They say baseball is too slow, but the game moves fast, too, so the day after their voices cracked when talking of an injury to their best player, they coped with jokes. Two black crutches lay in the locker stall next to Alex Gordon’s, and baseball superstition demands his teammates treat those things like they’re laced with the polio virus.
You probably know that ballplayers might be the country’s most superstitious demographic, but here the Royals manager is telling a story to put the fear of God in them.
A while ago, back with Ned Yost was managing the Brewers, one of his guys sprained an ankle bad enough to require crutches. Prince Fielder, the star slugger, was joking around, seeing if he could walk on crutches — and the next day suffered a season-ending ankle injury.
The baseball gods had spoken, and even all these years later, Yost has not forgotten.
“That’s a bad omen,” he said. “Just stay away from Alex’s crutches.”
This is a coping mechanism, of course, and who among us hasn’t deflected the sting of a bad moment with dark humor? The joke is funnier on days like Thursday, when the Royals completed a four-game sweep of the Rays with an 8-3 win in front of another nice crowd at Kauffman Stadium.
When Yost said those words, it had been fewer than 24 hours since Gordon lay still on the warning track with what would later be diagnosed as a grade two-plus groin strain. Trainer Nick Kenney is saying it will be eight weeks, but this is all still so fresh that it is unclear what that means.
Eight weeks until Gordon is back in the lineup? Eight weeks until he can start doing baseball activities? Only time will tell. At this point, a rehab schedule has yet to be developed. Gordon is still in the ice-and-rest portion of recovery. He does not know if he’ll go to next week’s All-Star game.
Gordon is more than the best player on this team. He is the hardest worker, the highest-paid, and the most-admired. Baseball teams tend to be cliquey, not unlike any group of 25 co-workers. But Gordon is universally respected, the one coaches point to when a rookie comes up asking how to stay in the big leagues.
It must be said, on the baseball field, the first day or so without Gordon could not have gone better. On Wednesday night, he was replaced by Jarrod Dyson, who immediately threw out a runner at the plate and hit an inside-the-park home run.
On Thursday, Grady Sizemore, the second batter of the game, lofted a fly ball well over Dyson’s head in left field. Dyson was playing in, and toward the line, so he had to turn and sprint back to his left. The ball carried, and drifted a bit to the left. Dyson turned his back completely to the diamond, meaning he read all of this from an awkward angle.
He made a basket catch — the broadcast actually replayed Willie Mays’ catch from the 1954 World Series — just as he hit the wall. He bounced back to the field, saw the runner on first had gone too far, and turned it into a double play.
Watching live, Gordon said he thought the team had lost another outfielder.
Yost called it the most incredible play he’s seen all year, and said he meant that literally.
“The degree of difficulty on a play like that is astronomical,” he said.
This is all so new. If the eight-ish weeks without Gordon were a movie, we are only beginning the opening credits. The show might be great. It also might be a regret.
Part of Yost’s job is public relations, and as a sort of swag coach for his team, so he is doing what he should be doing when he jokes about the crutches and answers a question as to whether the Royals have enough cover for Gordon by saying, “Yeah, without a doubt.”
But there is no way to know where this is headed. The Royals have long proven themselves as a resilient bunch, but they have not been through anything like this, not even that horrendous last May that cost Pedro Grifol his position as hitting coach.
The closest analogy would be Eric Hosmer’s broken hand, suffered just hours after the trade deadline. Hosmer had a .960 OPS in the previous month, and would be replaced by Billy Butler, a far inferior defender and to that point the owner of a .684 OPS.
Butler immediately started hitting like his old All-Star self, defended well, and the Royals won 19 of 28 games without Hosmer.
But this is different. Gordon is more accomplished than Hosmer, having a better year, and is out far longer. Dyson and Orlando have promise, but neither has been good enough to budge Alex Rios’ .510 OPS from regular duty.
The Royals have flipped the script, though. For a generation, their fans had been trained to expect the worst. In the last year — they are 102-60 in their last 162 games, by the way — Royals fans have gotten used to the opposite.
This is the team that builds leads, and keeps them. This is the team that has used the disabled list 12 times already, and whose starting third baseman is on the bereavement list for a family emergency. Four different players have been suspended a total of six times.
All of that, and the Royals are 50-33, building their lead in the American League Central. They have the best record in the league, and haven’t been this far above .500 since 1989. For a team that’s had so much go wrong, they sure are winning. A lot.
This is a confident bunch, and deservedly so. But that only goes so far. Dyson used the word “devastating” to describe Gordon’s injury. They’ve come through rough moments before. They have to know their response to this one will go a long way in defining the most-watched season in franchise history.
In the clubhouse after Thursday’s game, there was a general feeling of optimism, but tempered with caution and a bit of shock from the injury. They offered the usual sports mantra of filling in for Gordon as a group, and of playing hard in his absence. Eight weeks is a long time.
Gordon stood at his locker briefly. He joked a bit with Luke Hochevar, spraying his closest friend on the team with some deodorant. He answered some questions from a reporter, accepted a few good wishes, and slowly walked away.
Those black crutches lay behind him, untouched.