The story behind Alex Gordon’s catch and the sports photo of the year

[Podcast: Hear Sam Mellinger talk about Alex Gordon's highlights with the Royals, including this catch. ]

When the outfielder crashed into the stands on Sunday afternoon, first slamming into a man in a black White Sox shirt, then tumbling over a green plastic seat, Ethan Routzahn sat six feet away, peering over from his seat in Section 151 of U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago.

A few steps to his right, Alex Gordon lay on his back on a skinny piece of concrete, wedged between two rows, lifting a black leather glove into the air. A man in a red shirt reached down to offer a hand. A child stuck his hand into the frame and grabbed hold of the All-Star’s muscular forearm.

One moment earlier, an out had been recorded in a Major League Baseball game — the first out of the sixth inning in the Royals’ 5-3 loss to the White Sox. Gordon, the Royals’ Gold Glove left fielder, had chased down a foul ball, leaped over a short wall, hip-checked a fan, then found his resting spot on a patch of solid ground.

Routzahn, a high school junior from nearby Crystal Lake, Ill., did what any millennial with a sense of the moment would do: He reached for his iPhone.

“I just kind of looked in disbelief for a second — that he actually caught the ball,” Routzahn said. “I just saw him laying down for a second. I was like: ‘Oh, this would actually be a pretty cool picture.’”

The resulting image — a splendid mix of shadows and natural light and a baseball player laying in the stands of a baseball stadium — is near perfection, a forever moment captured by a high school junior with an iPhone 6. Routzahn is pretty sure any teenager could have done it.

“Right place, right time,” Routzahn said Monday evening after baseball practice at his suburban high school.

Before the baseball season, Routzahn says, his father, Rob, decided to purchase a weekend ticket package at U.S. Cellular Field. Ethan Routzhan had grown up on the North Side, in the heart of Cubs country. But his father had always indoctrinated him into the ways of the White Sox. It wasn’t too hard. These were the Ozzie Guillen years. Paul Konerko. The 2005 Word Series. And so on.

A high school junior, Routzahn is a pretty decent ballplayer himself. He can approach 90 mph on the radar gun, has overcome Tommy John surgery, and he has committed to play baseball at Division I Dallas Baptist. In the summer, he works out with famed Texas-based pitching guru Ron Wolforth. And with just one year left in Chicago before leaving home, he said the White Sox tickets were an imperative.

“We just said, ‘We might as well see as many games as we can before I head off to college next summer,’” Routzahn said.

On Sunday, Rob and Ethan arrived at U.S. Cellular and sat in their usual seats down the left-field line. By the sixth inning, Gordon had already made a brilliant running catch-and-throw to double off former teammate Melky Cabrera at second base.

So when Chicago’s Micah Johnson lifted a high fly ball down the left-field line in the sixth, Gordon took off for foul territory and faced a decision.

“I just said, ‘Eff it,’” Gordon said. “And jumped into the stands.”

In the moments after Routzahn took the photo, he texted the image to an aunt who lives in Olathe. Then he opened his phone’s Twitter app and sent out a tweet with his photo attached.

“How’s it going Alex Gordon?” he posted on Twitter. “Just made a sweet catch flying by me in the stands.”

As Gordon staggered to his feet, and the game continued, Routzahn kept an eye on Twitter. The first retweet came from a friend in Chicago. Then came dozens more — all from Royals fans.

“I’m not really sure how it was found so quickly,” Routzahn said.

By Monday, when Routzahn returned to school, the post had been retweeted more than a 1,000 times. At school, he had claimed semi-celebrity status. ESPN tweeted at him, wondering if they could use his photo on “SportsCenter.”

A radio station in Kansas City called and asked for an interview. It was all very weird, he says, but also cool. He was viral.

And then he had to mute his phone so he could focus on first hour.

“I do like taking pictures of sporting events and stuff like that,” Routzahn said. “I feel like I’m sort of known for that around here. I always tweet pictures of my high school. I’m a big supplier of information, I guess.”

All Monday, people kept asking him to relive the moments before the photo. And in a strange way, he says, it felt really slow. It all happened in seconds, and it felt like he had plenty of time to dig into his pocket and set up his camera for the shot.

“I didn’t even see him coming,” Routzahn said. “Out of nowhere, Alex Gordon just jumps up and catches the ball, and I was like: “Oh, wow.’

“You can even see me in the video — you can see me mouth that.”

Before the next inning, Gordon returned to the fans in left field, handing a baseball to the man he had plowed through. The man handed the ball to his son, and the fans in left field cheered. By then, Routzahn’s photo was already pinging around the internet.

It was, for one day in April, the perfect sports photograph. Here was the daredevil outfielder, surviving a crash, lifting his arm into the air, looking up toward the sky, and looking for a little help. And here was a rival fan, reaching down to lend a hand.

“The fans helped him up,” Routzahn said. “What a catch.”

To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to rdodd@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.

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