#28 Tom Gordon
79-71 4.02 ERA
1149 2/3 IP 999 K 587 BB
Before Joakim Soria, before Jeremy Affeldt, there was Tom Gordon.
Tom "Flash" Gordon was a quiet, unassuming pitcher young pitcher with a wealth of talent that the Royals never seemed sure what to do with. Was he a starter? Was he a reliever?
Tom stood just five-foot-nine and gave hitters a steely gaze when on the mound. He skyrocketed through the Royals minor league system with a devastating knee-buckling curveball. He learned the curve from his father, a one-time Negro League pitcher. Gordon learned it by repeatedly flipping a baseball into a trash can.
''It wasn't just throwing it into the can. I had a 7-foot fence between myself and the can and I had to get it over the fence....A lot of people have their own way of doing it; that was one of the ways I did. It took a full two years to learn.''
Tom Gordon was from Avon Park, Florida, the birthplace of Royals legend Hal McRae and a place filled with poverty, drugs and violence. The Royals selected Gordon out of high school in the sixth round of the 1986 Amateur Draft. Tom struggled mightily with his command in his first two pro seasons, walking 89 batters in 131 innings. But that curveball made him nearly unhittable and in 1988 he began to harness his control.
He began the year in A ball with Appleton (Wisconsin). After seventeen starts and a 2.07 ERA, the Royals promoted him to AA Memphis. Gordon would make just six starts there, winning them all, giving up just two earned runs in 47 1/3 innings of work. He was then moved up to AAA Omaha, where he won all three of his starts, giving up just three runs in 20 1/3 innings. For the year, he had pitched at three different levels of professional baseball, going 16-5 with a 1.55 ERA. In 186 minor league innings, Gordon struck out an amazing 263 hitters.
The Royals, in a playoff race with the Oakland Athletics, called Gordon up to the big leagues in September. He performed admirably, giving them three shutout relief appearances and a quality start in Oakland before being roughed up against the Mariners to end the year. Even Major League hitters were dazzled by his curve, striking out eighteen times in just 15 2/3 innings. Baseball America named Gordon its Minor League Player of the Year.
''He has a curveball that no one can hit. Slow, fast, or in between, they don't hit it. If we could teach it, we'd have everyone throwing it.''
-Royals General Manager John Schuerholz
Despite having Gordon throw over two-hundred innings in 1988, the Royals debated whether to keep him as a starter, or move him to the pen and make him a closer. The feeling was that with only a plus fastball and a plus curveball, Gordon lacked the repertoire to succeed as a starter.
"I had a lot of inconsistency because I was really only a two-pitch pitcher. To find that third pitch -- a changeup -- was something I knew I needed to do, but I couldn't get a grasp of it."
Gordon began the year in the bullpen, the perceived weakness of the team heading into the seasons. Gordon struggled with his command but overall pitched well, and combining with another young reliever named Jeff Montgomery, they turned the middle relief innings into a team strength.
By the All-Star break, Gordon had a 3.14 ERA with ten victories out of the pen - although six of those wins were due to him blowing the lead. Royals manager John Wathan finally put Gordon into the rotation on July 17, and Gordon responded with a ten strikeout performance over eight innings in a 3-2 win over Milwaukee. Two starts later, he hurled a complete game shutout over the eventual American League East champs. It would be the first of five consecutive wins by Gordon, giving him a 16-4 record and a 2.57 ERA with only five weeks left in the season.
Then Flash hit the wall. He would drop his next five decisions, giving up five or more runs in four starts. He ended the year 17-9 with a 3.64 ERA and would finish second in Rookie of the Year balloting behind Orioles reliever Gregg Olson and ahead of a young man named Ken Griffey Jr.
"For me, the easiest adjustment was coming from the minor leagues as a starter and going to the bullpen, because it didn't matter to me how I got to the big leagues. I didn't care if I was pitching middle relief or set-up or whatever. I think that transition was a lot easier because I didn't try to over-emphasize anything. I just went out there and pitched. But once they asked me to start, that was a tough transition."
