Gordon replaces anxiety with achievement

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! SportsApril 24, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Last year taught him not to sweat.

And this was no small consideration for Alex Gordon at his wedding in December. See, Gordon, the Kansas City Royals' sublime young third baseman, had this, uh, issue, the kind that can turn a wedding from joyous to uncomfortable in seconds.

"When I get up in a suit in front of people and stand there and stay still, I start sweating," he said. "I was really nervous."

So anxious, in fact, that he hid a towel inside his tuxedo jacket and planned to wipe away the beads of perspiration when the guests bowed their heads in prayer. Thankfully, he didn't have to go to the bullpen, his sweat glands deigning to cooperate.

Such pressure fazed Gordon no longer. He knew it intimately from the previous 12 months, when he springboarded from consensus minor league player of the year to George Brett's natural heir on Kansas City's hot corner, floundered in the season's first two months and nearly got demoted, found himself in time to rebound with a strong second half and ended the season with a moment that encapsulated his rookie year.

In Kansas City's last game, Gordon broke his nose on a bad hop. He looked awful at first – and seeing as it was the day before wedding pictures, his wife-to-be, Jamie, was none too happy – only to realize that time and patience would make him better.

And now here he is, the time put in, and the patience, too, and he's one of the few bright spots in a Royals lineup that would have trouble scoring on Wii Baseball. Gordon is hitting .316 with three home runs and nine RBIs, not staggering numbers, by any means, but ones that mean something in the context of last season.

Because Gordon, off the top of his head, can name the number that meant the most in 2007.

"Fifty-three," he said, and he was talking about the number of games through which he struggled. His statistics following Game 53: a .173 batting average, three home runs and eight RBIs.

So he already has surpassed his RBI total. Soon he'll pass his home run number. And doubling the batting average isn't so far-fetched, not when you see Gordon's left-handed swing and realize it's much different than last season – more patient, more even and, most important, less entangled with so many other things.

"Everybody wanted me to do well and come in and play like the Rookie of the Year, and there was a lot of pressure," Gordon said. "I didn't live up to it. I started putting it on myself, and it snowballed. It got worse and worse.

"After a while, life was not fun. It affects you, not just at work. Through those first couple months, I was miserable. I wanted to help the team out, and I wasn't doing that, so that made it even worse."

Phone calls to Gordon's older brother, Eric, were his greatest solace. Gordon would begin every conversation with some derivation of all great slumpers' favorite two-word phrase – "I suck" – and then listen to Eric tell him why, in fact, he didn't.

Gordon, of course, knew the truth, and that Kansas City could pull the plug and ship him off to Triple-A Omaha for more seasoning. The Royals almost did. Then, on June 7, Gordon went 4 for 4 against Cleveland. Two series later, he crushed St. Louis pitching to pull himself over .200. By the end of the month, he had raised his on-base-plus-slugging more than 100 points.

"I didn't stop caring about expectations, but I went out there and had fun and played my game," Gordon said. "That's when it came together."

Suddenly, he looked like the player who won every major award his junior year at Nebraska, who was a no-brainer as the No. 2 overall pick ahead of Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Zimmerman, Cameron Maybin and Jay Bruce in the 2005 draft. Gordon's defense at third base morphed from shaky to solid. His power came around, and he finished the year with 15 home runs.

Now the question isn't so much whether Gordon will hit but where to hit him in the lineup. On opening day, manager Trey Hillman put him in the lineup's No. 3 spot. Most of the season he has batted sixth, though before Wednesday's rainout, Hillman positioned him fifth, a spot that seems to behoove him.

"Pretty special bat," Hillman said.

Gordon spent the offseason honing it in suburban Kansas City, where he recently bought a house, and came to spring training invigorated like the end of last season, only with an intact nose. Yet he still is merely a kid in baseball years, and there still is so much more for him to learn as he makes those expectations seem less and less silly.

Hillman noticed a terrible habit of Gordon's in the field. When a pitch approached the plate, his left hand faced down, with the back of the glove facing the hitter. If a ball was hit sharply to third base, Gordon had to flip his hand over. No matter how quick he might be, doing that is a recipe for a load of E-5s.

So Gordon worked and worked and worked during spring training to correct the habit he spent years building. It was tough, but Gordon understood what he needed to do. Success might begin with talent, but it also calls for perseverance and hard work and practice and enjoyment and belief.

And sometimes even a little sweat.