CHICAGO — It’s rare that any player truly serves as the face to a franchise. Not unknown, though.
Derek Jeter is always surrounded by gobs of talent on the Yankees, but few question his status as the titular heir to the Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle legacies.
George Brett had lots of help during the Royals’ glory years but he was, and remains, George Brett.
Perhaps it’s time to ask whether Alex Gordon fits that profile for the current Royals as they prepare to open the 2013 season at 3:10 p.m. Monday against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field.
“You’re seeing the guy I saw in (2006 in) Double-A,” designated hitter Billy Butler said. “Nobody knows why he struggled early (in his career) because he’s got the type of talent where it shouldn’t have happened.
“But it did, and it might even have made him a better player than he ever would have been. You look at him now, and he’s all business. But he’s also loosened up.
“He messes around with me. He messes around with all of the guys. That’s the confidence coming out. You want a caliber for that type of player? It’s the highest of the highest. He does his work. He’s a great teammate.
“He’s everything you look for.”
Gordon is entering his seventh season and, at age 29, embodies what the Royals have been, are about and hope to be. He arrived to great hype but experienced crushing disappointment before overhauling his approach.
And now, after two years of increasing promise, he is at a point where just one thing matters.
“Winning ballgames,” Gordon said. “That’s all I care about. Honest to God. I’ve been here for what, six years now, and I’ve never been part of a winning club.
“The only winning experience I’ve had (as a professional) was in Double-A with Billy (playing for the Wichita Wranglers). I want to experience it up here. That’s all I care about.”
General manager Dayton Moore, shortly after arriving from Atlanta in June 2006, mapped out a route for resurrecting the Royals from their extended decline.
“I’ve still got the notes,” Moore said. “The plan was that Gordon and Butler need to turn into players. Both of them were coming out of Double-A at that time.
“The plan was to draft, sign, develop players to blend in with Gordon and Butler. Then sign our good players long-term, and then do everything we can to facilitate them to win during this window of opportunity.”
Butler quickly blossomed into the hitter the Royals envisioned, but Gordon battled though a series of injuries that compounded his inability to meet impossibly high expectations.
It was Gordon’s immense potential, remember, that — even before he played a big-league game — prompted Brett to declare it an honor that he, Brett, was being compared to Alex Gordon.
That seemed laughable by 2010 when, now viewed as a washout at third base (and with Mike Moustakas climbing through the farm system), Gordon got shipped back to the minors to learn how to play the outfield.
No matter how the Royals tried to spin the move, it smacked of desperation — even more so after Gordon returned later that season to the majors and struggled to keep his average above the .200 Mendoza Line.
In effect, even then, he was the face of the franchise. He was a bust.
Not just a bust, either. His somewhat stoic and dogmatic approach to the game, now widely viewed as an underlying core strength, was then often misinterpreted as not caring.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” former hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said at the time. “He cares more than you can possibly imagine. That’s part of the problem. He’s trying so hard.
“If you watch him, you can almost see him grinding the bat to sawdust in his hands. That’s no way to play. He needs to relax. When he relaxes, you’re going to see a heck of a player.”
Even then, in 2010 when results remained elusive, Seitzer was helping Gordon to remake his swing. And Gordon could feel a difference. He became convinced he was poised for a breakthrough.
And that led to a career-defining moment.
It was late September. The Royals were in Detroit, and Gordon has just finished taking early batting practice when he fielded a question from a graying, overweight scribe seeking words to fill out a pre-game notebook.
Gordon responded to a routine query about his goals and expectations, following a position change and a roller-coaster season, for coming off-season and the next year by declaring:
“I’m going to dominate next year. I’ve shown flashes, but one thing that’s bothered me is I haven’t been consistent. My numbers aren’t where I want to be. I’m not producing like I want to produce.
“But I’m feeling good out there, and I think it’s going to come around.”
Dominate? Those words didn’t just create a sensation. They were widely mocked. Even within the organization, there were plenty of head shakes and raised eyebrows.
And then, of course, Gordon did dominate in 2011.
He batted .303 with 23 homers and 87 RBIs. A more-honed eye led to a sharp increase in walks and a .376 on-base percentage. No longer, it seemed, was he always in an 0-2 or 1-2 hole from taking borderline pitches.
Gordon also won a Gold Glove for defensive excellence in left field. He received “Final Vote” consideration for the All-Star Game and was picked as the Royals’ Player of the Year.
The only question after that was whether he could do it again.
And, yes, doubts surfaced last April when Gordon went 11 for 66 in his first 17 games. The problem, apparently, was he got “pull happy.” Corrective sessions with Seitzer helped get Gordon back to his proper approach.
Soon his production zoomed.
“I made a change and started using my legs more,” he said at the time. “It just feels like my base is a lot better now. I’m seeing the ball a lot better. Overall, my swing just feels 10 times better than it did earlier on.”
Gordon finished the year at .294 with a league-leading 51 doubles. He won another Gold Glove. It was enough to convince Moore and the Royals: Butler and Gordon had become bankable cornerstones.
That meant it was time to move to the next step in the plan — to shift gears from an emphasis on development to winning. This year’s roster, with a franchise-record payroll and a revamped rotation, is the result.
Right-hander James Shields, who will start the season opener, was the highest-profile addition in the Royals’ busy off-season. He spent the last several seasons playing for winning home-built teams in Tampa Bay.
When he surveys his new teammates, he sees similarities and much to like.
“I think we understand what kind of team we are,” Shields said. “I think the way we’ve played in spring training ... obviously, we hit home runs and scored a lot of runs. But it’s how we scored the runs.
“Gordo was opening most of the games by getting a hit. We’ve been moving guys over. We’re executing, but I always knew they were good hitters, man.
“I think the thing that’s surprising me more and more every single day is our defense. We’ve got some Gold Glove-caliber players.”
Shields might have been talking solely about Gordon, who batted .438 this spring (32 for 73) with a club-high eight homers. As the leadoff hitter, he’ll tell you it all starts with him.
“I’m going to do my job,” Gordon said, “which is to be the leadoff man and playing left field. I just want to go out there and play hard every day. I do that, and I think it’s going to turn out pretty good.
“I feel relaxed. I have my own routine that I go through almost every day. I know what I’ve got to do when I come to the ballpark to get ready to play a meaningful game in my eyes.”
Tell him he sounds confident, and he blinks at what he views as obvious.
“Yes, I’m confident,” he said, “especially after having a good spring training. Hopefully, that carries over into the season. I worked hard this off-season like I always do.
“Having had two seasons that were pretty successful and coming into this one...yeah, I do have confidence. But I’ve still got to go out there and do it.”
Gordon paused and looked hard at the same reporter, now a bit grayer and wider, before pulling his mouth into a pirate’s smile and asking: “Are you looking for that `I’m going to dominate’ quote?”
And then he laughed.
Say this: It was a confident laugh and as telling in its own way as any declaration. But let’s forget individual goals for now and just ask the emerging face of the franchise to define his expectations for that franchise.
The response is immediate.
“We need to win the (American League) Central,” Gordon said. “That’s all we need to care about. Once we make the playoffs, we’ll go from there.”
Ask whether that is a realistic goal or mere springtime happy talk, and that response, too, comes forcefully and with no hesitation.
“Oh, absolutely,” Gordon said. “I feel like we can play with Detroit. We’ve been playing with them for the last few years. I think we just need to believe we can do it, and I feel like everyone here feels that way.
“I think we have that...I don’t want to say swag because that sounds cocky...but we have a confidence that we can compete with them. We know they have talent and are a great team, and that we need to catch them.…
“But we believe we can.”