It was early on Sunday evening and a Nebraska native named Dan Wilson clutched the handles of a black stroller and turned toward a throng of fans lining a railing here at Werner Park. On a breezy and idyllic summer evening in suburban Omaha, a horde of blue T-shirts and Royals jerseys had swarmed a left-field concourse that overlooks a walkway from the clubhouse to the baseball field.
Wilson looked at his son, Keaton, a toddler decked out in an Alex Gordon T-shirt, then motioned to his wife, Jill, also dressed in a powder blue Gordon shirt. They had been waiting close to 20 minutes to catch a glimpse of Nebraska’s favorite baseball son, and now came word that they would have to wait a little longer.
A late shipment of equipment had caused a pregame delay before Sunday’s Omaha Storm Chasers game. This meant that Alex Gordon’s much anticipated rehab stint in his home state wouldn’t begin for another hour. For the next 30 minutes, the Wilsons decided to stay along the railing in left field. The crowd only grew.
“It’s just the Midwest tradition,” said Wilson, who lives in Papillion. “He’s a Nebraska guy.”
In all of Major League Baseball, there are few relationships like the one Gordon enjoys with his home state. Raised in Lincoln. A high school phenom on the baseball and football fields of Lincoln Southeast High School. A college All-American at the University of Nebraska, where an army of red-clad fans took to the home-town kid with the usual maniacal intensity.
The people here have seen Gordon at his best — witnessing nearly mythical high school tales and watching him lead Nebraska to the College World Series in 2005 — and they have seen him at his lowest — a last-ditch demotion to Class AAA Omaha in 2010, when a scuffling Gordon gave up third base and learned how to play left field.
On Sunday, Gordon returned to Nebraska once more, beginning a rehab assignment as he attempts to return from a severe groin strain suffered on July 8. During his time back home, he is bunking at his offseason home in Lincoln, a mere 40-minute commute from the ballpark. He didn’t wait long to dazzle his home state fans, crushing a two-run homer to right field in the bottom of the fifth inning in Omaha’s 4-3 win over the Sacramento River Cats, the Class AAA affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.
On his first night back, Gordon finished one for four with four standing ovations from the announced crowd of 9,023.
“It’s very unique,” said Tom Shatel, a long-time sports columnist at the Omaha World-Herald. “I can’t remember the last native son — and the last Husker — that has been in the national spotlight like this. It’s been a long time.”
For Gordon, his latest trip home comes at a pivotal moment in his career. Back in Kansas City, the only franchise he has ever known is gearing up for another postseason run. But when the season is over, he will own the option of free agency and the chance to test baseball’s lucrative market. For the last decade, Gordon has crafted an All-Star career with an organization just three hours away from his hometown. Here in Nebraska, there is growing fear the Gordon era in Kansas City could soon be coming to an end.
“It would be crushing,” says Molly Smith, who grew up here outside Omaha.
“It’s virtually like it’s a home for him (in Kansas City),” said Tim Ward, a transplant who settled here in the early 2000s. “I think people would be pretty bummed.”
“It would hurt,” says Wilson. “But I think baseball fans would understand how baseball works. And I think the true Alex Gordon fans here will follow him anywhere.”
In truth, of course, Gordon has never strayed too far from his Nebraska roots. Four years ago, Gordon and his wife, Jamie, another Nebraska native, built an offseason home in Lincoln. In the fall months, the locals can witness Gordon taking in the occasional Nebraska football game at Memorial Stadium. Two years ago, he donated $1 million to the University of Nebraska for an indoor baseball training facility that now bears his name.
“It’s just where I grew up,” Gordon said. “It’s where my family is from. So it’s somewhere I can come back and relax and see everybody. It’s just home for both myself and my wife. So it’s just made sense to come back here.”
For most of his adult life, Nebraskans have repaid the loyalty with adulation.
“I think the people here like to see somebody that represents them,” said Dave Lyles, a native of Omaha who took in Sunday’s game with his son. “And he’s always done things the right way.”
On Sunday, a baseball game took on the feeling of a family reunion. Gordon stepped into left field at Werner Park in the early afternoon and greeted pitcher Joba Chamberlain, a life-long friend and former Nebraska player who recently signed a minor-league deal with the Royals. Hours later, Chamberlain’s father, Harlan, would join the crowd, waiting outside the Storm Chasers’ clubhouse.
“I’d never been here before,” Joba Chamberlain told Gordon, speaking of the ballpark in Papillion built earlier this decade.
Moments later, Gordon played catch in left field before working through a series of controlled sprints. The plan, he reiterated, is to be as cautious as possible. He served as the designated hitter on Sunday, and he is expected to rotate days in left field with games at DH. When Gordon went down on the left-field warning track on July 8, the initial thought was that Gordon could miss eight weeks. This Wednesday will mark seven weeks since the injury.
“(I’m) excited, but at the same time (I have to) try to be as cautious as I can,” Gordon said. “I’ll get my work in, but be smart at the same time. The overall feeling is mostly excited, though.”
On early Sunday evening, as the fans congregated in left field, waiting for a glance at Gordon, a few Nebraska fans reminisced about the old days. They talked about the time Gordon kept disrupting a little league game by blasting 400-foot homers from an adjacent field. They talked about the time he snared a crucial interception in a state championship football game. And they talked about those months in 2010, when Gordon resurrected his career here in Omaha.
For the moment, Gordon has given few public indications about his future. The free-agency question hangs in the distance, but those decisions will come later. First, there is a rehab to complete. After that, another shot at a World Series championship. But on Sunday afternoon, Gordon did divulge one detail about his future: A reporter asked if he expected to be a Nebraska lifer. Could he ever see himself leaving this place? On that subject, Gordon was slightly more committal.
“If you asked me right now, probably,” Gordon said. “But you just never know what the future entails. But we like it here and hopefully we can stay for a while.”