8 Who May Be Great

Dice-K isn't the only newcomer who will leave his mark on the 2007 season. These players won't all start the season in the Show, but by year's end SI believes that you'll remember their names
March 25, 2007

THE SURETHING

Alex Gordon

TO UNDERSTAND thesignificance of the moment, two years ago, when Alex Gordon first met GeorgeBrett, consider where Gordon had come from. He grew up in Lincoln, Neb., andoften made the three-hour trip to Kansas City for Royals games. He spent nightstaking batting practice in the family basement, smacking balls into a rug hungfrom the ceiling, not far from posters of Brett. Through high school andcollege, Gordon played third base (just like Brett), batted lefthanded (justlike Brett) and accumulated hits at a prodigious pace (just like Brett). Gordonwas the second overall pick of the 2005 draft, taken by the Royals, the sameteam that had drafted Brett in 1971. Gordon even has a brother named Brett, andit is not a coincidence.

So one canimagine Gordon's reaction when he walked into a conference room at KaufmannStadium in the summer of 2005 and there, awaiting his arrival, was Bretthimself. At the time, Gordon and Royals management were negotiating his signingbonus--it would end up at $4 million, the highest ever for a Kansas Citydraftee--and they were haggling over the final $200,000. Brett, a team vicepresident, made an offer to Gordon and his agent. "I said, 'Here's whatI'll do,'" recalls Brett. "I'll write you a check for the difference,out of my own pocket. But instead of up front, I'll give you 10 grand for 20years. I'll do that for you, just because I want to watch you play. I've heardso much s--- about you, I'll do it.' And I would have."

It was an unusualproposal, and Gordon politely declined. Brett tried again, and then again, butGordon was steadfast. He respected Brett and was flattered by his interest, buthe wasn't so starry-eyed that he'd accept less than what he thought he wasworth. "It was a pretty funny conversation," says Gordon. "Theybasically locked me in a room, and he was trying to convince me to sign."Laments Brett, "I thought I was making progress, but"--and here helaughs--"I think he might have listened more if I wasn't employed by theRoyals."

Gordon finallysigned, but not until September, and now, less than two years later, the23-year-old prospect is viewed as the great hope of a Royals franchise thatlast made it to the postseason 22 years ago. Though he has faced only Double Acompetition so far, Gordon has been described as Eric Chavez with more platediscipline, Lance Berkman with more speed (Gordon stole 22 bases last year) andJoe Mauer with more power. And, of course, there are the inevitable comparisonswith Brett. "He's a total stud, a five-tool guy," says one AL Westscout. "And he's a gamer. I saw him last year, and he dived headfirst intofirst base to try to beat the throw. In Double A ball!"

Gordon is butProspect 1A in a highly touted Royals crop that also includes outfielder BillyButler and righthanded pitcher Luke Hochevar, both of whom could make the bigclub this season as well. The trio gives Kansas City that most valuable ofcommodities in this era of contractual excess: a young core of "0 to 3"players, meaning they have fewer than three years of big league service and arenot yet eligible for arbitration. As such they earn near the major leagueminimum of $380,000. For a small-market team like Kansas City, it's the best,and perhaps only, way to compete: Grow your own stars.

Of course, whileGordon is homegrown, he did not come cheap. That has only fueled expectationsthat he could become the club's first breakout star since Carlos Beltran, whowas traded away in the summer of 2004. The Royals, though, are aggressivelytrying to downplay the hype. Despite starting Gordon at third base this springand moving Mark Teahen--another dangerous young hitter--from third torightfield, general manager Dayton Moore and manager Buddy Bell have yet toeven confirm that Gordon has a spot on the team. Moore's hope is to ease Gordoninto the spotlight, the way the Atlanta Braves, Moore's previous employer, didwith their top prospects in the 1990s. So don't expect to see Gordon battingfirst, third or cleanup this year. He'll bat lower in the order, or perhapssecond. "He has a lot of confidence about him," explains Moore,"but there's no need to add more pressure than is necessary."

It's anunderstandable, though doomed strategy, for Gordon is almost perfectly cast asa Midwestern baseball hero. Not only is he from Nebraska, but he is also sturdy(6'1", 220 pounds), strong (he can bench-press 225 pounds 15 times) andhandsome in an Army-recruitment-poster way, with close-cropped blond hair, astrong chin and blue eyes. He is approachable but measured, trafficking inneither the cocksure arrogance nor the false deference of many top youngathletes. "He's very professional in his approach," says Teahen. SaysHochevar, who played with Gordon at Double A Wichita during last season'splayoffs, "I don't think you can be jealous of Alex, because of how hehandles himself. I think more than anything, guys are in awe of him."

Brett, meanwhile,echoes the opinion of many, from Moore to Bell to scouts, when he says, "Helooks like he belongs out there, and he looks like he feels he belongs, whichis huge."

