Commentary

Gordon's dream comes true in Bronx

Yankees' 32-year-old spot starter brings fans to their feet, his family to tears

Updated: June 17, 2011, 7:55 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- From the top of the Yankee Stadium mound, the top of a journeyman's world, Brian Gordon surveyed the sweeping majesty of the place. No, he wasn't in Kansas anymore.

Or Corpus Christi or Round Rock or any of the other minor league stops that defined a ballplayer's dream, one that appeared certain to die in some backwater corner of America's game.

[+] EnlargeBrian Gordon
Al Bello/Getty ImagesBrian Gordon, once switched from pitcher to outfielder against his wishes, found himself on the Yankee Stadium mound Thursday.

"I tried to pull my hat down low and not get caught up in it," Gordon said. "I figured if I pulled my hat down low and looked at the catcher, hey, I was doing that a week ago in Triple-A."

He'd been playing baseball in the minors ever since he was drafted as a 17-year-old by Arizona in 1997. The Diamondbacks took him in the seventh round as a hitter, an outfielder, even though he was just another kid out of Texas who burned to be the next Nolan Ryan.

"All Brian ever wanted to be was a pitcher," said his father, Ernie, a former Army sergeant out of West Point. "We were shocked when Arizona drafted him as a hitter, but we thought maybe the Diamondbacks saw something we didn't see."

It turns out they didn't. Gordon put in 10 years as a position player, constantly hitting the wall in Triple-A before finally deciding he would retire or pitch, one or the other. He was playing with Round Rock in the Astros' chain when he knocked on the door of his manager, Jackie Moore, and told him he wanted a shot on the mound.

Over the years, Gordon hit .275 with 119 homers in the minors, and he never once didn't feel a void in his competitive soul.

"Coaches had kept telling Brian to get pitching out of his head," said his mother, Wendy. "He'd been waiting all this time for one coach to tell him what Jackie told him: 'Show me what you got.'"

So Thursday in the Bronx, with Jackie Moore serving as bench coach for the visiting Texas Rangers, Brian Gordon did what his old minor league manager asked him to do.

RyanBrian's performance was very representative of the type of pitcher he is, and it speaks volumes as to how much heart he has. To spend 10 years as a hitter in the minor leagues and end up pitching in Yankee Stadium, that's a true success story.

-- Nolan Ryan

He threw 5 1/3 innings of smart, efficient baseball at the Rangers, holding them to two runs in a tense game the New York Yankees would win 3-2 in the 12th.

"I'm very proud of him," Gordon's hero, Nolan Ryan, said from his Texas office after Joe Girardi lifted his man and sent him toward a standing ovation.

"Brian's performance was very representative of the type of pitcher he is, and it speaks volumes as to how much heart he has. To spend 10 years as a hitter in the minor leagues and end up pitching in Yankee Stadium, that's a true success story."

Ryan had a Hall of Fame hand in that story. Brian's mother worked as an office manager for the Round Rock team Ryan owned, and when the strikeout king heard Brian wanted to pitch, he gave the kid a call.

They worked out together, Ryan and the converted bush league outfielder who used to rush home from school to watch videos of the one and only pitch.

"I worked on Brian's delivery some," Ryan said, "and I told him he had to command his fastball to move up to the big leagues. I encouraged him to stay with it. Even though he wasn't blessed with an overpowering fastball, he had command of the breaking ball and he was very dedicated to becoming the best pitcher he could possibly be."

In 2008, Gordon pitched four innings in relief for Ryan's Rangers before being ticketed for another minor league bus. This season, he was 5-0 with a 1.14 ERA for Philadelphia's Triple-A team, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, when he exercised an out in his contract to sign with the Yanks.

On Tuesday night, on the drive to New York, Gordon dialed his mother on one cellphone and his father on the other. "Brian didn't want one of us to hear the big news one second before the other," Wendy said.

[+] EnlargeBrian Gordon
Al Bello/Getty ImagesBy the time Joe Girardi stepped out to pull him from the game, Gordon had earned a standing ovation from the fans -- and gave his dad an early Father's Day gift of a lifetime.

On Thursday, in the hours before his first big league start, Gordon sat at his locker with his back to the vast oval clubhouse. A Yankees gym bag rested on the carpeted floor to the right of his chair, and three boxes of Nike shoes rested on the carpeted floor to the left.

