As a fan, baseball is my favorite sport. I love soaring dingers and diving plays. I love a pitcher’s duel and a 13-pitch at bat. I love the pace and the nuance, that it’s a marathon, that any given win or loss is so inconsequential in the context of a season, yet each one can feel so important. The worst team in each division will beat the best team several times each year. Journeymen throw no-hitters and hall-of-famers never do. It’s full of quirks and unlikely outcomes, and I love everything about it.
As much as I love baseball, I’m a basketball player. I’m 6’4” and wiry, with a jumper that’s money in the bank. I love playing the game, banging in the paint, crashing the boards, running the pick-and-roll. It’s an organic game, constantly moving and shifting. The most important part is knowing where to be in all that motion. The best players are always in the right place at the right time. That’s my favorite part: reading the court, creating space, being in sync. When basketball is played well, there’s a flow and rhythm to it that’s unbeatable.
I found that the older I got, the better I became at my favorite part of the game. I was more opportunistic and had better court awareness than I ever did as a high school player. I was more patient, less likely to force a shot. I’d become a crafty passer and developed a wicked pump fake. I played against guys who were younger, faster and stronger than me, but I still kept up. I learned to run with them when – and only when – I needed to and to conserve my energy when I didn’t. I’d become adept at “old man basketball,” a style of play I’d loathed when I was younger, but respected nonetheless.
I can’t help but think of my basketball playing when I watch Alex Gordon these days. There have been times when I’ve seen him jog after balls in the outfield when he might have sprinted in the past. It’s not for lack of hustle; he’s simply played long enough to know that no matter how fast he runs, it’s still going to be a double. He’s never been an outwardly emotional player, but he seems utterly unfazed -- even slightly amused -- at this stage in his career. He’s won six Gold loves and appeared in three All-Star Games. He’s hit one of the most iconic home runs in Royals history. He’s made tens of millions of dollars playing the best sport there is. He’s even pitched in the major leagues. What could he possibly have to worry about?
I first felt the pain in my left knee right around the time I turned 30. It was sharp and nagging at first, more psychological burden than physical. I eventually stopped trusting my knee when I planted hard. Sometimes it would be a little sore the day after I played. The pain followed me off the court, when I got out of the car after a long drive or stepped off a curb just right. By the time I was 35, my knee had started to swell after I played. I cut back to once a week, full court. Then every other week. Then half court only.
The doctor said I had torn cartilage. Surgery would leave me with little to no cartilage, a situation no better than my current one. I was too young for knee replacement, though I was assured one in the future. I tried physical therapy, which did wonders and made my legs feel better than they had in years. But my knee still couldn’t hold up to the rigors of playing ball, and the swelling just got worse. All the stretching and band exercises in the world couldn’t fix it.
At the age of 39, I played a game of basketball that was utterly unremarkable in every way other than the fact that it was my last. That day, I walked off the court, unlaced my sneakers and called it quits. It was hard to give it up. Really, really hard. Playing basketball wasn’t my career or anything, but it was something I loved. I always thought I’d be the sixty-year-old playing pickup in double knee braces, lobbing hook shots over everyone and executing fundamentally pristine bounce passes. But I knew it was time.
I don’t know what’s going on in Alex Gordon’s head these days. As a fan, I’m watching games, wondering if these could be his last. My guess is that, with new ownership coming in and Ned Yost retiring, Alex will probably decide to hang it up this winter and call it a career. But that’s just a guess. If that does happen, I’ll miss seeing him play. He’s one of my all-time favorite players and it just won’t seem right to look out in left field and see someone else standing there. Even so, I’ve made peace with the idea – maybe even to the point that I hope he does retire. He deserves to go out on a high note, and I worry that he won’t be able to replicate the success he’s had this year. I don’t want to see him hang on too long and become something sad. I want my last memories of him as a player to be good ones.
But those are my selfish wishes, and really, what I want more than anything is for Alex to leave the game on his own terms – whatever they may be. If he thinks he has enough left in the tank for another season, I want the Royals to make every effort to bring him back, even if it’s in a limited role. And if he feels like he’s ready to walk away, I’ll be happy for him, knowing that he’s content. Time catches up to everyone. No one can play forever. Alex will know when it’s time. It won’t be easy, but he’ll know.