This is due inpart to Gordon's mildly obsessive approach to training. He's been liftingweights seriously since he was 14 and is fastidious about his diet. He says hehasn't eaten fast food in more than a year, he cuts off all visible fat fromhis meat (often then giving it to the lanky Hochevar as a joke), and, asHochevar says, "he drinks like 19 protein shakes a day." Gordon smileswhen told this. "Not that many," he says, "but I will put downfour." The shakes, always chocolate and always made with skim milk, arealso his stress relievers; he has one before each game, right after he finishesbatting practice.

Gordon attributeshis strong work ethic to his upbringing. His father, Mike, a beverage deliverytruck driver, would leave the house at 4:30 a.m., and when he returned at 5p.m., Alex and any number of his brothers--he is the second of four boys--wouldbe waiting with gloves in hand. Mike would take them to a local park and throwBP. Nearly every day. For one to two hours. "No ice or anything, no Lscreen," says Alex, admiringly.

"OnSaturdays, I'd bring a bag of 100 balls, and I'd probably empty it three orfour times, then do it again on Sunday afternoon," says Mike, who playedbaseball at the University of Nebraska. "We lost a lot of balls, butwatching them play was more than I could ever ask for." When the kids gotolder, Mike and his wife, Leslie, a registered nurse from whom he's nowdivorced, would each take a car and a child or two, often in differentdirections, bound for one amateur tournament or another. They'd leave on Fridaynight and usually wouldn't return until Sunday night.

Though hisbrothers were talented--Eric, 25, played at Nebraska-Omaha; Brett, 20, plays atPark University in Parkville, Mo.; and the youngest, Derek, 15, is currently onthe reserves team in high school--Alex stood out at an early age. At three hebegan hitting lefty, after Mike found him imitating his brother Eric andcrossing his hands over. (He throws right.) By 12 he was clearly special."He did things kids his age shouldn't [be able to] do," says RandyBrolhorst, who coached Gordon in youth ball and at Lincoln Southeast High."Every Memorial Day the 12-year-olds play in a tournament on a field with300-foot fences. Alex was hitting home runs over that fence at 12. In my 34years I can't remember another kid doing that."

After batting.587 as a high school junior, Gordon was intentionally walked 25 times in 23games, by Brolhorst's count, as a senior. Though he would have been drafted,Gordon alerted teams of his intention to go to college. "I didn't think Iwas mature enough," he says. "It was the best decision of my lifebecause I grew as a person."

At Nebraska hewas the NCAA player of the year as a junior. On the day of the 2005 draft hechose to practice rather than wait for a phone call from the team that selectedhim, because the NCAA Super Regional Series was coming up. He learned theresult only when his brother Eric held up two fingers from the stands. Oncesigned, Gordon impressed quickly. "He had probably the best spring of [anyof our players] last year," says Bell. After he hit .325 with 29 homers forWichita, Gordon was named Baseball America's minor league player of the yearfor '06.

During the seasonGordon developed a friendly rivalry with Butler, his Wranglers teammate. Thoughtwo years younger, the 6'1, 240-pound Butler was drafted 14th overall in '04and may be the better pure hitting prospect (though his glovework at third basewas so bad, the team is switching him to the outfield). In Double A Wichitalast year, Butler batted .331 with 15 homers and 96 RBIs in 119 games, winningMVP honors at the All-Star Futures game along the way. He has power to allfields, as was on display this spring during his thunderous batting practicesessions. "I hate to compare him to anyone," says Bell, who then doesjust that, "but he's a Frank Thomas type, a guy with some power who reallyunderstands hitting at the same time."

This springtraining Butler had eight hits in his first 12 at bats at week's end washitting .481 with two home runs. Gordon, however, struggled in the early going.During the first week he was swinging under the ball rather than through it,launching too many pop flies. "He's going to have some tough times thisyear, I won't lie to you," Brett said one early March morning, "buthe's got enough brains and confidence to get through it." Brett paused andsent a stream of tobacco juice plummeting to the grass. "Somebody once toldme, the worst curse you can put on somebody is unlimited potential, because youcan never live up to it. You hit .350 with 50 HRs, and that's not good enough.But Alex is about as close as anybody I've seen in a long time in thisorganization. We said that about Beltran a little bit. But Alex is going to bea star, no doubt in my mind."

As Brett saidthis, Gordon entered the batting cage not far behind him and dug in, afranchise's last great hitter and its next, separated by 100 yards, 30 yearsand, Royals fans hope, little else.

PHOTOS

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"Here's what I'll do," Brett recalls saying inhis first meeting with Gordon. "I'll write you a check for the [$200,000]difference, OUT OF MY OWN POCKET."

"I don't think you can be jealous of Alex, becauseof how he handles himself," says Hochevar. "I think more than anything,GUYS ARE IN AWE OF HIM."

PHOTOPhotograph by Robert Beck PHOTOJOHN BIEVERBY GEORGE In his talent and self-assurance, Gordon has the look of the most famous Royals third baseman of all.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)