The Royals and their fans received the opportunity to bid farewell and thank manager Ned Yost during this final homestand, informally such as the ovation Yost received during a pitching change on Tuesday night and formally in Friday night’s pregame ceremony at Kauffman Stadium.
A similar scenario may not exist for star left fielder Alex Gordon, the elder statesman of the clubhouse and a former No. 2 overall MLB draft pick who grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska.
A three-time All-Star, World Series champion and career-long Royal, he’ll almost certainly hold a revered place in franchise history.
However, Gordon, 35, will decide after he gets away from the emotions and fatigue of the baseball season whether to return for another year. His contract includes a mutual option worth $23 million for 2020, and he acknowledged earlier this week that his return would likely be on a renegotiated contract.
If he does call it a career and Sunday marks the end of an era, Gordon will leave a legacy as one of the preeminent defensive players in baseball during his career and one of the most-decorated defenders in franchise history.
It’s only made more remarkable by the fact that he reinvented himself after entering the organization viewed as the third baseman of the future and his generation’s George Brett.
Perhaps none know it better than those who’ve seen the transition from the beginning, who’ve played alongside him, who’ve benefited from his lengthy resume of heart-stopping highlights and who’ve tried to pattern their own games after his lofty blueprint.
A career-changing transition
Gordon’s six Gold Gloves are the most in franchise history for an outfielder. Only former second baseman Frank White has more as a Royals player with eight.
Gordon’s first three years in the majors, partially marred by injury, were spent as an infielder. As his development seemed to hit a wall and Mike Moustakas quickly approached the big leagues in 2010, general manager Dayton Moore made the decision to send Gordon back to the minors as a left fielder.
“That spring he slid head-first and tore his thumb,” Yost recalled. “Dayton told him at that point that when he’s done rehabbing his thumb, he’s going to Triple-A and become an outfielder.”
In Omaha, Gordon worked with outfield maven Rusty Kuntz from May until July to make the transition. That summer he returned to the majors and Yost insists the signs were quickly evident just from the first few rounds of batting practice that Gordon would make an outstanding outfielder.
“He’s got an infielder’s release, which means that he’s going to pile up assists because he’s not the three step — one, two, three, boom, boom — it’s up and boom with a strong arm,” Yost said. “Great range in the outfield. He worked to read jumps, and that’s how he got so good. I knew real quick after watching that he was going to be able to handle the outfield portion of it.”
Gordon has seven outfield assists this season. His 98 outfield assists since 2010 tie him with Washington’s Gerardo Parra for the most in the majors.
The arm may not even be Gordon’s best attribute.
“His toughness, his fearlessness,” Yost said. “He charges the ball fearlessly. A lot of people lay back, he doesn’t. He charges the ball hard. He doesn’t care about the wall. Doesn’t care about diving into the stands. He’ll do whatever it takes. He’s fearless in the outfield.
“He’s probably slowed down a half a step or a step from his glory days, but I’m going to be mildly surprised if he doesn’t win the Gold Glove this year. I think he should.”
Driven to be elite
Gordon ranks second among all outfielders in ultimate zone rating since 2010, trailing only Jason Heyward, according to FanGraphs.com.
Every season since 2011, Gordon has ranked among the top five in the majors in range factor per 9 innings and top four in range factor per game, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
“I truly say that Alex had the best work ethic of any person I ever played with,” said Fox Sports South television analyst Jeff Francoeur, a former Royal. “It’s why he’s done what he’s done. It’s why he’s been able to do it as long as he has and stay healthy. We would play and we would go at it. Who had the better arm? Who could get to the ball the quickest? And I always said it made me a better outfielder, and I think he’d tell you the same thing.”
Francoeur’s career stretched over parts of 12 seasons in the majors, including the 2011 and 2012 seasons with the Royals.
Francoeur, who won a Gold Glove in 2007 as an outfielder, still watches in awe as Gordon seems to play the outfield with an uncanny intuition.
When asked for Gordon’s best attribute as a defender, Francoeur replied, “Instincts.”
