The batter steps up to the plate and smacks a line drive into the left field gap. The runner at second base starts motoring toward third, rounds the corner, and heads for home. It was seemingly a logical base-running decision, but an ill-advised one for a couple of reasons: one, this is Kauffman Stadium; two, Alex Gordon patrols left field.
Gordon seems to have a sixth sense about where a ball will ping off the wall or hop on the outfield grass. Sure enough, on this night against the Baltimore Orioles, he times his run toward the ball perfectly, catches it on the first bounce, and immediately rifles a throw straight into the glove of All-Star catcher Salvador Perez, who applies the tag. Another baserunner kill (assist) for Gordon, whose defensive skills have earned three consecutive Gold Glove Awards.
Now in his eighth season with the Kansas City Royals, the Lincoln native has become the face of the franchise. He is everything the club thought he would—and could—be when they drafted him as the second overall pick in 2005 following a legendary junior year at the University of Nebraska, where he swept all the national player of the year awards. When Gordon signed with the Royals in September of that year, sports outlets throughout KC hailed him as the next George Brett, the hero who would once again lead the team to the Promised Land of playoffs and stop the hemorrhaging in the loss column. Heady stuff for a 21-year-old.
“Yeah, I felt a little pressure,” reflects Gordon, sitting in a quiet room deep within “The K” behind the Royals dugout. “But I think anytime you’re drafted where I was drafted there’s going to be those expectations. It’s how you deal with it that makes the difference.”
The way Gordon dealt with setbacks early in his Royals career made the difference between being a success or becoming another asterisk in what was then a maddening streak of first-round draft busts. He debuted against the Red Sox in April 2007. His offensive output disappointed during his first two seasons. Then, in 2009 and 2010, injuries severely curtailed his playing time. On top of that, the Royals moved Gordon from third base to the outfield. To regain his swing and build his confidence in a new position, the Royals sent him down to Triple-A Omaha.
“I could have gone down there, moped around and been upset; not tried to work hard to get to where I wanted to be,” says Gordon of his time in Omaha. “ But I took a positive attitude and did everything I could.”
Gordon’s widely admired work ethic and relentless pursuit of perfection paid off. He scorched the scoreboard in Omaha and, just as importantly, discovered he loved playing left field. “It kinda’ comes natural,” he says. Many would argue he is now the game’s best outfielder.
An All-Star with his own cheering section and a legion of “Gordo Nation” fans, Gordon opted to stay with the club that he worshipped growing up in Lincoln. In 2012, he signed a four-year contract extension worth $37.5 million, though baseball insiders say he could have gone to another club for a lot more. Gordon will have none of that.
“They stuck with me,” says Gordon, explaining why his loyalty to the team runs so deep. “You know, they could have easily gotten rid of me or traded me. But they believed in me and I thank them a lot for that. It’s somewhere I want to be and somewhere they’ve let me be for awhile.”
Kansas City’s proximity to Nebraska also played a huge part in his decision to stay. Gordon’s wife, Jamie, whom he met in college and married in 2008, also hails from Lincoln. The lure of home is so great that the couple, along with their two young sons, Max and Sam, live in Lincoln during the off-season. For their part, Nebraskans embrace Gordon not just as a Royal but also as a Husker.
“Alex Gordon is awesome,” says Nebraska fan James Kolasky, a nurse in Elkhorn. “He was on the Dream Team for the Huskers in 2005 along with Joba [Chamberlain]. They went to the College World Series, but the cards didn’t fall their way.”
Though the “Dream Team” only won one game at the CWS, the experience still resonates with Gordon.
“We were from Nebraska and we played in Omaha, so we got the home crowd,” says Gordon, who first attracted attention as a two-time Gatorade Nebraska Player of the Year at Lincoln Southeast High School. “We had an escort to the baseball field [at the old Rosenblatt Stadium]. We almost felt like rock stars. It was pretty cool.”
True to his Nebraska roots, Gordon displays neither ego nor airs of any kind when dealing with the media. He accepts giving interviews as part of the job and remains accessible and patient—a genuinely nice guy. But the ballplayer is all business. His small talk is about as lean as his physique. (Gordon is a walking billboard for the benefits of a chicken and protein diet, which he follows faithfully). His daily routine consists of weight lifting and cardio, followed by batting practice, a little shut-eye, and then back to the batting cage. While his life is an open book, thanks to the Internet, he still provided a little-known tidbit:
“I’m really good at cards,” he admits. “Just ask the other guys on the team. I always kill them at cards. Other than that, I’m a pretty laid-back guy and a family man. It doesn’t take much for me to have fun.”
Nebraska’s best baseball player—kind, courteous, and killing it in Kansas City. And a card shark to boot.