The end is almost always ugly, and that’s as true in sports as it is in love. The best times never last forever. If they did, they wouldn’t be the best times. We get older, change too much, or don’t change enough, and one day you’re packing your bags or listening as the boss tells you why you’re benched.
“I’d probably do it if I was the manager, too,” Alex Gordon told reporters in the clubhouse.
The Royals star — I’m not ready to write former yet — took the news like an adult which was as unsurprising as the news itself. Gordon stinks. He said he stunk last year, and he’s been measurably worse this season.
He is hitting .197 with a .294 slugging percentage. His .580 OPS is the 158th among 159 everyday hitters in baseball, and now he’s no longer an everyday hitter. Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals star pitcher, has a .680 OPS this year.
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Royals fans will not be surprised to read that shortstop Alcides Escobar is 159th in OPS, and in a world that made more sense he wouldn’t have made his club record 283rd consecutive start on Tuesday. Some combination of Escobar’s defense and the team’s alternatives give him a Supreme Court justice’s job security.
The calculus on that second part — the alternatives — changed for Gordon exactly a week ago when the Royals traded for Melky Cabrera.
Cabrera has played all three outfield positions in his career, but has primarily been a left fielder in seven of the last eight seasons. The lone exception, notably, was when he set career highs in hits, homers, doubles, runs, and steals as the Royals’ center fielder in 2011.
That was the year before Lorenzo Cain became a full-time big leaguer, and the year Gordon backed up his “dominate” line with one of the franchise’s best individual seasons ever — .303 with a .376 on-base and .502 slugging percentage, 23 homers, 45 doubles, and the first of four consecutive Gold Gloves.
That was the Gordon who more than anyone else personified the Royals’ rise from trash to trophies. He was drafted second overall in 2005, a full year before owner David Glass hired Dayton Moore as general manager and gave him the money to professionalize the place.
Gordon was the college player of the year, then the next year the minor league player of the year, then the next year received two standing ovations before he ever took a swing in the big leagues. Somewhere in the middle of all that people started comparing him to George Brett — shaggy blonde hair, blue eyes, third base, left-handed swing — but it didn’t get absurd until the guy with 3,154 hits said he was honored by the comparison.
Gordon was, basically, a certifiable bust his first four years in the big leagues. He was alternately hurt and overmatched. Failing in baseball for the first time in his life wore on him. People came to take his stoicism as apathy, which could not have been further from the problem. He took every out like a referendum on his worth, and there were a lot of outs. To compensate, he’d overwork himself to the point of fatigue, which just worsened the cycle.
In May 2010, the Royals were out of ideas, but also running out of time with Gordon. They weren’t good enough to release him. Their alternatives weren’t any better. But the next third baseman was making his way to Kansas City, a slugger they called Moose, so someone came up with the idea of moving Gordon to left. He was always a good athlete, moved well, and maybe the switch would unlock something in his brain.
He came back as an outfielder, promised to dominate, and did. He got MVP votes in 2011, signed a $37.5 million contract extension before the 2012 season and then outperformed it.
He led the league in doubles in 2012, and was the best player on the team that broke a 29-year playoff drought and went all the way to Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. Some use revisionist history to say his decline started in 2015, and he was injured for two months, but his OPS was actually 26 points higher than the year before and 60 points higher than the year before that.
The homer in the bottom of the ninth in the first game of the 2015 World Series is one of the franchise’s most iconic moments. Someday, the point to the sky as he rounded first base could be a statue around the ballpark.
That all feels like so long ago now, doesn’t it?
The Royals signed Gordon to a four-year, $72 million contract about two months after the parade. It was the richest contract in franchise history. An anonymous stranger spotted him at a restaurant the day the deal was announced, and bought Gordon lunch, one of the most Kansas City moves of all-time.
When the deal was done, the front office felt a collective combination of relief and pride. Ned Yost had called Gordon “the perfect ballplayer,” losing that guy in the afterglow of a world championship would’ve felt unacceptable.
Club officials knew the risk. Gordon was about to turn 32, and contracts that big for players that age rarely turn out well. But Gordon has always stayed in impeccable physical shape. There were no personal vices to get in the way, no risk of the money changing how he worked. His diverse set of skills matched the profile of players who tend to age relatively well.
Internally, club officials generally felt he’d continue to be one of the game’s best all-around corner outfielders for two years, then begin the natural decline in years three and four.
None of them could’ve guessed the drop would be this steep, or this immediate. He is hitting .210 with a .301 on-base and .343 slugging percentage since signing that contract. He has 22 home runs and 30 doubles in 228 games. In 2011 alone, he had 23 and 45.
Theories to explain are everywhere, and what they lack in in certainty they make up for in variety. Some scouts think he’s too stubborn, unwilling to accept he can no longer do what he did as a younger man. Some see his struggles against fastballs — he used to crush fastballs — as a sign of slower bat speed.
Yost occasionally talks of Gordon showing the power of his youth during batting practice, and he’s still very good defensively, so maybe it’s more mental than anything.
If anyone knew for sure, or even had more than a guess that so far hasn’t worked, we wouldn’t be here. Gordon won’t start for a few days, in hopes that extra time with the hitting coach will “reset” something and drag out production as the Royals chase a playoff spot.
If we’re honest, there is no particularly compelling reason for optimism. The last week has been especially ugly — one for his last 18, with eight strikeouts. The Royals are out of ideas, and the so-called 10-and-5 clause protecting veterans in the CBA limits the Royals’ options.
What they’re doing now is familiar to any of us who’ve had a crashed computer or cable box, turned it off, unplugged the thing, and then restarted in hopes of improvement. It works with consumer technology. Aging outfielders are a different challenge.
The Royals were out of ideas once before with Gordon, and in desperation sent him to Omaha to learn a new position. That worked to spectacular results, but that was a very different man. He was 26. Now he’s 33, a full 22 months removed from baseball success, with around $48 million left on a backloaded contract.
If Gordon is not done as a productive ballplayer, his career has at least one more inspiring and surprising twist. There can be no doubt about how hard he will work to find it, and how many both in and out of the organization are rooting for him.
He’s been tested professionally as much as an athlete can be, with impossible expectations, serious injuries, a rotten franchise that needed his help. He’s met every turn with honesty, work, class, maturity, and occasionally humor. These are the traits he’ll need for the next biggest challenge of his baseball life.
Yes, the end is almost always ugly. Maybe this isn’t the end, not yet, but if Gordon’s productive years are all in the past he’s changed a franchise and city for the better. Maybe Gordon reinvents himself, once more.
Hopefully that’s how he’s remembered here, no matter how the rest of his time in Kansas City goes. That homer off Familia really was the best of times.