The world is an unfair place, especially our sports world, and it did not take Alex Gordon long to figure that out. He knew this long before a freak groin injury robbed him of another All-Star Game and two months of a season he’d been enjoying like none before it.
A decade ago — has it really been that long? — the Royals selected him with the second overall pick of what turned out to be a loaded draft. He was a humble young man with three brothers in a hard-working Nebraska family now playing for the team he grew up watching. It was a cool story, and back then, the Royals didn’t have many of them.
But that was only part of the story, and it was quickly derailed by the inevitable predictions that he would be the next George Brett. It was patently ridiculous, of course, a college kid compared to a Hall of Famer. But Gordon had sandy-blonde hair, blue eyes, a left-handed swing, incredible talent and an exhaustive way of attacking every game.
The comparison probably would’ve been made, by someone, no matter who drafted Gordon. That the Royals did it made the link obvious and easy. I was covering baseball at the time, and remember being determined not to make much of the comparison, but then Brett himself left no choice.
“I take it as a compliment,” Brett said the spring before Gordon made his big-league debut. “When I watch him play, he makes the game look pretty easy. When I played the game, I knew how hard it was. He’s better than I was at (23).”
Things only went hotter from there. Gordon received a standing ovation before his first at-bat, which turned out to be a strikeout with the bases loaded, and then walked a twisting path that included boos and a demotion and a major hip surgery and even a position change to make room for the next star third baseman because the Royals didn’t know what else to do.
Funny how things work out, then, right? Gordon has been a phenom and then a bust and now a star. This is his eighth season with the Royals, and he would have been a starter in his third All-Star Game. He has already won four Gold Gloves, more than anyone in franchise history except Frank White. He ranks in the Royals’ all-time top 10 in virtually every significant category.
He is not the next George Brett, but you know what?
He is having the best Royals career of any position player since Brett.
“I know I’ve been around here for a while,” Gordon says. “But I haven’t really looked at it or anything.”
He might now. On Thursday, the day after what was diagnosed as a grade two-plus groin strain, Gordon talked of the “overwhelming” reaction from fans. You couldn’t watch more than an inning of the broadcast without seeing a “get well soon” sign in the stands.
Gordon sounded genuinely touched, which was sweet, but also a bit surprised, which was strange. He has long been a favorite, both among fans and those within the organization. He doesn’t seek or necessarily enjoy attention, particularly about things that aren’t baseball, but he has always been one of, if not the, most active players in the community.
He is the personification of the franchise’s rise. He was drafted midway through a season in which the Royals lost a record 106 games, including 19 in a row. That was the year manager Buddy Bell said he would never say it can’t get worse.
Gordon never complained about the expectations, or the Brett comparison, at least not publicly. He arrived to the Royals as a sort of ballplayer’s ballplayer, head down, fully committed, too busy in the weight room or batting cage to worry much about anything else.
That attitude has been misunderstood over the years. He has been ejected just once in 1,110 career games, and longtime Royals officials can probably count on one hand the number of times he’s argued with an umpire. Now that he is an established star, it’s seen as maturity, and confidence, but it wasn’t long ago that some interpreted it as apathy.
Club officials wondered if Gordon’s never-let-’em-see-you-mad way was actually counterproductive, if his tendency to transfer frustration into energy for the weight room was stiffening his swing.
Years of subtle improvement or understanding were overshadowed by mediocre big-league results and a growing impatience.
He and the team have shared every flash of potential, slump, obstacle and doubt together. He has been the fans’ favorite punching bag, and he has been the fans’ favorite player. He has been dismissed as a bust, and he is now a perennial All-Star with his own regular and personal ticket promotion.
Dayton Moore, the general manager who inherited and then helped nurture Gordon, says Gordon’s rise is among the proudest accomplishments he’s been part of.
No matter what happens in the rest of Gordon’s career, he will breeze into the team’s Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible.
In both Baseball Reference’s and Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, the only position players ahead of Gordon in franchise history are Brett, Amos Otis, Willie Wilson and White.
If Gordon continues on his current pace, he could surpass even White.
“Pretty cool,” Gordon says when told about this. “I mean, that’s pretty cool. Growing up, then at Nebraska, in the minor leagues, major leagues, I always wanted to be a complete player, and I think WAR really shows that. It’s about base running, defense, everything. You’re not always going to get a hit every time, but there are other ways to affect the game.”
Of course, we can’t talk about Gordon’s place in Royals history without pondering his place in their future.
He has an option for 2016 that nobody in the industry expects him to pick up. Assuming he makes a full recovery from his groin injury — and there is no reason to suspect he won’t — he could be in line for a contract worth $100 million or more on the open market.
The Royals have a lot of rising costs coming with other players, and paying Gordon that much — even as adored as he is within the organization — would mean a complete departure from the way they’ve operated.
There have been no indications that the Royals and Gordon’s agent have talked about an extension. The sport’s trend toward athleticism and defense will only strengthen his market value.
Gordon knew he would sign the contract he is currently playing on before it was offered. He told his agent to negotiate the best possible deal, but made it clear he would sign. Gordon may not simply sign the biggest contract, in other words, but even so there is a wide understanding that this may be Gordon’s last All-Star selection with the Royals and his last season with the only club he’s known.
Baseball’s economics have a way of keeping virtually any player-team marriage from being permanent, particularly in a small market like Kansas City.
There is more to be seen and more to be written. The return from this injury, at the very least. The playoffs, perhaps, after that. But no matter the ending, the story of Gordon and the Royals will always be a happy one. It will be a story of triumph, of a man and organization growing up together, from the bottom of the standings to the biggest platform in the sport.
No, he is not the next George Brett. That was never fair. But he is, perhaps, the best thing the Royals have had since Brett.
And, like Gordon says, that’s pretty cool.
Baseball Reference compares players with others in history at their current age. For Alex Gordon, who is 31, those players include: Dave Henderson, Alex Rios and Mel Hall.
FanGraphs’ WAR for Gordon this year, which is tops among left fielders
Putouts as a left fielder, which is second in baseball
Consecutive Gold Glove awards won