Gordon Battles Through First Year
KANSAS CITY--Alex Gordon's season began with the bases full of Royals, two out and Red Sox stalwart Curt Schilling on the mound in his first big league at-bat.
Gordon struck out.
"I was not nervous at all for that," Gordon said. "I was more excited. He made some good pitches on me and he just got the better of me. It was definitely not what I was expecting in my first at-bat of the season."
Gordon's season ended at the hospital for X-rays after he broke his nose and had swelling around both eyes, the result of a hard bouncer off the bat of Kelly Shoppach that struck him in the face in the ninth inning of the Royals' final game against the Indians.
Gordon was down, but not out, and that more than anything symbolized his season.
He was the second overall pick in the 2005 draft out of Nebraska after batting .372 with 19 home runs as a junior and winning Baseball America's College Player of the Year award. He followed that up in 2006 by batting .325/.427/.588 with 29 home runs and 101 RBIs in Double-A in his professional debut, making him BA's Minor League Player of the Year.
As the only player to win those two awards in back-to-back years, he was naturally considered a leading contender to capture BA's Rookie of the Year honor coming out of spring training.
But in his first six games of the season, Gordon saw Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman and A.J. Burnett. The Texas League pitching that Gordon battered in 2006 was good, but it did not prepare him for that kind of pitching. He was batting .045, with only a single in his first 26 at-bats, with nine strikeouts and no walks after those six games.
Gordon hit .173/.316/.296 in April and .195/.286/.299 in May. He began June in a 1-for-17 skid, his average sagging to .173 with 54 strikeouts in 185 at-bats. He had only 12 extra-base hits and eight RBIs in his first 52 games.Hitting Back
The debate raged within and outside the organization after two months of failure whether Gordon should be sent back to the minors before he lost all his confidence.
Gordon ended the discussion with a 4-for-4 game on June 7, a three-hit game on June 12, four two-hit games from June 14-19 and another four-hit game on June 20. He hit .410 from June 7-29.
"It was definitely a learning experience," Gordon said. "I had a lot of ups and downs, especially at the beginning when I was struggling. I think the biggest thing about my rookie year is I'm pleased how I turned it around and kind of got back to what I was used to doing."
Gordon, 23, was not the first Royals' third baseman to begin his career slowly. George Brett batted .203/.234/.293 in his first 25 major league games, contrasted to Gordon's .167/.286/.314. Of course, making a comparison between a Hall of Famer and any rookie might be unfair.
While both are lefthanded hitters, Brett said Gordon's stroke does not remind him at all of his swing. But he does see common ground with Gordon, in that he still forecasts a bright future for the Royals' new cornerstone.
"He's got power," Brett said. "He's strong. I'm not. At 23 years old, I was learning how to pull the ball and he already knows how to pull the ball. He hits with brute strength. I had to hit with pure mechanics. He's got good mechanics, but he can hit with brute strength, and obviously I don't have that. Through proper mechanics I developed strength. I hit home runs because I had good mechanics. He doesn't even need good mechanics to hit home runs.
"Gordon can be a franchise-type player. He's got a chance to be a pretty good player—offensively, defensively, baserunning and everything else that you want to characterize in a third baseman. He's a pretty special kid."Pressing For Success
By season's end, Gordon had his numbers up to a more than respectable level. He wound up batting .247/.314/.411 and led American League rookies with 55 extra-base hits, which was one shy of the rookie club record set by Kevin Seitzer in 1987. He was second among AL rookies with 15 home runs and in slugging percentage, and third with 60 RBIs, four triples and 14 stolen bases. He led the Royals in doubles and stolen bases.
"It wasn't disappointing," Gordon said of his rookie season. "It was more frustrating. I'm on a new team with new guys and I want to do so well and I want to help the team out, and I wasn't able to do that in the beginning. Once I stopped trying so hard and actually went out there and relaxed and having fun, I really started to play better."
Gordon insisted he did not take his struggles home in April and May, pounding the pillow, wondering what was awry. He had, after all, hit his entire life, and now he could not get his average to the Mendoza Line.
"I try to keep my mind off baseball as much as I could after I left the park or else I probably would have gone crazy, sitting there at night wondering what I was doing wrong or what I was doing right," Gordon said. "Once I showed up at the field, it was all business, and I was working hard trying to figure out what was going wrong.
"I think it was more of a mental aspect than something I was doing physical. I hate failing. So if I go out there and have an oh-for-four day, I'm going to come in and get in the cages and try to fix it anyway that I can."
So even with all the ups and downs of the 2006 season, Gordon has come out of it feeling positive about the future. The Royals feel the same way.
"I think it was a different experience just because I've never been through a struggle like that before through my career," he said. "It was different. I had some of these older guys that I could pay attention to and they helped me out and carried me through and let me know I was going to be OK."