Sam Mellinger: What Alex Gordon has meant to the Kansas City Royals
The blue “4” will go on the front of the Royals Hall of Fame building in left field, separated by a few dozen rows of seats and the padded wall from where Alex Gordon rebuilt his career and helped push the franchise of his life to the top of baseball.
They’ll probably build a statue, too, with him either diving for a catch while blowing a bubble or maybe the point as he rounded first base after his homer in the bottom of the ninth of World Series Game 1 last year. Speaking of that, the statue should probably go up where that ball landed, deep center field, in front of the scoreboard.
The Royals’ — and, really, Kansas City’s — remarkable professional sports win streak continued this week when they agreed to a four-year, $72 million contract with the man they’ve called the perfect baseball player.
Gordon’s new contract is the largest in franchise history and lasts through 2019, when he will be 35 years old. He is now likely a Royal for life. The perfect ballplayer is now the perfect Royal.
No man has greater symbolized the Royals’ rise from charred rubble to championship rings like Gordon, and that continues now. He was drafted as a savior, once dismissed by many as a bust, and is now at the peak of the best Royals career of anyone since George Brett.
The Royals used to be defined by awful management and bad luck. Now, it is the complete opposite.
When the offseason began, virtually nobody in baseball thought this would or even could happen. I wrote as much in this space. The Royals themselves, privately, discussed less expensive options like Denard Span and Gerardo Parra.
Gordon has a genuine affinity for Kansas City. He grew up a few hours north in Nebraska, his family often spending weekends at Royals games and Worlds of Fun. The Royals lost 106 games the summer they made him the second overall draft pick, and there was far too much thrown on him far too soon.
He swung left-handed, played third base, wore his blond hair shaggy and often measured his performance by whether his uniform was caked with dirt. So the comparisons to Brett were too easy and obvious not to make and gained momentum when Brett himself said he was “honored,” and that Gordon was a better player than he was at the same age.
The beginning of Gordon’s career can be encapsulated by his first at-bat in the major leagues — bases loaded against Curt Schilling, standing ovation, and a strikeout. The game looked too fast for Gordon at times, and the struggles appeared to weigh on him. Some scouts wondered if his tendency to funnel his frustration to the weight room was counterproductive, producing an overly stiff swing that led to more struggles.
If the spotlight of being a high pick and presumed savior ever bothered Gordon, he never let on, at least not publicly. The closest I can remember him saying something was one winter at his house in Overland Park, when he said he didn’t necessarily like the attention but understood he made a lot of money and would never complain about it.
The turning point of Gordon’s career came in 2010, when the Royals sent him to the minor leagues to learn left field. Even at the time, the Royals admitted they had no idea if it would work but didn’t know what else to do. Gordon had never played the position before, but he took to it stunningly well. That September, he promised to “dominate,” and the next year he won a Gold Glove with what is still his best offensive season.
The next winter, between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, the Royals and Gordon talked about a contract extension. Nobody thinks about it like this now, but at the time, it was a precarious negotiation. The Royals controlled him for two more years, and Gordon had only one good season out of five in the big leagues. The safe play would’ve been to wait.
Eventually, in the last week of spring training, team and player agreed to a four-year deal. When they announced it, Gordon admitted he told his agent he would sign whatever deal was offered. He liked it in Kansas City and wanted to stay.
This winter was fundamentally different, of course. This was almost certainly Gordon’s last chance at the biggest payday of his life. He entered free agency after the Royals had never seriously engaged in talks of another extension, at least in part because they felt he had little interest.
When the offseason began, the common projection around baseball was that Gordon would receive a contract in the neighborhood of five years and $90 million. Baseball revenues grow every year, and many thought Gordon might get even more. A price like that would be out of the Royals’ budget.
But the huge offer never came, perhaps because of a deep inventory of corner outfielders on the market. The contract is less than Gordon likely thought he would get, and more than the Royals are entirely comfortable with. A mutual compromise, in other words, which is the only way this was ever going to happen. It was unlikely, but really, not nearly as unlikely as so much else we’ve seen.
For Gordon, he gets generational wealth and plays in a place where he is adored, respected and will now be forever remembered as among of the franchise’s all-time best. For the Royals, they keep their best all-around player, show their players and their fans they will spend on the right man, and maximize a championship window generally believed to have two more years. They had no immediate replacement in the farm system, so this turns a potential hole back into a strength.
The contract also comes with two important factors for the Royals. They avoid a fifth year, and the money is backloaded. That gives them more flexibility in the short-term, and the possibility that by the time the bigger money is due they will have negotiated a new local TV contract.
But those are all granular details. The main thing, at least at the moment, is that the new Royals continue to operate like the new Royals. Another record contract, another record payroll and another homegrown player signed long-term. The last star to come through the Royals system and not sign a contract extension was Carlos Beltran, which in practical terms might as well be a different century.
The Royals have come so far. So incredibly far. A decade ago, they were the midst of 403 losses over four miserable seasons. Now, they are the two-time defending American League pennant winners, the reigning World Series champions and, now, almost certainly among the heaviest favorites for another round of celebration.
Their perfect ballplayer has been with them from the beginning. Now, he will be with them into the future.