Commentary

Gordon attempting to put difficult rookie season behind him

Originally Published: March 5, 2008
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Alex Gordon's major league career began inauspiciously. As an Opening Day crowd of 41,257 at Kauffman Stadium rose to applaud the Kansas City Royals' would-be savior, Gordon whiffed with the bases loaded against Boston's Curt Schilling in his first at-bat.

Gordon's rookie year ended painfully, when a Kelly Shoppach grounder clocked him in the nose in the ninth inning of the season finale. After Gordon went to the hospital for treatment, his teammates checked the tape and swore that the slow-motion replay showed his entire nose shifting in the direction of Topeka.

Gordon might have been able to survive that dispiriting first chapter and blood-soaked epilogue and even smile about his plight, if only the 160 games in between weren't such a grind.

[+] EnlargeAlex Gordon
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelAs a rookie last season, Alex Gordon played in 151 games and batted .247.
As a rookie in 2007, Gordon hit .247 with 15 homers and 60 RBIs. From the moment Kansas City selected him out of the University of Nebraska with the second overall pick in the 2005 draft, Gordon had been designated the "next George Brett." But as the Baseball-Reference.com Web site so inconveniently points out, Gordon's closest statistical comparable through age 23 is Bill Sudakis.

When all was said and done, the 2007 season was an education for a baseball player who had never failed -- or flailed. After Gordon hit .185 with three homers in 168 at-bats in April and May, life was one big salvage operation.

"It was a confidence thing," Gordon said. "It was my first time in the big leagues and it started out rough. Then it kept getting worse and worse, and I wasn't believing in myself. When I started believing that I belonged on the field with those guys, it began to come together."

Although painful, Gordon's rookie year shined a light on his character. He never snapped at reporters, stiffed clubhouse attendants, let his offensive problems affect his defense or asked for a "mental health break" to clear his head.

As a stoic Cornhusker with no trace of a swagger, Gordon seems like the perfect player to resurrect the old Royals tradition. It's one thing when the old-timers shower you with praise for your work ethic and attitude. It's even more meaningful when you're at Royals camp and the names on the back of their jerseys say "Brett" and "White."

Frank White, an eight-time Gold Glove award winner in Kansas City, was managing Double-A Wichita when Gordon hit .325 and tore up the Texas League in 2006. White is a few pounds heavier and a little grayer than he was in his prime, but he looks as if he could still turn two with a flair.

"You always hesitate to use the word 'great' too freely, so I'll just say Alex is going to be a good major league player early, and I think he has a chance to be a great player late," White said.

Brett's seal of approval has even more heft. At 54, he still has that tanned, athletic, terminally charismatic demeanor that screams Hall of Famer the moment he walks into the room.

"I wish I had the ability he had," Brett said of Gordon. "He runs better than I did, he's better defensively and he has more power than I had at that stage of my career. I think he has a chance to be a very, very, very special player. A very special player."

For those keeping score at home, that's three routine "verys" and one with vigor in a span of seven words.

The Royals envisioned great things from Gordon the moment they chose him one spot behind Justin Upton and just ahead of Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki in a loaded 2005 draft. They gave him a $4 million signing bonus and put him on the fast track, and with the exception of a bizarre incident in Wichita when he cut his foot stepping on glass while taking his trash to the curb, Gordon avoided any missteps.

But success is rarely as easy as it appears. The aluminum bat helped mask Gordon's mechanical flaws in college, and his quick hands and strength allowed him to sail through Double-A ball without pitchers' detecting any weaknesses.

It wasn't until February 2007 that reality made an appearance. Hitting coach Mike Barnett watched Gordon in the batting cage and noticed that his hands were too low, his stride direction was poor -- toward third base rather than the pitcher -- and he generated almost no weight shift. Gordon also leaned so far back in his stance that he was essentially swinging "uphill."

Brett, in his capacity as the Royals' vice president of baseball operations, made similar observations.