“He’s so good,” Francoeur said. “If you watch, you can’t teach it. It’s like when I played with Andruw Jones for those four years in Atlanta. Just watching him, it’s like he knows where the ball is going. He’s always got a good route. He’s always on top of it. To me when I watch Alex, just seeing where he’s at, seeing where he’s lined up, you just feel that he’s in a good spot to get the ball and to make a play.”
Gordon and Francoeur remain friends, and Francoeur said the two have talked about retirement.
“I know this is going to be one of the harder decisions he’s ever had,” Francoeur said. “We’ve talked a lot about it. I personally, I’d love to see him come back and play one more year. I told him, I’m having a blast doing what I’m doing, but when it’s over, it’s over. You don’t want to have regrets.”
A pitcher’s security blanket
Gordon has established a significant YouTube rabbit hole. Find one play and it could easily lead to a lengthy sitting as a string of highlights play in succession.
For pitchers like Danny Duffy, the plays have been ingrained, each catch a rush of emotion for a pitcher who sees runs essentially taken off the board because Gordon has made an incredible catch or throw or both.
Asked about one memorable moment, Duffy immediately rattled off three or four, including a diving catch against the Baltimore Orioles to save what was still a perfect game for Duffy in 2014. He also recalled Gordon having leaped over the railing at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago while making a catch in foul territory to steal an out for pitcher Edinson Volquez.
“There’s about probably 15 outfield assists that he’s had that saved me a run at the plate every time,” Duffy said. “I mean, he’s robbed a ton of homers, ran into the wall 100 times to catch a baseball. Dude, the guy has been around forever and it all comes from his pregame. He busts his (butt) in his pregame everyday, his footwork, his timing, his first step, how he breaks down, it’s awesome.”
In Duffy’s final road start in Oakland, Gordon crashed into the outfield wall after making a catch. Two nights earlier, he jumped and reached over the wall and snatched a would-be home run for Jurickson Profar. The entire Royals dugout stood and tipped their hats to Gordon.
“It’s different with him,” Duffy said. “Nothing against any other outfielders. Lorenzo (Cain) made a ton of robberies too. We’ve been pretty blessed to have awesome outfielders. When you see a ball go up, you have more hope with Gordo than really anybody you can think of that it’s going to be brought in. A ball could be five rows deep, and you could still have hope that he’s going to go get it somehow.”
Gordon has 129 defensive runs saved, the most of any left fielder in the majors since 2010, The next closest player, the New York Yankees’ Brett Gardner, has 97.
Royals outfielder Bubba Starling, a KC-area standout drafted from Gardner Edgerton High School, grew up watching the Royals. He remembers Gordon, the star out of the University of Nebraska coming to the majors as a third baseman and then coming back to the majors as an outfielder.
Once Starling was drafted, he realized Gordon had already become the standard by which all other outfielders in the organization were measured.
“Spring trainings, you show up and you get the Gordo spiel of how he takes everything so seriously,” Starling said. “Shagging, every group he’s running after balls, that’s when you know you’ve got to pick it up as a rookie and be ready out there, working on stuff. Because if a veteran guy like that is doing it, you’ve got to be doing it every time too.”
Throughout the farm system, Gordon became the mountain top. Reach that level, and you’ve made it.
Once Starling got to play alongside Gordon in big league spring training, he started to pick up on “little things” Gordon did in drills. Whether it meant getting sideways in order to get an angle on a ball that went up into the sun or how he’d position his feet as he went after line drives.
Starling is no slouch himself. He has already shown potential of elite outfield defense with his ability to track down balls as well as with his arm. He uncorked a 100.7 mph throw to the plate during a game at Kauffman Stadium this season.
But doing drills with Gordon, it was like playing next to the ghost he’d been chasing since he got into professional baseball, except he’s real.
“He would be the example,” Starling said. “Honestly, on different affiliates, our outfield coaches would talk about it and he was one of the first guys they’d mention. They’d say look up in the big leagues, you’ve got a guy like Alex Gordon doing this, this and this. Basically, someone you want to emulate. Someone you look up to, what he’s done, the work he puts in every day.”