The old friends met for New Year’s Eve, like they always do. By now, it feels like family. Alex Gordon and Luke Hochevar have known each other for more than a decade. It was baseball that brought them together, but by now the friendship is about so much more.
They started this tradition a few years back, getting together somewhere nice every offseason. Their wives are close. Their kids are friends. Their priorities are the same. At some point, they invited Jeff Francoeur to the party, and Frenchy’s wife had recently given birth, so the group met at a resort near their offseason home in Georgia to make it easy.
Normally, the guys don’t talk baseball much at the get-togethers. The sport has a way of consuming you, particularly during the season. Escaping is important. But what about when the line between baseball and regular life blurs?
Ten years after signing with the Royals out of Nebraska, Gordon was a free agent. He had worked his way into becoming one of the game’s best left fielders, and some expected his contract offers to top $100 million. Most in the industry, and some of Gordon’s closest friends, including those who hoped he would stay in Kansas City, expected him to leave the Royals. This is the business of baseball. Teams and players have temporary relationships.
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So after an hour or so, Hochevar asked. He couldn’t stand the suspense. Anything new with a contract? Gordon smiled. Virtually nobody knew it yet, but earlier that day — after a long, confusing and ultimately rewarding process — he had agreed to a new deal with the Royals. Right then, Hochevar and Francoeur became the first people outside of Gordon’s immediate family to hear it from him.
“Oh my God,” Hochevar says. “I jump out of my seat. I’m fist-pumping, screaming, and you know Alex. He’s, like, mumbling, trying to calm me down: ‘Yeah, you know, it’s not final yet, we have to keep it quiet.’ Meanwhile, I’m losing my mind.”
For the previous two months, and for the first time since he was in college, Gordon was not a Royals employee. It was a strange time, for him and those who care about him. The journey included behind-the-scenes twists and possibilities and the son of a warehouse manager and nurse being offered generations of wealth and consciously visualizing himself in another team’s uniform.
But that night, as 2015 turned to 2016, the old friends went out to dinner. Hochevar had the ribeye, Gordon the filet, and they toasted their friendship and Gordon’s new contract and the end of a defining time for team and franchise.
“And we made Alex pay,” Hochevar says, laughing. “That’s how we celebrated. Make him buy.”
“We didn’t know whether it would happen,” Gordon says. “But this was the way I wanted it to end the whole time.”
At some point during the 72-hour haze of a World Series celebration that started on a baseball field in Queens and continued through the largest gathering of humans in Kansas City history for the victory parade, Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain grabbed Gordon by the shoulders.
“Nice knowing you, Gordo,” he said. “We’re going to miss you.”
Cain meant it as a joke, but he now admits he was nearly certain Gordon would be playing somewhere else. He was not alone. Some of the Royals are in a fantasy football league, and they have a text chain that essentially amounts to endless trash talk. Cain and Jarrod Dyson share control of a perennial loser of a team in the league, each man always blaming the other for its failings. At one point, Dyson said at least he’d get his own team after Gordon was gone. As it happens, Gordon has now won the league two years in a row.
“Maybe if I don’t come back,” Cain remembers Gordon texting, “one of you will have a chance.”
The Star talked to many of the Royals’ top decision-makers, both before and after Gordon’s signing, and none expressed more than what amounts to a faint hope that they could retain one of the best players in franchise history.
Even Ned Yost, the Royals’ ultimate believer, admits to some doubt after Gordon’s mother approached him at the parade in tears to thank him for everything they did for her son. Dayton Moore, the general manager who has called Gordon’s rise the greatest individual story he’s been around in baseball, spoke in mostly cryptic tones about the Royals’ chances of retaining him.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen,” says J.J. Picollo, vice president for player personnel. “I can say that. Not at all.”
The deck felt stacked against them. Even with record attendance and a world championship, the offseason began with a sense inside the organization that the payroll could not rise much from last year’s $112 million. Not only that, many teams were thought to need corner outfielders: the Cubs, Angels, Orioles, Astros, Tigers, Mets, Nationals and White Sox, just to name a few.
When a player hits free agency, he rarely returns. Players who stay usually do so on extensions negotiated before free agency. That’s what happened in 2012, but talks never started this time around. In most cases, that’s a strong indication a player is leaving. Winning a World Series certainly strengthened the bond between player and team, but it also could’ve made for a clean break. What more was there to accomplish in Kansas City?
Royals officials met to discuss what their team would look like without Gordon and made contact with agents for potential replacements. They were actively planning a future without Gordon. Moore even called Gordon’s agent, Casey Close, to discuss what would essentially be an exit strategy, telling him that if Gordon played somewhere else next year, and fans needed someone to blame, it should be the organization.
“Alex has been very fair to us and given us everything he possibly could,” Moore remembers telling Close. “We’ve done everything for him we could, but he doesn’t owe us anything.”
That some of the teams interested were the Cubs, White Sox and Cardinals was particularly troubling for the Royals. Gordon loves that Kansas City is close to his home in Lincoln, but Chicago and St. Louis aren’t too far, either, and generally have more money to spend.
“Gone,” first baseman Eric Hosmer says. “Yeah, I thought he was gone. Honestly. I just didn’t think it could happen. I just thought he was too expensive.”
Alex Gordon’s professional baseball career is essentially defined by unfair hype in which George Brett said he was “honored” to be compared to Gordon, a nasty fall from golden boy prospect to assumed bust, major hip surgery, and then a declaration to “dominate” that he backed up by becoming one of the sport’s best corner outfielders.
He was demoted by the Royals the year they lost 95 games and finished last again, and five years later hit an iconic home run in the World Series.
But the strangest part of Gordon’s career might be those eight weeks between Nov. 6 and New Year’s Eve, a stretch that started in the afterglow of the parade and went long enough that Gordon and the Royals each considered their own post-breakup alternatives.
Gordon lived this strange existence with his feet in two very different worlds. In one, he was among baseball’s top free agents. In the other, his offseason home in Lincoln sounded more like a day care than a place to do business.
“I’m spending all day with my kids, so obviously we didn’t have MLB Network on,” Gordon says. “It’s Peppa Pig, PJ Masks and PAW Patrol. Those are the big three.”
Gordon’s cellphone buzzed every day, usually in the late afternoon, with a debriefing from his agent, Close, who condensed and simplified the previous 24 hours’ progress. In the beginning, the conversations could take a while. There were so many moving parts.
Close described to Gordon how Jason Heyward’s free agency would set the market. Once Heyward signed an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Cubs on Dec. 13, it affected Gordon in a number of ways.
The most important, at least from the Royals’ point of view, was the first glimmer of real optimism. Gordon was always the centerpiece of the Royals’ offseason plans, and they committed to not doing anything major until and unless he signed somewhere else. But there is a balance between patience and passivity, and internally, Royals officials thought their best chance — some thought their only chance — was if Heyward signed with the Cubs.
It worked on a few levels. Heyward signing with the Cubs essentially took two spenders away from Gordon. The Cubs could’ve blown away any offer from the Royals, and the Cardinals would’ve needed Gordon or Matt Holliday to switch positions. One Royals official said the urgency further picked up once the Cubs also signed Ben Zobrist.
“It’s a good thing, but we have a lot of guys who play with a lot of emotion, and Zobrist was always really steady,” the official said. “Well, Alex is our other steady guy. We need that.”
The Royals and Gordon continued to drift toward each other with the help of fortuitous winds. The Orioles put their focus on re-signing Chris Davis, and Colby Rasmus surprisingly accepted the Astros’ qualifying offer. Gordon never would’ve gone to New York, and the Giants spent most of their money on pitching. The Angels surprised many by announcing they would not spend big in free agency, but Royals officials were concerned when they heard C.J. Wilson was available in a salary-dump trade — were they trying to clear money to make an offer for Gordon?
Meanwhile, Gordon waited. He thought he was ready for free agency, but he did not expect this. He figured something would get done at the winter meetings, or at least some progress would be made. Instead, virtually nothing was happening. His phone would buzz every once in a while with a text from Cain or Hochevar or Hosmer. Ballplayers generally stay out of teammates’ free-agency situations, but these friendships stretched beyond the field.
Their general tone was the same: Hey, sign back already.
“Just joking around about it,” Gordon says now. “But probably being serious, too.”
Gordon’s daily updates from Close grew shorter and shorter as the winter dragged on. Most days, there was just nothing new to report. The same teams were interested, and the same roadblocks were in front of each potential deal.
“At the end of each call,” Gordon says, “I’d always say, ‘Did you hear anything from the Royals?’ ”
For a while, the answer was no. Each side had a general understanding that they would talk before Gordon signed with another team. Gordon and Close are each very private, but Gordon confirms Close presented offers from more than one other team. Gordon won’t say who those teams were, but it was close enough that he thought about the specifics of a move — how he’d fit into a new team’s lineup, how he’d like the city, how it would affect his family.
“There was one major team,” he says. “One of the biggest things for us, my (oldest) kid is starting kindergarten. We wanted to be somewhere close. That was the main thing, keeping the family together and being somewhere close. So I’ll give you a hint, and maybe you can guess who it is. It’s centrally located, I’ll give you that.”
Others close to Gordon or the negotiation have guessed that team to be the White Sox.
“Maybe,” is all Gordon will say.
A phone conversation shortly after Christmas changed everything.
Relationships between general managers and players are often strictly business. The GM’s job description, after all, is kind of like the relationship between a rancher and his cattle: raise them, develop them, and then know when to get rid of them.
Dayton Moore and Alex Gordon have something different. Gordon has always appreciated how Moore believed in him, even in his lowest moments, even without drafting him. Gordon calls Moore his good friend, and Moore calls Gordon the model of what a ballplayer should be.
For most of the winter, Royals assistant general manager Jin Wong was the club’s point man on the Gordon situation. He was in regular contact with Close. He was the one representing the franchise. This is standard operating procedure for the Royals and other teams, but after seven weeks of virtually no progress, Moore called his friend.
“Alex wanted assurance we had a plan to try to win, to keep the guys here, the core, and I assured him we’d do our best,” Moore says. “I just wanted to make sure that Alex could hear my voice about what our plans were, whatever he ended up doing. That was just important to me.”
That’s not unlike the message from any club to any free agent, of course, but perhaps because of the history between these two particular men, the sentiment changed.
“We just had a good conversation,” Gordon says. “After that, it heated up.”
The exchanges of numbers between Close and Wong picked up pace. Each side was OK with four years, and after that it was making the money work, both in sum and structure. On New Year’s Eve, Wong and Close were close enough on terms. They decided to wait until after the holiday to talk again.
But Moore didn’t want to wait. Why build in more time for something to go wrong? Ownership initially sent signals that the payroll would be capped somewhere below $130 million, but Dan Glass was as motivated to do this deal as any since he became club president.
So the Royals made an offer, Close countered, the Royals came back, and eventually they compromised on a backloaded contract worth $72 million that pays $12 million in 2016 (less than Gordon made in 2015), with $44 million due in 2018 and 2019, including a $4 million buyout on a $23 million mutual option.
As Gordon celebrated with Hochevar and Francoeur and their wives, Moore celebrated the deal with a quiet night at home with his family. His younger daughter’s favorite player has always been Gordon.
“Way to go, dad,” she told Moore.
The Royals’ outfielders are on a side field in Surprise, Ariz., warming up to a soundtrack of coach Rusty Kuntz’s encouragement and Lorenzo Cain’s advice.
“I’m telling you guys right now,” Cain is yelling, “whatever you do today, do not throw with Gordo!”
“I’m serious,” he continues. “Do not throw with Gordo if you want to survive with the Kansas City Royals!”
Cain is smiling, but you can see a momentary look of concern on the faces of some of the minor-leaguers.
“This man is a career killer,” Cain is yelling. “He threw with Frenchy, and now he’s gone. Cabrera, gone. He threw with Maxwell, gone. Mitch, gone. Kratz, gone!”
There is uncertainty, and maybe this is how it would’ve happened anyway, but eventually there are only three outfielders left without throwing partners — Gordon, Brett Eibner and Travis Snider. They begin to loosen, Gordon on one end, alternating throws between Eibner and Snider.
“Oh, this will be big,” Cain yells. “I don’t think he’s ever got two guys at once!”
Gordon says nothing. Just smiles and throws. Listening to his center fielder and fantasy football rival passing the time with this goofiness is exactly what he signed up for.