Sam Mellinger

Royals outfielder Alex Gordon is done feeling like (expletive): ‘I just want to have fun’

Royals’ Gordon worked on strength in preparation for new season

Kansas City Royals Alex Gordon spent the off season building up his strength to prepare for the 2019 season, and is looking forward to working in the outfield with a new teammate at center.
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Kansas City Royals Alex Gordon spent the off season building up his strength to prepare for the 2019 season, and is looking forward to working in the outfield with a new teammate at center.

Alex Gordon is the original modern Royal. He was here before anyone else. Before Ned, before Dayton, before Salvy. He made his big-league debut a year before the Kauffman Stadium renovation. Significant, then, that this might be his last ride.

He’s talked about it with his wife. He doesn’t know. Maybe he’ll retire. He has three kids at home, and he misses them fiercely. Maybe he’ll keep going. He does love this game. He loves it especially now, which is a weird thing to say, because the Royals lost 104 games last season.

“I just want to have fun,” he said. “Last year, the first half sucked. We were just terrible. Then, I don’t know why, but it just switched. We were having fun. Even though we were losing, it was a fun group to be part of. That’s what I want this year.”

Fun.

Gordon, 35, used that word eight times in a 14-minute conversation for this column, which might be a career high. He is not a killjoy. He’s really funny, actually, when the mood and opportunity match.

But baseball has always been serious. He was on magazine covers before his first day of pro ball. Just making it was never enough. Gordon was supposed to be great, and he always understood this.

Nobody works harder. He is so diligent that during the team’s championship party in 2015 he ate a french fry and the place erupted with applause. That part hasn’t changed. The dedication is still there.

The rest of it, though. The rest is different, and this isn’t just a spring training trope.

“I’ve known Alex before he was married, before he was a family man,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “I’ve seen him grow into a dead-serious ... just a workaholic, into somebody now who works every bit as hard but smarter. And can enjoy it more. Enjoy being around his teammates more.

“He’s definitely learned to enjoy. He used to put so much pressure on himself. Now he just understands who he is.”

Gordon is a baseball player, not a psychologist, and the rest of us could come up with a thousand theories for why this is. Maybe it’s perspective.

He has been a phenom and a bust and then an All-Star and a world champion. He was a failure at third base, and then the game’s best left fielder for a time. He struggled when everyone said he wouldn’t, then soared when everyone said he couldn’t. That has to change the way a man sees the world.

“I’ve kind of moved on from looking in the past,” he said. “OK, I’ve played like crap the two years before last year, but why go back to that? Just focus on the future, have fun with it.”

Another theory: maybe it’s the contract. Yost isn’t kidding about Gordon putting pressure on himself. There was a time that Royals officials worried about his mind. This was back before the breakthrough, when he might go 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and take it out on the weight room, which often only made things worse.

People change over time, but those base instincts linger. Gordon signed a four-year, $72 million contract after the Royals’ world championship parade. It is still the richest deal in franchise history, both in total value and average salary. Wouldn’t it make sense if he tried a little too hard to be worth the money?

“I don’t care,” he said when asked about the contract. “I mean, I care. But I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, I have to play well because of the contract.’ I want to play well because I love this team, I love this organization, and I just want to go out and play well.”

Again, this is all a bit of armchair psychology, but it would make sense if Gordon feels free now in a way that he simply hasn’t since he signed that deal. Because there’s no saving that now. Not anymore. He earned the contract, but his production hasn’t matched.

So now that he’s in the last year — of the contract, certainly, and perhaps his career — why not reduce the mental drag and play with a clear mind again?

It all makes sense, and each of these theories is backed by at least some in the organization. But there’s a simpler explanation, one that could explain Gordon having more fun and a widespread confidence that he’s about to have his best season on the big contract.

He’s having some success. Finally. He feels comfortable. Finally. This has all taken too long, and for some fans perhaps all that matters is the bad seasons in 2016 and 2017, when the Royals’ path to the postseason was more logical.

Gordon’s 2018 numbers are rather pedestrian: .245/.324/.370, his .694 OPS ranking 18th among 19 regular left fielders. But there’s some nuance worth considering here.

Gordon went on the disabled list with a labral tear in his hip in April, which turned his priorities and approach. Most obvious was a return to a more upright stance, which is how he hit throughout his best years. At least in Gordon’s telling, this was the classic baseball mechanical fix: one specific change that began a chain of broader improvements.

He had become way too pull heavy. Getting out of the crouch allowed his hands to work better, his athleticism to show and helped with hitting to the opposite field.

“Believe me, if it was something (more) that we did, I would tell you,” said Royals hitting coach Terry Bradshaw. “But it was pretty much just that.”

Thinking back now, Gordon isn’t sure why he started crouching. He says Dale Sveum, the club’s former hitting coach and now the bench coach, had been telling him to ditch the crouch for some time.

But Gordon is admittedly stubborn — Yost calls him “really, really stubborn” — and besides, it’s tough to make major changes in the middle of a season. The hip injury gave him a break, then, and not just with the stance.

He ditched the weights, believing the extra work had begun to wear his body down. He switched to bands and resistance training, with an emphasis on stretching.

The progress was gradual, and often subtle, but it’s worth considering that Gordon’s .760 OPS over the last two months wasn’t far off the .776 cumulative mark from his three All-Star seasons.

He went from, in his words, “feeling like (expletive),” and “a mess at the plate,” to “the most comfortable I’ve felt in a long time.”

All spring training stories should be taken for what they are. Gordon feels better, and he’s smiling quicker, the jokes coming more often. But maybe that doesn’t mean anything. Maybe he’ll struggle again. But the perspective has to count for something.

When we started talking, I joked to Gordon that the best way to nail this interview would be to promise to “dominate,” a reference to what he told The Star’s Bob Dutton some nine years ago.

Gordon laughed, but declined the sound bite.

“Those days are over,” he said. “Play well. Just play well.”

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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