The Royals’ best player and example of what they’re trying to do was once their worst player and example of why they never won. This is easy to forget sometimes, now that Alex Gordon is a star. The story of where the Royals have been and where they might go is also Gordon’s story.
This is worth remembering especially now, as so much of the Royals’ hopes depend on Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer making the same journey.
Gordon’s story includes the Royals once being a day away from sending him to Omaha. It includes entire batting practice sessions without a single ball hit over the wall. It includes misguided accusations of him not caring enough, which made everything only worse, a man trying too hard anyway and then gripping the bat even harder. It includes him switching positions because nobody had any other ideas.
Look at Gordon now. He might be the best corner outfielder in the American League. He signed long term for maybe 60 percent of what he could have had on the open market. He is a homegrown star in an organization that can’t win without them. He is the biggest success story for a franchise desperate for more.
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“It’s the best thing I’ve ever experienced in sports,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore says. “Watching him transition to the major leagues and what he went through he maintained his steadiness, his work ethic, his positive approach and belief.”
Gordon came to the Royals a 21-year-old college kid. He is now a husband and a father, not yet 30 but older than most of his teammates. He has grown up here, from a shy kid into one of the sport’s best all-round players. His path might also serve as a guide to the Royals’ present and future.
Alex Gordon is blessed with the talent of a star and work ethic of a grunt. The Royals selected him second overall in the 2005 draft, and the George Brett comparisons were just too obvious. They both played third base, Gordon’s brother is named after Brett, and the Hall of Famer himself once said he was “honored” by the link.
The story was irresistible. Gordon received a standing ovation before his first at bat. That’s about when the trouble started. He was hitting .172 in June of his rookie year, the team all but deciding to send him to the minors before a four-hit game in Cleveland. After that, injuries and pressure and not enough protection on bad teams.
In 2010, The Next George Brett looked more like The Next Clint Hurdle. The Royals were desperate. They told Gordon to switch from third base to left field. He took it without ego, told the world he planned “to dominate,” and the world responded with mostly laughter.
Since then, advanced metrics say he has been the best corner outfielder in the American League.
“He’s everything to us,” catcher Sal Perez says.
“We look up to him on the field, in the clubhouse, out of the clubhouse, everywhere,” center fielder Lorenzo Cain says.
“When Alex speaks, they listen,” manager Ned Yost says.
Baseball respect is earned largely through production and work ethic, and in those terms Gordon is unimpeachable. He is obsessive about his workouts and meticulous about what he eats. He goes years between sodas and bites of cake.
His teammates have seen a resilient steadiness in the face of disappointment, a bonus baby turned into a callused star. Former hitting coach Kevin Seitzer helped unlock Gordon’s talent, and what we’ve seen since is a bankable anchor in the Royals’ lineup. He worked his way into a four-year, $37.5 million contract before last season, and has since outperformed it.
He is their best leadoff hitter, and the best No. 3 or 4 hitter too – whichever spot Billy Butler isn’t in. An entirely disproportionate number of the Royals’ biggest hits this season have been Gordon’s – a double that ignited the rally in Philadelphia, a late single that tied it in the home opener and a grand slam that sealed it in Detroit.
The Royals are a much improved team mostly because of starting pitching, but they wouldn’t be in first place without Gordon pushing them – the team leader or co-leader in hits, runs, RBIs, doubles, triples, and home runs entering Saturday’s game.
He is, like Perez says, everything to this team. Whatever they need. This is a good thing to remember when thinking about what they need from some of his teammates.
Entering Saturday, Mike Moustakas has played 261 big-league games and is slugging .388. That’s not good enough. Many have wanted him benched or sent down. Eric Hosmer has played 303 big-leagues games and is slugging .404. That’s not good enough, either. Many have wanted him benched or sent down, too.
Alex Gordon was slugging .405 through his first 408 games – again, not good enough. The Royals were within a few at-bats of sending him down as a rookie. They wondered if his confidence was shaken, if a change wouldn’t do him some good. Then he had four hits one night in Cleveland, and plans shifted. They were patient, even when everything on the field told them not to be.
Moustakas and Hosmer are the pillars of an organizational wave of talent in the same way that Gordon and Butler once were. None of their careers began the way they wanted, but then, exceptions like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper have warped what typically happens with young ballplayers.
The Royals did send Butler down for about a month during his second season, but that was less about his performance and more about knocking some immaturity off a 22-year-old.
This is a different Royals organization now, one outwardly focused on wins over development. That changes the arithmetic around Moustakas and Hosmer. There are no guarantees about what Moustakas or Hosmer will become. No certainty of how long it will take to find out. But if you believe in the talent, you stick with the player.
Gordon’s story is that lesson.