15. His promotion was met with skepticism (Just 59 games in the minors!) and fanfare (He's better than Josh Fields!).

Gordon Beckham, the SEC Player of the Year and the No. 8 pick in the 2008 amateur draft, was mired in an honest-to-goodness slump, the kind that gets lesser players buried on the bench or waiting for standby at the airport gate.

"I was feeling it pretty hard," he said.

Contrary to popular opinion, 22-year-old Beckham, who grew up in the Atlanta area, had struggled before -- just not for very long.

There was his freshman year at the University of Georgia, when the coaches decided to ban him from switch-hitting a few days before the season started. Twenty-four games into his college career, he was only hitting .247.

"It had been years since he had seen a right-hander throw a curveball away from him," Beavers said. "I don't think it bothered him as much as he had to get used to it."

Of course, Beckham wound up hitting .280 and was named a Freshman All-American. He started every game in his record-setting Georgia career, winning numerous awards en route to the College World Series and the first round of the draft.

Before that, when he was a junior in high school, he had to fight his way onto the powerful Yankees team.

His father, Gordon Beckham Jr., the president and CEO of an Atlanta-based financial and insurance software company, remembers their having lunch with Beavers and another coach in the fall of his son's junior year.

"All the kids in Atlanta, all the kids in the state of Georgia, want an invitation to play with the East Cobb Yankees," the elder Beckham said in a phone interview. "We had lunch with a coach and [Beavers], and they implied that Gordon wasn't good enough to play for them, and that they might consider him. That was an interesting lunch. After that, Gordon was bound and determined to show them that he was good enough to be on that team."

Two summers later, Beckham was the MVP of the Connie Mack World Series. Both his father and his coach said he worked harder than anyone in those years to make himself the player he is today.

"He struggled with us as a 17-year-old," Beavers said. "Those were real struggles, but he worked his way through it.

"One thing that drives Gordon is when someone doubts him," his father said. "Gordon will go to all ends of the earth to prove to doubters he can do whatever they doubt."

Yeah, James Gordon Beckham III (Beckham and his father go by Gordon) had faced adversity before, and he has succeeded every time. Why should the majors be any different?

Well, for one, this wasn't Connie Mack or even the SEC. American League pitchers don't care about your personal narrative.

"I started off real slow," Beckham says now, sipping on a Gatorade in the White Sox clubhouse. "It was probably the most stressed out I've ever been in my life."

Beckham had never known this kind of stress. But he soon realized he just needed to exhale, needed to stop trying to pull the ball and, sure, needed a little luck too. Soon, the hits started dropping in and third base got a little easier, and he was back to normal. Maybe it wasn't so different.

While breaking his 2-for-28 start, he picked up five RBIs in a four-game hitting streak, and the White Sox won three of those games. He ended June with consecutive three-hit games, driving in another four runs.

Twice in July, he picked up six hits in a series against the hated Twins. He went 4-for-12 against the Yankees and knocked in six runs. As of Aug. 4, he had at least one RBI in nine of his past 10 games.

"I was really just putting way too much pressure on myself and then soon as I got out of it, it's been so easy," Beckham said. "I got over that hump, and doing that gave me as much confidence as I'm ever going to need."

After going 2-for-4 with a home run and two RBIs in a 5-4 win over the Angels on Tuesday, Beckham was hitting .316 with six homers and 38 RBIs in 53 games. He hit .330 with three homers and 18 RBIs in July, earning him rookie of the month honors in the league. As of Wednesday, with runners in scoring position, he's hitting .426 (20-for-47) and slugging .596. With two outs and runners in scoring position, he's hitting .524 (11-for-21) with 11 RBIs.

"I'll wait for him in December when they name him rookie of the year," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "That's the big one. The only bad thing about it is the PR department is going to make me fly all the way from Venezuela or Miami to introduce the trophy and give it to him. But I will be more proud to do it. That's something we've been waiting for."

The White Sox lost to the A's 7-0 in Beckham's debut, falling to 25-28. Guillen had been resistant to the Beckham talk. Two days before the call-up was when he made that fateful comment that if they needed Beckham, they were in trouble.

Guillen will tell you now that he did it for the kid's own good. But the Sox manager was doing it for his veterans, too, and for himself, a former player. He respects guys who can play, not the number of zeros in their check.

"Like I said early in the season when people were rushing, people were demanding, I said, 'Hey, this kid's going to be good,'" Guillen said. "How good is he going to be? We'll see. But he's been great."

Since Beckham's debut, the Sox are 30-24, not a world-beating record but it had them within a game of the AL Central lead going into Aug. 5. Beckham certainly has been one of the catalysts. At first, it was Beckham and fellow rookie Chris Getz sparking the bottom of the order as an athletic, one-two punch.

"I don't think anyone is ever ready for their first big league stint, no matter how much time you spend in the minor leagues," Sox leadoff hitter Scott Podsednik said. "But the way he's come up and handled it, has been very impressive. He comes out with some swagger, he takes the field with confidence and he's helped us out tremendously. "

Beckham recently was moved to the second spot in the lineup, where he was hitting .407 and slugging .708 in front of three veterans. Surely, the scouting reports will catch up to him -- if not this year, then the next. But everyone is confident he'll adjust right back.

Beckham's popularity hasn't reached critical mass yet. It's still that calm before the storm time when he can walk through the city unencumbered and joke with reporters who haven't had to report anything negative. The Beckham jerseys are flying off the shelves, too. Sox officials say they can't remember the last time a first-year player sold this well. Sox fans find themselves singing The Outfield's "Your Love," Beckham's impossibly cheesy at-bat song. He lives in Trump Tower, not the usual rookie address, and he enjoys "finding a corner spot at the bar" and eating at nice restaurants. Socially, he's no Derek Jeter, but his Minka Kelly days can't be too far off (Read the lyrics to "Your Love").

"You're not going to be popular unless you produce," Guillen said. "If your production is good, you're going to be popular, no matter what. That's the way it is. Hopefully this kid can keep it up and make sure this thing doesn't go to his brains and to his head and all of a sudden he starts walking high."

There's the rub. Beckham doesn't like being called cocky, probably because it connotes that he's arrogant. He didn't mean to congratulate general manager Kenny Williams when he drafted him, as Williams told reporters, but it just came out that way.

"People took that the wrong way, people took it as arrogant," he said. "The way I wanted it presented was, I'm going to work hard for this organization, play hard for them and do as much as I possibly can to make them look good."

But maybe the cocky label isn't a bad thing, said his father, who starred at quarterback for the University of South Carolina in the 1980s. (The original J. Gordon Beckham played football at Georgia before a career-ending injury.)

"I know his entire life he's been supremely confident in himself and what he can do," Gordon Beckham Jr. said in a phone interview as he rushed to catch a flight. "I see the term cocky used a little bit. I think you have to have confidence to be successful at the level he's playing because the other side of confidence is intimidation."

Beckham moves easily in the Sox clubhouse. He gets picked on plenty, from his Southern rock haircut to his cheerful mien in dealing with the media. He got the hazing treatment in spring training from catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who has worn out a rookie or 10 in his career, and he gets it still today. But everyone likes what he can on the field. There were plenty of smiles after he homered against the Angels.

"It's the 'Gordon Effect', that's what I call it," Beavers said. "He's got electricity, he's a young guy. He's got enthusiasm."

When Beckham told me how stressed out he was earlier this season, I laughed. I asked him whether he had ever been stressed before in his relatively charmed life.

Here, he could've brought up the switch-hitting thing or talked about his days training like crazy to make the East Cobb Yankees while his friends went on vacation or worked odd jobs.

Instead, he agreed with me. I don't know whether he was being polite or confident. Maybe he never knew he struggled before. Maybe he put it out of his mind. Baseball is a game of failure, after all.

"You're right," he said. "I've been really blessed to be where I am now. I was put in a great situation, and you know, it's humbling to me to look back and see how quickly it's happened."

[+] EnlargeGordon Beckham
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireGordon Beckham has solidified his spot at third base.

Beckham says that he's a goal-oriented person but that he didn't have a particular date in mind to make his major league debut. When he got sent down to Double-A camp at the end of a surprisingly good spring training, he said he was cool with it. He didn't expect to make the team so soon, anyway.

"In the back of my mind, I thought, 'I want to get up there quick,'" he said. "I didn't want to wait around."

About two weeks into the season, though, he knew he was ready for the big call. At the end of May, his parents were at his Double-A game in Birmingham, Ala. Just after the game ended, they could see their son shaking hands with teammates. He waved them over.

"He said, 'I've been promoted to Triple-A,' but in a disappointing way," Gordon Beckham Jr. said. "He was really hoping to go to Chicago. We said, 'Look, Gordon, you got promoted. That's what you're in business to do, and this is a great promotion.' He was wanting the big call, wanting to bypass Charlotte right to Chicago."

It took another week for that to happen.

When Beavers talks to Beckham now, he sounds like the old Gordon -- confident and carefree.

"One thing I always told him was to be fun to watch," Beavers said. "Always be fun to watch. Three or four days ago, he calls me, and at the end he says, 'Coach, I'm going to continue to be fun to watch.' "

The Beckhams, who have two younger daughters -- one at Georgia and another in high school -- haven't been back to Chicago since their son's debut week.

Some of it is superstition, some of it is just the effects of a busy life. They simply don't live through Gordon.

But just about every night, they settle into their couch and turn on the TV and marvel at their son's facing Andy Pettitte or CC Sabathia or A.J. Burnett. What do they see?

"It's indescribable," Gordon Beckham Jr. said.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPN Chicago.com

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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