On Wednesday night, Superman fell from the sky.
Mr. Indestructible, the guy who runs full speed into chain link fences and then gets right back up, the guy who dives into the stands face first and comes out with a ball in his glove, the guy who once took a fastball to the neck, flipped the bat and casually walked down to first base—that guy got hurt.
And it shocked everyone into silence.
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Even teammates were stunned; Alex Gordon seemed like a superhero. He sure as hell has a superhero’s physique.
One spring training I was standing in the clubhouse talking to Chris Getz when Gordon walked by without his shirt on. Chris—who has a very dry sense of humor—said: "Y’know, Lee, if we started working out and eating right today, we’re still years and years away from looking like that."
I think I went and ate some pie after that. Hey, if it would take me years and years of workouts and eating right to achieve something resembling Gordon’s level of fitness, it’s clearly not going to happen—I can’t make it through 24 hours without a cookie or a dish of ice cream; so much for my strength of character.
But Gordon’s willpower and work ethic are legendary.
I’ve been told Alex hasn’t had a bite of pizza since he was a little kid. Alex once said when he wants a dessert he eats a power bar. Outfielders are required to power shag one hitting group during batting practice. Power shagging is playing the batted balls at game speed. Because the requirement is one hitting group, Alex does two. The Royals organization has made a video of Alex at work and shows it to minor leaguers—this is how you become a Gold Glove defender.
An outfielder who had been up and down from the minors several times went to Rusty Kuntz and said this time I’ve gotta stick: how do I do that?
Rusty pointed at Alex Gordon and said: "Go where he goes, do what he does." I asked Rusty if the kid followed his instructions and Rusty said nope—the kid couldn’t keep up with Alex Gordon.
Never assume and you know why
I started covering the Royals in 2010. At that point Alex Gordon was very close to being considered a bust. In the previous three years he’d hit .247, .260 and .232. Because of his quiet demeanor some fans assumed he didn’t care and accused him of going through the motions. When Alex hit .303 in 2011 that same quiet demeanor was seen in a new light: now he was a professional going about his business in a professional way. Same approach, same demeanor, but now seen differently because he was getting better results.
By that time I’d spent a lot of time in the Royals clubhouse and I made the same mistake a lot of fans had made; assuming I knew something about a guy I’d barely talked to. I thought Alex Gordon was aloof at best, arrogant at worst—and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I do something moronic and break the ice
For the most part players tolerate the media. If you’re around enough you eventually build some kind of relationship, but in 2011 I still hadn’t spent much time with Alex Gordon. He’d talk if you asked him a question, but that was about it.
Jeff Francoeur was an entirely different story: Frenchy would talk to a lamppost and exchange cell numbers before the conversation was over. The details remain a little murky, but one night I bet Jeff I could keep a chaw of tobacco in my cheek for five minutes without puking afterwards. Jeff—and a number of other players—wanted to see someone in the media vomit, or at least be sick as a dog while they laughed at him.
Out of the blue Alex Gordon volunteered to hold the stopwatch.
Five minutes later Alex Gordon and I had a relationship. He sat and talked to me while the other players watched for signs of illness. I never puked, but I did get sick and that seemed to make everybody happy. After my misadventure, Alex and I would talk on a regular basis.
A winter workout
Back when Kevin Seitzer was the hitting coach Alex Gordon would come to town during the winter and workout at Mac-N-Seitz, Kevin’s baseball facility out in Martin City. I asked Kevin if I could ever attend a workout and he said he’d ask Alex. Gordon said it was OK with him and that’s how I ended up freezing my butt off early one morning watching Alex Gordon hit baseballs—and he hit a lot of baseballs. It was clear to me that this was the work ethic required to succeed and a lot of people don’t have it.
Afterwards, Alex asked if I wanted to sit down and talk. Ballplayers rarely ask reporters if they want to talk; it’s usually the other way around. At the end of our conversation Alex asked if I was coming to spring training and I said I wasn’t sure. Gordon urged me to show up: "The guys like having you around."
The guy I assumed was aloof at best and arrogant at worst was actually one of the nicest guys I’d ever met and that taught me a lesson: don’t assume you know these guys until you’ve spent some time with them.
Rusty Kuntz calls it
Wednesday afternoon I was coming down the dugout steps, headed for the Royals clubhouse. Alex Gordon was going the other way; he was headed out to the field to meet a kid who adored him. As he bounded up the steps and went past me, Alex silently stuck out his hand for a fist bump. Before the evening was over, Alex Gordon—Superman—would not be able to do something simple like bound up a short flight of stairs.
I think that’s what shocked everyone so much, seeing the guy who seemed invincible, lying helpless on the warning track. Afterwards Eric Hosmer talked about Gordon’s tolerance for pain; when that guy doesn’t get up, it’s serious.
And Rusty Kuntz—that source of baseball wisdom—called it.
I was doing a piece on the All-Star break and how tired players are at this point of the season. A lot of them need those days off to recover and get ready for the second half. Rusty agreed that everyone was worn out and advised me to keep an eye on the last week before the break: some teams were going to play some pretty bad baseball; some guys were going to get injured.
That same day Miguel Cabrera went down, Wednesday night it was Alex Gordon.
That’s how fast things can go wrong
So Gordon’s got an injured groin muscle and we’re all waiting to find out just how badly he’s hurt. Apparently he felt a pop when it happened and that doesn’t sound good. If Gordon’s out for an extended amount of time—which seems likely—the Royals have to figure out what to do next. You can make all the plans you like and yet things can go wrong so quickly.
It’s one of the reasons I don’t begrudge the players making the money they do. Big league baseball makes a lot of money and I’d rather see that money in a player’s pocket than see a rich owner, who probably isn’t going to snap a groin muscle in his day-to-day routine, get richer.
And only the players who make it through the grind of the minors and survive for years in the big leagues get the big contracts—those guys are the exceptions, not the rule. The players have a limited amount of time to make their money and they never know when that limited amount of time is over.
Because even Superman is not invincible.