Gordon determined to return winning culture to KC
On and off the field, left fielder has become unquestioned leader of Royals
KANSAS CITY -- Manager Ned Yost wants a team of winners to demolish the "losing culture" of the Royals and build a championship foundation. Left field is a good place to look.
In many ways, Alex Gordon is the rock of the Royals.
"He fits in at the top of the class," Yost said.
The Gordon that the fans see is a solid hitter, a hard-driving baserunner, a Gold Glove left fielder. The Gordon that his teammates see is a lean-bodied physical specimen, dripping with sweat in the weight room or intensely calculating how to hit a ball in the batting cage or how best to field and throw one in early-afternoon practices.
He's a disciplined man driven toward excellence.
Hard work is in Gordon's genes, but it really crystallized in 2009-10, when injuries and poor performance had him going up and down between the Major Leagues and the Minors.
"It was a privilege to be here. Not that I took advantage of it, but I don't think I really knew how lucky I was to be here and how fortunate I was to be here," he said. "So I come here every day thinking, 'Today could be my last day.' And I just go out there and work hard and do my best."
Being in the Majors is one thing, being on a championship club is quite another. Gordon has that hunger for a winning culture.
"I've been here a long time and it hasn't been in this clubhouse," he said. "Yeah, we've had spurts, but we haven't put it together where we're consistently day-in and day-out playing the way we should be."
Gordon has become a leader of this Royals team, not a loud voice but a quiet, forceful and earnest presence. Yost clearly appreciates his value.
"That's the total package, the work ethic, the focus, the want to play the game right," Yost said. "It's not how you play the game, it's the way you play the game, and there's a certain way that winners play it. It's a way you take no shortcuts, you don't take any easy way out. You're prepared physically and mentally every single day of the year. You don't take any days off, you don't take any pitches off, you don't take any innings off. And he does that as well as anybody we've got."
Gordon was the Nebraska prodigy who didn't instantly become the new George Brett. There were too many on-field disappointments, too many injuries, too many doubts that he would ever amount to much. But he hung in there, doggedly, fiercely.
"Alex Gordon separates himself, in my mind, as a baseball player, the way he handled the struggles," said general manager Dayton Moore, who signed Gordon through the 2015 season. "It's easy to applaud someone when they're doing well, but this guy went through all the trials and dealt with the expectations and dealt with the pressure internally, externally and just focused on working harder every single day to be the best player that he could be. Alex was off the charts as far as a person, as a competitor."
Moore paused a moment.
"That's who we need to be," he said.
Gordon is a family man; he and wife Jamie have a son, Max, almost 2. He's built a new house back home, in Lincoln, Neb., but he's spent considerable offseason time in Kansas City. He has a strong commitment to charities. But his strongest commitment is to making the Royals into a winner.
"He wants to win -- that's it," pitcher Luke Hochevar said. "He's definitely the personality and the motivation and everything you want in a player that you build an organization around."
Since Gordon's arrival in 2007, the Royals have never finished higher than fourth place in the five-team American League Central, have never won more than 75 games.
"Unfortunately, I've been here and I haven't had a winning season in the Major Leagues. And I get guys that come in here and tell me they feel bad for guys like me and Hoch that have been around for a while and haven't been part of a winning atmosphere," Gordon said.
"That's what we all want, and that's what Ned is trying to bring in here -- guys that want that for the Royals, and we're just trying to get there. Yeah, we have a young team, we're going to go through ups and downs, but hopefully we can be patient, stick with this group, grow together and eventually win together."
On a personal level, Gordon had his breakthrough season last year -- .303 with 23 homers, 45 doubles, 87 RBIs and that Gold Glove in his first full year as an outfielder. His resoundingly successful transition from third base to left field not only made room for up-and-coming Mike Moustakas, but it was part of his own dynamically changing career.
Usually viewed as a natural for a production spot in the middle of the batting order, Gordon has morphed into the Royals' leadoff hitter. And he's done it well -- his current on-base percentage of .382 in the leadoff spot would eclipse the franchise's best by a No. 1 hitter, .381 by Johnny Damon in 2000. Gordon leads the Majors in doubles with 38 and could challenge Hal McRae's club record of 54 set in 1977.
"I heard an interview one time, and Ned said I'm not a typical leadoff hitter, but for this team, it's working out. So as long as it's what he thinks is best for the team, I'm going to be there," Gordon said. "I'm happy to be there, I feel comfortable there now. I always like starting the game leading off and trying to set the tone for the team."
Setting the tone for the team embraces many other areas, including Gordon's ability to join other veterans such as Hochevar, Billy Butler, Bruce Chen and Jeff Francoeur in providing a jolt upward. That comes under the leadership category for a young and talented -- but largely inexperienced -- team.
"I don't need to really do a whole lot, because these guys know what they're doing. I would say I'm more of a leader by example, and I take pride in that," Gordon said. "I like coming in here and getting my work done and going about my business in the right way. And that's just how I carry myself."
His teammates certainly have noticed.
"I've never seen a guy do everything every day like it's his last," outfielder Jarrod Dyson said. "He'll be bruised up sometimes, but he'll play through it. It doesn't faze him."
Yost went beyond clubhouse pep talks, emphasized his team-above-all attitude, looked beneath the surface, and recently initiated some changes -- notably the departures of infielder Yuniesky Betancourt and pitcher Jose Mijares, as well as coach Doug Sisson. That caught everyone's attention.
"His whole thing is team first, and maybe when he was talking to the guys who were let go or released, maybe he didn't feel like they were team-oriented, all about the team," Gordon said. "So that's what he's trying to make here -- everybody pulling for the same thing, everybody coming here and forgetting your personal stats, just trying to focus on winning games, and I think that's the attitude he's trying to bring."
With Gordon setting an example to follow.
"If you don't want to be like that guy," Dyson said, "then I don't know what to say to you."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.