One pitcher lockered next to Gordon, Amauri Sanit, had just been fired to make room for Gordon on the 40-man roster, and yet Sanit had something his replacement did not -- a nameplate above his stall. Gordon? He was identified by a blank white card, a sure sign his was also scheduled to be a temporary stay.

"If I have to say goodbye," Brian Cashman had said, "it's a lot easier saying goodbye to him than somebody I drafted and developed."

Gordon reached for one of the Yankees warm-up shirts and inspected the jersey as if it were some sacred shroud. He spent most of his pregame time just sitting and staring into nothingness, the silence occasionally interrupted by the equipment guy, Rob Cucuzza, or the pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, or a teammate, David Robertson, all of them checking in on this or that.

At 12:02 p.m. ET, some 66 minutes before his first pitch, Gordon scanned an oversized lineup card with the intensity of a linguist trying to decipher a Stone Age alphabet. He had every reason to be nervous. Cashman had described his $200 million team as a "massive underdog" simply because Gordon was on the mound.

"If you're in Vegas," the GM said, "you'd bet against us."

Cashman wasn't done. He was asked whether it was odd that a potential World Series opponent such as Philadelphia would give the Yanks a credible and encouraging read on a pitcher who might aid their depleted staff, if only for a start or two.

"They got Cliff Lee, I got Brian Gordon," Cashman said through a smile. "I don't think they've got anything to worry about."

All of us broke down in tears. To see your son out there living his dream is the best early Father's Day present I've ever received.

-- Ernie Gordon

Either way, Gordon emerged as the best available option on the Bronx board. The Yankees didn't want to push any of their blue-chip prospects, and Gordon had better numbers than they did, anyway, good enough for the Yanks to rush into the film room.

Gene Michael watched some video on Gordon, as did Girardi and Rothschild. Cashman worked the phones. Together the Yankees decided that a 32-year-old pitcher with 56 strikeouts and seven walks in 55.1 innings was a 32-year-old pitcher worth taking a chance on.

An Army brat born in West Point, N.Y., but raised in Panama (his father was a platoon sergeant there) and in Texas, Gordon had never stepped foot inside either Yankee Stadium. So when he arrived early Wednesday, Cashman gave him a tour of the new park just like he once gave a drafted teenager named Derek Jeter his first tour of the old park.

Gordon wasn't signed, sealed and delivered, so he was asked to play long-toss with a team staffer, Brett Weber, on the turf field across the street, where a passerby told the anonymous Yankee-to-be, "Man, you've got a good arm."

The following day, stadium operators played Flash Gordon music on the speakers while Brian Gordon warmed up. He had his parents, wife and two children in the stands, along with a small circle of childhood friends. Gordon's first pitch as a big league starter came at 1:08 p.m., and Ian Kinsler sent it out to center for an easy out.

Gordon hit the next batter, Elvis Andrus, on a 1-2 breaking ball. But after Andrus was caught stealing, the Yankees starter finished off the reigning American League MVP, Josh Hamilton, on three pitches.

Gordon would throw 19 of his 26 first pitches for strikes, giving himself a chance to succeed. He would throw the same slow, looping curveball he's been throwing since he was 12 years old, none of these grown-up curves touching 70 mph on the gun.

The Rangers rattled him but once, in the fifth, when Kinsler knocked in their first run before Gordon forced in another by hitting Adrian Beltre on an 0-2 count with the bases loaded.

Only, Gordon dodged disaster by convincing Mitch Moreland to swing at the next pitch and to send it on a benign journey toward Curtis Granderson's glove.

Girardi came to get him in the sixth, Texas up 2-1, and the crowd stood and cheered. "To have all of those New Yorkers touch our hearts was the most amazing godsend anyone could ever picture," Brian's mother said.

"All of us broke down in tears," Brian's father said. "To see your son out there living his dream is the best early Father's Day present I've ever received."

Brian Gordon was in something of a daze at his postgame locker, even if it still had no nameplate. Here was a pitcher out of Texas who had helped beat Nolan Ryan's team while wearing Roger Clemens' number, 22.

"I can't comprehend it," Gordon said. "Hopefully I'll stick around a little bit and help out the Yankees, and I know it sounds weird just saying that."

He'll get a start in Cincinnati and, at last, a chance to be the kind of hitter the Diamondbacks drafted him to be 14 years ago. But it won't matter if Brian Gordon strikes out against the Reds.

He's already touched them all.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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