Between his father’s death on Feb. 14 and the funeral, Royals outfielder Alex Gordon and his brothers reflected on what made Mike Gordon the understated, special man he was and all the ways he helped make them who they are.
They mourned and they laughed.
And they clutched certain memories with new preciousness.
“I have this picture,” Gordon started saying the other day.
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One that stood out among the many they went through after his father was liberated into peace at age 63 after five years of being afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.
The image was of the two of them, at Citi Field in New York the night the Royals won the 2015 World Series.
“There was one of me and him just hugging. Just an amazing picture,” said Gordon, who is typically every bit the reserved reflection of his father but animated as he spoke now. “Words can’t even describe what it was like after we won the World Series.
“It was such a great hug and a great picture.”
That was a marquee part of the montage coursing through Gordon this spring, but the moment’s meaning was not in the arrival but what it said about the journey there.
“I wouldn’t be here without him,” said Gordon, adding that he’ll have a heavier heart every game in the wake of his father’s death.
He also wouldn’t be here without his mother, Leslie, Gordon is quick to say, and her past as a night-shift nurse and antique-store owner and cancer survivor set a tone of its own.
But it’s easy to trace a direct and tangible line to his dad’s influence on Gordon’s love of the game and legendary work ethic that made him a Kansas City favorite and leaves you hoping that at 34 he can rebound from the last two wobbly seasons at the plate.
“I believe in him, because I know every day he’s going to give you everything he has and every ounce of it,” manager Ned Yost said. “He’s not going to leave an ounce of what he’s got in his tank.”
Much of the reasons for Yost’s faith go back to a crude baseball diamond near the house where Gordon grew up in Lincoln, Neb.
That was where Mike Gordon noticed Alex placed his hands on the bat like a left-hander even as he stepped to the right side of the plate, the Lincoln Journal-Star reported in 2007, and suggested he might want to stand on the other side of the plate if he wanted to hold it that way.
It was there that Alex Gordon, the second-oldest, and his three brothers would eagerly await their father’s daily return from his job as a sales manager for Coca-Cola (before he “stepped up his game,” as Gordon put it, smiling, and worked for Miller beer).
The boys literally and figuratively learned where their dad was coming from: He’d take them to work on occasion and have them help load trucks and do other heavy lifting that he wanted them to understand was honorable in itself.
It also made them appreciate how hard their father toiled, how his body ached from the labor, and what it meant that he’d shrug that off day after day after day to be with his little boys at that field.
“He’d just keep going and going,” Gordon said. “That’s the type of guy he was.”
He’d pull up in his car and head their way lugging a bag of baseballs.
Then he’d proceed to throw to all four of them … two hours and hundreds of pitches at a time without so much as the benefit of a protective L-screen on the mound.
“It was incredible. Never complained, never fussed about it,” said Gordon, who called his father a quiet man whose words resonated because of his sparing use. “Just wanted to do whatever he could to make his four kids smile.”
As the boys got older, they’d place a trash can on the mound to give him some protection.
It couldn’t cover his whole body, though, and Mike Gordon would get pelted and drilled on comebackers.
“He’d get right back up and say, ‘Hey, here we go,’ ” Gordon said.
That memory was something the boys found themselves laughing about in the last couple of weeks.
To Gordon, though, it’s more than just a vignette he recalls fondly.
It speaks to a mind-set his father instilled, one that sustained him through looming failure after being the second overall pick in the 2005 draft and a less-than-certain conversion from third base to the outfield that changed everything.
That resilience is part of why it shouldn’t be assumed that Gordon at 34 simply can’t navigate past his struggles of the last two years – which included hitting .208 last year with just nine home runs and 45 RBIs.
“I had high expectations coming in, and then when it didn’t work out I kind of went about it the wrong way,” he said, later adding, “It was all mental.”
The key, he said, was that he was so fixated on his swing that he lost his “approach” – which he simplified as getting back to “swinging at pitches I wanted to and really going up there with a plan.”
Gordon had a respectable and encouraging September, with an .808 OPS, four home runs, five doubles and 10 RBIs, a time in which he said “I kind of got back to who I was.”
Someone proud to reflect his father.
“I would expect people would say you’re playing for your dad (this season),” he said. “But, you know, I’ve been playing my whole life for my dad.”