Gordon spent the entire 1990 season solidly in the rotation, and responded with a decent, albeit not great, season. He won twelve games, posting a 3.73 ERA and 175 strikeouts in 195 1/3 innings, but walked 99 hitters.
''He does lack confidence, and at times you have to reinforce it. All last winter, he wondered if he was going to be in the big leagues - after winning 17 games. 'I don't think the league has caught up to him yet. His biggest problem has been walks. He has to keep confidence in his stuff.''
-Royals Manager John Wathan
The emergence of rookie Kevin Appier and the signing of free agent Mike Boddicker meant Gordon would open the 1991 season back in the pen. But an early injury to Mark Gubicza thrust Gordon back into the rotation and he responded with a thirteen strikeout performance in Yankee Stadium. That start would begin a sizzling stretch where he gave up just eight earned runs in six starts over 48 1/3 innings.
"I just love pitching. I feel like I can be a No. 1, 2 or 3 starter, but I know what my role is for the Royals."
Gordon faltered in June and by July had lost his spot in the rotation to Luis Aquino. He would pitch as a long-reliever/set-up man the rest of the season, posting a 2.73 ERA as opposed to his 4.77 ERA as a starter.
Gordon opened the 1992 season in the rotation, but by May his ugly 5.64 ERA sent him back to the pen. He would struggle all season, ending with a 4.59 ERA. In 1993, he was back in the pen, only to end the year in the rotation pitching well (3.36 ERA in fourteen starts). The Royals were growing impatient with his inconsistency.
Most Strikeouts/9 innings, Royals History (min. 100 starts)
1. Tom Gordon 1988-1995 - 7.82
2. Zack Greinke 2004-2010 - 7.61
3. Kevin Appier 1989-2004 - 7.12
4. Gil Meche 2007-2010 - 6.91
5. Jose Rosado 1996-200 - 6.05
Gordon was left in the rotation for all of the 1994 season and responded with a decent season - 11-7, 4.35 ERA in twenty-four starts before the strike happened. When play resumed, the Royals were in cost-cutting mode following the death of owner Muriel Kauffman. Gordon became trade bait, with rumors that the Royals might even non-tender him. They instead offered him a contract and kept him as their #2 starter behind Appier, instead cutting costs by dealing Cy Young winner David Cone.
Gordon struggled mightily to begin the year. But three complete game, one earned run performances in June helped resurrect his season. Unfortunately, the Royals only one won of those starts, and the team struggled to give Gordon much run support. The team's struggles began to wear on Gordon.
"I don't like to lose, and these guys (teammates) don't like to lose either. I'm sick of this. We heard in spring training that we weren't supposed to be a good team. But we are a good team. We need to do what it takes to win games."
The Royals would finish a distant second place to the Indians, thirty games back. Gordon would take a 3.97 ERA into the last game of the season, a tilt with the juggernaut Indians in Jacobs Field. Gordon would last just one inning, giving up ten runs, lifting his ERA to 4.43 in what would be his last start in a Royals uniform.
Gordon explored free agency that winter, and left the door open to staying in Kansas City, despite the cost-cutting.
"They actually offered something to my agent that was a 63 percent pay cut. How in the heck do you accept that? I've always found Herk to be one of the most gracious people I have ever met. I love Kansas City, and I know we can work out a deal."
Instead, the Royals were ready to part ways.
"I think Flash would like to stay here. But we are not going to be able to pay him."
-Royals General Manager Herk Robinson
Gordon would sign a two year, $5.8 million deal with Boston. After a season and a half of being a mediocre starter, Gordon was named the Red Sox closer late in 1997. In 1998, he led the league in saves and inspired a Stephen King novel.
"Come on, Tom", she whispered. "Come on, Tom, one two three, now. You know how it goes."
But not tonight. Gordon opened up the top of the ninth by walking the handsome yet evil Yankee shortstop, Derek Jeter, and Trisha remembered something her father had once told her: when a team gets a lead-off walk, their chances of scoring rise seventy-five percent.
If we win, if Tom gets the save, I'll be saved.
-"The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon"