CUT TO THE BIG FINISH
THIS MAY NOT make Alex Gordon feel any better, but he's hardly the first prodigy to stumble out of the gate. Slow starts by rookies are common in baseball, even among those who go on to Hall of Fame careers. "I was 1-for-32," says former Cub Ryne Sandberg, who can detail every painful at-bat as if it happened yesterday instead of in 1982. "My first hit that season came off Joaquin Andujar. It broke an 0-for-20. When I got to first base, Keith Hernandez, who had a ton of hits, told me, 'Hey, kid, that's the first of many.' And I thought, Yeah, right. I was wondering if I would ever get my second hit. Those were tough times.''
Gordon and Sandberg, who ended up with 2,386 career hits, have a lot of company. WillieMcCovey's 4-for-4 debut (vs. Robin Roberts, no less) is the exception. Harold Baines started out 1-for-25 and finished with 2,866 hits. Like Gordon, Steve Garvey and George Brett began in 2-for-25 holes. Willie Mays was so bad at the start of his career in 1951, he famously asked Giants manager Leo Durocher to send him back to the minors. Leo wisely said no.
"I thought I was in way over my head," says Sandberg, who now manages the Cubs' Class-A Peoria affiliate. "I didn't sleep at night. I wanted to go to the ballpark as soon as I got up because I wanted to get a hit as soon as I could. I was 22 and totally overwhelmed. Opening Day in Cincinnati, the game was shortened by rain, but I was 0-for-3 right away."
Sandberg says it helped that he'd had a good spring and was playing solid defense during his slump. He also had support from teammates, including Larry Bowa, who started his career 2-for-25 with the Phillies in 1970. "I got a vote of confidence from Pete Rose, and he was an opposing player," Sandberg says. "I was battling, and he told me, 'It's not how you start-it's how you finish.' "
Brett finished with 3,154 hits, winning batting titles in three different decades. But as a 20-year-old Royals rookie in 1973, he went 5-for-40 with no walks and no RBIs. "I'd get to the ballpark, look at the lineup card, and when my name wasn't on it, I was thankful," he says. "And if the game got close late and Jack McKeon would walk down the bench looking for a hitter, I would try to hide. I didn't want to play. The more I was exposed, the worse it would be."
Brett says that feeling didn't go away until the second half of 1974. He was batting around .200, but he'd started to understand the teachings of hitting coach Charley Lau, who stressed a full extension. "One night I got three hits, all to left and left-center off two lefthanders," Brett recalls. "I finally thought, I can do this. I can play with these guys."
Gordon, of course, has been billed as the next Brett. "But I wasn't the College Player of the Year, I wasn't the Minor League Player of the Year, I wasn't the savior of the franchise," says Brett, who in his current role as Royals VP of baseball operations has offered Gordon plenty of encouragement. "I was just a little kid from California. I've thought about how much I want to be Alex Gordon."
Brett pauses, smiles and adds, "But considering what he's going through right now and what I went through back then, I'm glad I'm not."
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