"I figured he was going to get in trouble," Brett said. "His spine angle was terrible. He was hitting off his back leg, and he wasn't getting through the ball. Every ball was hit to right field and had topspin on it. It was one of those things where I said, 'How do you change a kid who's never failed?'"

The Royals' early schedule did Gordon no favors. He faced Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman and A.J. Burnett in his first six starts, and discovered that pitching patterns weren't easy to discern. In the minors, a 2-0 or 3-1 count usually produced a nice, fat fastball. In the big leagues, it could just as easily be a changeup or a curve.

When Gordon got off to a 1-for-24 start, he needed all the friends he could get. Barnett was patient and compassionate enough not to overhaul his swing all at once. Barnett's first objective was to raise Gordon's hands to shoulder level, and it took a month before the pupil felt reasonably comfortable.

Damon Thames, Gordon's agent, sent him encouraging text messages. "Did you know that Mike Schmidt, the Hall of Famer, hit .196 in his rookie year with the Philadelphia Phillies?" read one.

And the Royals' veterans were wonderfully supportive. Reggie Sanders took Gordon to dinner, and Mike Sweeney and Mark Grudzielanek provided guidance from nearby lockers. Sweeney advised Gordon to quit overthinking and embrace the former Golden Spikes Award winner within.

This young man is still learning the league and learning pitchers. Let's not go backwards negatively. Let's go forward positively.

--Royals manager Trey Hillman, about Alex Gordon

"When you were in college, did you ever have a fear of failing?" Sweeney asked Gordon. "When you took the field at Nebraska, did you ever think you weren't going to dominate? You have to take that same feeling onto the major league diamond."

Slowly but surely, things began to click. Gordon rapped out four hits against Fausto Carmona and Tom Mastny in Cleveland, and went on to hit .285 after June 7. He led the Royals with 36 doubles and had ample reason to feel upbeat until that ground-ball facial in Game 162.

Gordon can still remember hitting the dirt, blood spewing everywhere, and realizing he was in trouble.

"I remember a black flash, and then I was on the ground and my face went completely numb," Gordon said. "I think I made some sarcastic remark, like, 'Do I still look good?' Then I went in the clubhouse and looked at my face and said, 'Oh, s----.'"

In a monumental case of bad timing, Gordon and his fiancée, Jamie Boesche, were scheduled to have engagement photos taken back home in Lincoln, Neb., the day after the season. The photo session had to be postponed for several weeks as Gordon lay on the couch and waited for his fractured nasal cavity to heal and those always annoying raccoon eyes to subside.

Everything worked out in the end. Alex and Jamie were married as scheduled during the offseason. They honeymooned in Jamaica, and their luggage actually arrived intact.

Now that training camp is under way, the Royals are hoping for big things from Gordon and young slugger Billy Butler. But Kansas City manager Trey Hillman wants Gordon to taste success before piling on the expectations. He plans to hit Gordon somewhere in the 5-7 slots, and if the kid tears it up and makes a case to move up the order, so be it.

"This young man is still learning the league and learning pitchers," Hillman said. "Let's not go backwards negatively. Let's go forward positively."

Although Gordon does an admirable job of concealing his emotions, the memory of last season drives him in the batting cage, the weight room and infield practice. He wakes up each morning focused on what he needs to do to get better.

"He's so quiet, sometimes you'll think he's not listening," Barnett said. "But he sucks in every word."

Deep down, Gordon has a tradition of his own to perpetuate. Cactus League games had yet to begin this spring when he received a phone call from Nebraska telling him his paternal grandfather had died at age 85. Charlie Gordon flew B-17 bombers in Europe during World War II, then taught algebra and coached five state championship baseball teams at Lincoln Southeast High School. He also left behind a passel of adoring nieces, nephews and grandchildren.

"He didn't talk a lot," Alex Gordon said, "but we all loved being around him and spending time with him."

Before Gordon left training camp for the funeral, he observed that it might be fitting to dedicate 2008 to his grandfather. It's both a heartfelt gesture and a harbinger of a fresh start.

Gordon's rookie year was one to file away and forget. He plans on making his second season one to remember.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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