Sunday will mark not just the finale of another baseball season for the Royals. It will be the end of an era.
With the retirement of Alex Gordon, the Royals are losing one of their cornerstones. The quiet heart of the championship teams will exit in front of only his teammates and coaches, denied the one last ovation he deserves due to a global pandemic.
Can you imagine the scenes there would’ve been at Kauffman Stadium this weekend if fans were allowed in?
If you will, please allow me to indulge in a bit of navel gazing. When Gordon was drafted by the Royals, I (along with my future partner in crime Clark Fosler) was in the first year of writing about them on the internet. The Royals were a miserable team and even worse organization. Still, inspired by the work of Alex Belth and Cliff Corcoran at Bronx Banter and Jon Weisman at Dodger Thoughts along with Ken Arneson at the Baseball Toaster, I considered giving this blogging thing a try. I fired up a blogspot account and posted at a site christened Warning Track Power. (I have always had difficulty coming up with catchy names for things like this.) Within two months, Tony Peña was fired and the Royals were spiraling to a franchise-record 106 loss season. Apparently, 2005 was not the best time to set up a blog dedicated to Royals baseball.
But there was a glimmer of hope. That year, the Royals held the number two overall pick in the draft. If memory serves, Justin Upton was the consensus to go number one overall to the Diamondbacks. The question was, who would the Royals select? The rumor leading up to the draft was the Royals would go for an “extreme signability pick.” My god, that doesn’t feel so long ago, does it? It wasn’t a slam-dunk selection. Naturally, I used my little corner of Blogspot to lobby for Gordon, the semi-local kid who was clearly the best college player in the draft.
When the Royals popped for Gordon with the second selection, I quickly scrambled to put up a post congratulating all involved. But I omitted the scouting director, Deric Ladner. I realized my error when someone from the Royals front office kindly emailed me about the oversight. It was my first acknowledgement by the team I was covering. To a novice ball writer, I had arrived.
It turns out Gordon is the last remaining tie to Allard Baird and the dreadful Glass IZ CHEEP era. We’ve all come a long way, haven’t we?
Leading up to the 2007 season, Gordon was Baseball Prospectus’ number one prospect. Baseball America had him rated second. Lofty space and loftier expectations.
By the time Gordon made it to Kansas City that April, I had joined forces with Clark and formed Royals Authority. Our home was a blog network called MVN. For the time, it was fairly well-run outfit. No one was paid (naturally) but it was a nice platform and decent way to keep our work out in the blogosphere. Ahead of the 2007 season, we were noted in the Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue as a “must-read Royals blog.” (Along with Royals Review!) We were all ready for the big time.
Every long-time Royals follower can cite the circumstances surrounding Gordon’s major league debut. April, 2007. Curt Schilling for the Red Sox against Gil Meche for the home team. Gordon was hitting fifth. The tumblers all fell into place for a spectacular debut when the Royals—in a precursor to the Keep The Line Moving teams almost a decade later—hit three consecutive one-out singles. Gordon strode to the plate with the bases full. The capacity crowd stood in unison.
It felt like a seminal moment for the franchise. And then he struck out.
But that’s not the moment I take from Gordon’s first home stand. That winter, the Red Sox signed Daisuke Matsuzaka who was supposed to be the next stud arm from Japan. He would start the third game of the season against the Royals and their young potential ace, Zack Grienke.
It was cold that afternoon. Brutally so, especially in the upper deck, where I snagged a ticket. Gordon, hitting between Emil Brown and Ryan Shealy (my god), flew out in his first at bat, making him oh-for-eight to start his big league career. Not great. The grumbling was starting. Would he ever get a hit? He singled to lead off the fifth, for his first major league knock. As they threw the ball into the dugout for a keepsake, I remember thinking that if both Matsuzaka and Gordon fulfilled their potential that first hit could be a helluva story.
Things don’t always work out the way you imagine.
We’re led to believe that progression is linear. It’s about moving forward. Conquer this, achieve that… move on to the next step. Reality is a little less obvious. It may not only take considerable time to complete a step in the process (whatever that is), but there are often setbacks. Sometimes, you get knocked on your ass. This isn’t just about sports, it applies to any profession.
