Alex Gordon was the perfect Royal.
Not the best, not the flashiest, not the most famous. But the most perfect.
Of course, he wasn’t perfect perfect. But for everything the Kansas City Royals, and their fans, want to be, want to stand for, he was as great a symbol as you can find.
First, Gordon was one of us. The Royals have always needed to be a regional team. They have always needed families to drive in to Kansas City from central Kansas and eastern Nebraska and southwestern Missouri and western Iowa and northeastern Oklahoma and maybe even northwestern Arkansas, to spend a summer weekend in the “big city” and see a game or two and go to Worlds of Fun and such. Gordon, growing up in Lincoln, did that with his family as a kid.
The Lincoln kid stayed close to home, starring at the University of Nebraska before the Royals selected him with the second pick of the 2005 draft. In those days, there was justifiable concern whether the Royals would select this star player who grew up in their territory, or pick some random high school pitcher, or even if they would fork over the money to sign such a high pick. I remember on that draft day (the first round still happened in the day then) telling a co-worker that the Royals had done the right thing–for once.
It didn’t take long for Gordon to reach the majors; there he was, on Opening Day 2007, getting a standing ovation before his first plate appearance. And his rookie year was solid enough, a .247/.314/.411 line with 15 home runs and 60 RBI in 151 games. But it also didn’t take long enough for Gordon to turn into a disappointment, as he hit just .222 in 123 games over the 2009 and 2010 seasons. It appeared that once again the Royals had found a way to screw up a top prospect.
But here Gordon showed once again how he was the perfect Royal. I do believe that hard work and sacrifice are still valued in many corners of this country still. But Midwesterners love that kind of thing, and we do take a certain pride in it. With his career at a crossroads, Gordon went to work learning a new position and dedicating himself to the game. Sure, he made a slightly un-Midwestern promise to “dominate” going forward, but as they say, it ain’t bragging if you can back it up.
Back it up he did, with a five-year peak of his career that will put him in the Royals Hall of Fame, presumably as soon as he is eligible. In 728 games, he hit .281/.359/.450 with 89 home runs.
Of course, that’s only part of the story. Another way Gordon became the perfect Royal is by being well-rounded. Those are good offensive numbers (a 121 OPS+ over those five seasons) but his value came in being good at baserunning and defense as well. He wasn’t the fastest runner, but by studying and being smart, he succeeded. Baseball Prospectus gives him 10.2 Baserunning Runs over those five seasons, dragged down a little by a -1.7 in 2015 (when, let’s not forget, he suffered a groin injury in July).
And then, obviously, there’s the defense. Conventional wisdom is that you need to be a burner to play outfield at Kauffman Stadium. Gordon wasn’t a burner, but again, he was smart and a hard worker. Think about it–did you ever see Gordon get a bad break on a batted ball? Gold Gloves are not always the best measurement of defensive ability (just ask Lorenzo Cain) but Gordon easily won the award the first four of those five years and only failed to win it the fifth year because he missed so much time. Then he tacked on three more Gold Gloves in the last three seasons; should he win it this year (and why wouldn’t he, he’s still excellent out there) he would tie Frank White as the most decorated defensive player in franchise history. In fact, White is a great comparison for Gordon. Another local kid, another player who made himself great by hard work, another player who never strayed from his franchise, another player who was overshadowed somewhat by his teammates.
Despite all that, Gordon was probably never the biggest star on any Royals team he played for, although he did make three All-Star teams. Think about the 2014-15 teams: Eric Hosmer was probably the face of the team. Salvador Perez was the player fans gravitated to, with the way he obviously enjoyed playing. Cain made the spectacular plays and stole bases. Mike Moustakas hit for power. The triple-headed bullpen monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland got to be the heroes of the late innings. And then there was Alex Gordon, batting fifth or sixth, playing great defense, running the bases well, but maybe not getting the publicity. Not that he ever seemed to mind. That also makes Gordon the perfect symbol of Royalism, if you will.
And yet…when the spotlight was biggest and brightest, Gordon shone. You all know the story. After the 2015 Royals’ near-death experience against Houston in the ALDS and surviving a war against Toronto in the ALCS, I’d say most of us were confident the World Series would be…well, not a piece of cake, exactly, but maybe not as difficult as the ALCS had been. And then Matt Harvey turned out to be even better than I expected, and suddenly the Royals were two outs away from giving up home-field advantage in the very first game of the Series.
We had a 20-game season ticket plan that year, which entitled us to postseason tickets. But while our regular-season seats were in the first row of the upper deck, overlooking first base (I sometimes compared them to box seats overlooking a stage). Our postseason tickets were, uh, considerably higher in the upper deck. I had sat up there before, but it had been a while. When Gordon hit Jeurys Familia’s quick-pitch sinker, I was hoping it would be a double. It was a cool, damp night, not good for home runs. And then I realized that the ball had just taken off and was still climbing. The game-tying home run is possibly the biggest hit in team history. And in my mind, Gordon rounding first with an index finger in the air (it seemed like he was pointing at us) should be the basis for his statue at Kauffman Stadium.
It’s a bit of a shame that Gordon has played the last few years of his career on some bad teams, and this one in empty stadiums. But that’s a very Midwestern–a very Royal–way to go out, with not much fanfare. I think it’s terrific that Gordon’s baseball card, or Baseball Reference page, if you prefer, will be “clean.” One team for the whole career. That’s a solid Midwestern value–show up every day, work hard, and show some loyalty without drawing attention to yourself. It’s why so many Royals fans love Alex Gordon, and why he became the perfect Royal.