The KC Royals said goodbye to a franchise icon Sunday. He’ll be missed.
Sometimes, most often in the dead of baseball’s winters when my mind drifts to games past because there are none to watch live, and spring training is just something to look forward to, it doesn’t seem so long ago that I sat in Kauffman Stadium and witnessed George Brett play his last game for the KC Royals. Since then, I’ve seen several others play out their final Royal moments.
I watched Paul Splittorff throw his last pitch from a seat in Royals Stadium’s upper deck; on an otherwise pleasant late June afternoon in 1984 Splittorff, the winningest pitcher in club history, took a pounding from Oakland. He gave up seven runs in 4.2 innings before Dick Howser replaced him with a 20-year old rookie named Saberhagen.
By then, Splittorff was in pitching decline, his magic suddenly and mysteriously disappearing after a 13-8 effort the year before. He left that day with a 7.71 ERA and the loss he took gave him three against only one win. Even some Royals fans turn quickly and cruelly against accomplished favorite players when age and deteriorating skills take their toll; although most didn’t in Splitt’s case, some booed as he walked slowly to the dugout.
I didn’t heckle or curse Splittorff. Instead, I stood and applauded; somehow, I just knew, without actually knowing, that he was done, and I’d never see him pitch again. I needed to thank him for all the wins and the exemplary way he went about his life and being a Royal. (He retired within a few days).
Almost a quarter-century later, I watched on TV as Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Alcides Escobar walked off the Kauffman field together for the final time before heading to free agency. The moment quickly took me back to Brett’s last game, and an instant later to Splittorff’s—The Core’s departure saddened me, but not so much as when Brett and Splitt disappeared into the dugout for the last time.
The difference, I suppose, lies in the finality of it all. Brett and Splittorff were never coming back, but there was always the chance Hos, LoCain, Moose, or Esky could somehow, someday return. (Moose and Esky did, of course, but only briefly).
With Alex Gordon, though, there is no hope of return. The KC Royals announced his retirement Thursday and he played his last game Sunday. But for a pandemic, I would have made it to Kauffman to see him off, but I watched from home instead as he trotted in from left field before the second inning began, hugged his teammates, acknowledged the ovation the Detroit Tigers gave him in tribute, and left the field for the final time.
Gordon ducked into the dugout to hug the staff and bench players, then spent a few moments in the stands with his family before rejoining his soon-to-be-former teammates on the bench to watch the rest of the Royals’ 3-1 win.
No, Alex Gordon won’t be back. His bat won’t let him return—his glove may still be seven times golden, but the bat lost its luster long ago. For Gordon, the time has simply come.
Like many others, I found myself intrigued by the countless projections and scouting reports touting Gordon as “The Next George Brett” when the KC Royals selected him with the second overall pick in the 2005 amateur draft. At the time, another George Brett, no matter who he might be, could save the franchise from years of suffering and irrelevance.
Performance eventually tends to prove predictions of such magnitude wrong, and such became the case with Gordon. Perhaps promoted to the majors too quickly (he played a few games in the Arizona Fall League after being drafted and spent only a season in Double A before arriving in Kansas City in 2007), Gordon struggled as the prognosticators bemoaned his inability to measure up to Brett.
Gordon wasn’t, and was never going to be, George Brett, and the Royals finally sent him back to the minors to learn a new position. I paid little attention to the demotion or to Gordon; the move struck me as a last-ditch effort with little chance to pay significant dividends.
But Gordon’s hard work and dedication to the game won me over. Endless hours and days spent toiling to improve and refine his skills succeeded. His famously tireless and relentless work ethic was, and always will be, one for present and future Royals to emulate.
Gordon played baseball the way it’s supposed to be played and always gave the game the respect it deserves. He never dogged a play or a game; he left it all, as they say, on the field. He did things the right way, and he and the KC Royals are better for it.
Gordon bled and bleeds Royal Blue and never seemed interested in playing anywhere else. Although he waived his 10&5 rights in what turned out to be his final contract, I never thought for a second he’d go elsewhere. To leave wouldn’t have been Alex.
Fortunately, and despite the initial comparisons and projections, Alex Gordon didn’t try to become George Brett. Although his love for the game and the way he approached and played it paralleled Brett’s, he was always Alex Gordon, and no one else. And that’s a good thing.
I’ll miss him. He always made me glad I’d watched a game and left me thankful for the experience. His offensive skills declined before we could adequately prepare ourselves for it but, to the very end, Gordon always seemed to make in every game a play proving him worthy of his seven Gold Gloves.
Now, whenever I see Kauffman Stadium’s left field, I’ll feel the same way I do when I gaze out at center and don’t see Amos Otis or Willie Wilson, or at third base and don’t see Brett, or at second and don’t see Frank White.
But I’ll be thankful I saw so much of Gordon. I’ll think of his hundreds of great catches and all the runners who miserably failed their tests of his rocket arm. I’ll remember the magical home run he hit in the last of the ninth to send Game One of the 2015 World Series into extra innings. I’ll remember Gordon’s unabashed, boyish joy as he raced in from left field seconds after his KC Royals clinched the ’15 World Championship.
And I’ll look forward to the day Gordon takes his well-earned place in the KC Royals Hall of Fame and to the unveiling of the statute sure to be placed in his honor at Kauffman, perhaps alongside Brett’s where it ought to be.
Thank you, Alex Gordon. You, sir, were a ballplayer.
Alex Gordon has retired. He’ll be dearly missed.