Clark and I made some missteps with the blog. We jumped from MVN to another platform that didn’t make any sense. We struggled with traffic and the network. It wasn’t working. Then, we got an email from ESPN. They were looking for a Royals affiliate for their recently established Sweetspot Network. Would we be interested?
The Royals demoted Gordon after a brutal opening to the 2010 season. The plan was to go to Omaha to work on his hitting, but also to learn a new position.
Working with Rusty Kuntz, Gordon was moved into left field. The reasoning, according to Kuntz at the time, was there was less for Gordon to worry about at that position. “(But) when you’re starting a guy off, it’s a little easier to have him in left where most of the plays are in front of you. You don’t have to go get the ball and make as many throws … you can just worry about catching the ball and throwing it back to the shortstop,” Kuntz told the North Platte Telegraph.
Kuntz noted that it was more difficult to get a read on fly balls in left due to the slice off lefty bats and a “snap-hook” from right-handed hitters. But can you imagine? The Royals put Gordon in left because it wouldn’t be so challenging.
They, like almost everyone else, had no idea the potential they were about to unlock.
Gordon and Kuntz are now forever linked in Royals lore. A brilliant teacher who can communicate the basics and a willing pupil who will do whatever he can to adapt and improve. It’s a relationship that would come to define the next decade of outfield play in Kansas City.
Gordon made his first career start in left field in the 350th MLB game of his career. Up to that point he had hit .247/.330/.410 and was the poster boy for unfulfilled potential. A misstep for a franchise that could ill-afford any more of those. And he didn’t immediately impress after his move. He hit .225/.319/.375 in 59 games to close out the 2010 season after his Triple-A exile. With a young third baseman named Mike Moustakas in the system, the move to left was more a way to make room for another heralded prospect than to spark a career that had stalled.
It looked like Gordon would go down as another Royal bust.
But his 2011 season was revelatory. He opened the year batting third in another anemic Royals lineup. After hitting .284/.343/.463 over his first 41 games, in a move that both spoke to the strides Gordon had made as a player and the open-mindedness of his formerly stubborn old-school manager Ned Yost, he was moved to leadoff spot. Over the next month, Gordon hit .291/.368/.504.
Yost then moved him to cleanup for about a week’s worth of games before bumping him back to third for a couple of more weeks. Over those 21 games and up to the All-Star break, Gordon hit .329/.411/.443.
After the All-Star Game, Gordon was the moved back to the leadoff spot where he finished out the season hitting .313/.391/.547. Unstoppable. In every way, the 2011 season was the breakout for Gordon. He hit .303/.376/.502 with a career-best 140 wRC+ and 140 OPS+, while playing the type of defense that would earn him his first of seven Gold Gloves. He was rated the sixth-best player in the AL with a 6.6 fWAR.
Yet somehow, he was still criminally underrated. The local buzz was about team was about the young talent—Eric Hosmer, Danny Duffy, Salvador Perez and that Moustakas kid all made their debuts that year. That winter, Gordon garnered exactly three 10th place votes for MVP. The BBWAA didn’t release the individual ballots at that time (which is a good thing because I’m not about that public kind of shaming), and I remember thinking that even the Kansas City beat writers, the ones who were exposed to this breakout season on a daily basis, weren’t able to properly evaluate and process what they saw.
A damn shame.
It turns out he was just getting started. From 2011 to 2015, Gordon hit .281/.359/.450 and posted 24.2 fWAR. He transformed from an underwhelming third baseman to an exceptional left fielder. Hell, drop the qualifier of his defensive position. For five seasons in the early 2010s, Gordon was one of the best players in the league. Full stop. Among outfielders, the only players with more fWAR over that time were José Bautista, Andrew McCutchen and Mike Trout.
By the time Gordon was establishing himself as one of the premier players in baseball, I had moved over to this site. You can’t beat the exposure and it’s pretty much the last blog standing. I had a delightful time redesigning all the pages (Not really, I was just a surfer caught up in a tsunami. Save your hate mail.)
Around this time, I did semi-regular radio interviews with an afternoon drive time host in Kansas City. I was aware of his general dislike for Gordon, that somehow the left fielder just couldn’t do enough to satisfy this host. Because I’m a bit of a problem, I made a point during those interviews, even if he wasn’t the topic of conversation, to drop that Gordon was, in fact, one of the best outfielders in baseball. After about three or four times on the air where I stated this as indisputable fact (which it was), the host grew exasperated.
“You’re on here a lot and every time you’re on here, you say the same thing about Alex Gordon. Why do you think he’s so great?” I was asked.
“Because he can do everything.”
I think a lot about Gordon’s triple off Madison Bumgarner in the ninth inning of Game Seven of the 2014 World Series. I’m convinced it was the right move to stop at third. There’s no way he could’ve scored.
But in that moment... As the Giants were kicking around the ball in the outfield... As Gordon was hauling around second... I’ve never felt that alive watching a baseball game.
What a gift.
The first sign of mortality came against the Rays on a Wednesday night in July, 2015. Again, I was at this game, sitting down the left field line in the Craft and Draft section. I’d like to make the claim that the appeal of those seats was the opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of Gordon plying his defensive prowess, but it was really just about having some beers.
Nevertheless, in the fourth inning, Logan Forsythe launched a fly ball to the warning track. Gordon went back, following the same route with the same strides he’d taken countless times, but in this instance his gait became awkward; he hit the turf. He stayed down. All right in front of us. Agony. A groin strain. At the time, it felt cataclysmic. Gordon was the calm nucleus of this team that was realizing heights we hadn’t seen in 30 years. And now this?
At the time of the injury, Gordon was hitting .279/.394/.457. The Royals in 2015 were unstoppable and didn’t miss a beat, going 32-17 in his absence. He returned September 1 to join the march to the AL Central title, but struggled offensively, hitting just .250/.327/.365 over his last 26 games.
The next year, he again dealt with injury. This time it was a collision that also knocked Mike Moustakas out for the season going after a pop up down the line in Chicago. Gordon suffered a wrist fracture that would keep him out of the lineup for over a month. He was 32 years old and just like that, he not the same player we had grown accustomed to.
But the defense… Oh, the defense. Gordon didn’t possess the speed or grace of Lorenzo Cain, but he had… flair. And style.
What will you remember about his defense? Is it when Gordon would unleash a perfect throw to gun down a runner foolish enough to try to stretch a ball hit down the left field line into a double? Is it a dive and a tumble into an upright position, the out secure in his mitt? Is it slamming face-first into the chain link in left? Is it picking up a ball pinned against the outfield wall and starting a relay with Alcides Escobar to get an out at the plate? Is it going back toward that wall in left and just that outward sense of calm that came when he brought the glove up and saw the ball harmlessly fall into the pocket?
Or is it all the bubbles he blew while making everything look so damn easy?
Things don’t always end the way we would like. By this time, I had moved on to a new venture with Baseball Prospectus. It was a decent gig with some strong exposure for a ball writer. But ownership was in shambles and after a transfer of control, it was decided to pull the plug on the local websites. I understood the decision and remain happily involved at the site but our time had unceremoniously come to an end.
Gordon was now a shell of his former self at the plate, but one who could still provide thrills in the outfield. Ironic that the injuries he suffered while playing defense perhaps contributed to his struggles at the plate, while his play in the outfield remained elite. He won three more Gold Gloves, cementing legendary defensive status.
But in Kansas City that legendary status elevates beyond the defense. It’s the pedigree and expectations of being a high draft selection and top prospect. The struggles and perseverance. The MVP-caliber play during his prime. The quiet leadership. The community involvement. The postseasons and the pennants and the championship. And yes, it’s about THAT HOME RUN.
Teams yearn for an icon. A player who symbolizes a franchise. Someone who spends his whole career with a club and achieves personal greatness while fulfilling the ultimate in team sports: A championship. Gordon, along with George Brett and Frank White, is one of those icons for the Royals. He was the right player in the right place at the right time. One for the ages.
Give him a statue beyond the fountains. Hang his number on the facade of the Royals Hall of Fame. Celebrate a career that is worthy of celebration.
I’m just glad I was along for the ride.