Alex Gordon's obsession with preparation has made him a star
Published on -7/18/2014, 10:24 AM
By Andy McCullough
He did not cave to temptation. Alex Gordon would like to make this clear as he recalls the last time he ate a cheeseburger. His body betrayed him, not his will.
"I did it," he said, "because I was sick."
The milestone occurred during the winter after the 2012 season. His stomach roiling with nausea, Gordon scanned the menu of a Chili's in his offseason home of Lincoln, Neb., and saw no other options. He ate half, and pushed his plate away. Only when he is ill does he stray from his diet, because "when I get done throwing up, healthy food just does not sound good," he said. "That's when I cheat."
Gordon's obsession with preparation, the year-round regimentation that has transformed him from a first-round draft bust into a two-time All-Star, begins with his eating habits. He avoids fried foods. He abhors sweets. He downed his last cup of ice cream in the Safeco Field clubhouse in 2012, but only because "I felt like I was going to faint, and I needed some sugar," he said.
He is not without vices. Gordon, the 30-year-old Royals left fielder, admits to an affinity for pizza and the occasional drink. Yet his resolve rarely bends.
"I don't know if I eat to really enjoy food," Gordon said. "I think I eat just to be successful out here and maintain my weight."
He attacks each facet of his day with the same rigor. Each activity feeds into his performance on the diamond, which the Royals hope Gordon returns on Friday as the second half begins at Fenway Park.
During the season, his pre-game preparation is meticulous. He fusses over the details, maintains an admirable physique and utilizes the constancy of his routine to gird himself from the mental strain of major-league life. Even during day games, his activity only compresses slightly.
Teammates and coaches marvel at his dedication and reliability. Those familiar with his schedule know exactly where to find him each day. Rarely does he idle. Luke Hochevar lockers next to Gordon at Kauffman Stadium, and considers him his closest friend on the team. On a regular day, he estimates he will see Gordon at his locker for five minutes. His face won't betray the strain of his effort.
"He's just like a duck," Hochevar said. "He's calm on top, but paddling like hell underneath."
Gordon arrives at the ballpark most days around 1 p.m., and walks into the weight room about six hours prior to each night's first pitch. Before he enters, he formulates a plan. He inks his schedule of bench jumps and Russian twists and the like in neat script inside a marbled composition book more often found in an elementary-school classroom.
The notebook guides him. He opens his workout with 10 minutes on an elliptical followed by explosive sessions of lifting, repetitions to fortify his core and exercises to strength his hips and scapulae. He never deviates from his schedule.
"If I write it down," he said, "I'm doing it."
One day in June, Gordon dropped the notebook and a pair of tan-handled grip strengtheners on the chair beside his locker in the visitors' clubhouse at Comerica Park. He walked out of the room, back to his routine, and past a television displaying his highlights.
"Alex Gordon," the MLB Network chyron read, "Is he a superstar?"
Seated nearby, Danny Duffy glanced up from his laptop. A reporter posed the same question. The corresponding nod was vigorous. "Yes," he said. "Absolutely."
This reality is only apparent to those who see Gordon up close each day -- or those comfortable with advanced metrics.
Heading into the second half of the season, he trailed only Los Angeles wunderkind Mike Trout among American League position players in FanGraphs' version of wins above replacement, a catch-all statistic that compares a player's production to a Class AAA equivalent. Gordon also ranks sixth in Baseball-Reference's version of the metric.
This is not an aberration. Gordon ranks fifth in FanGraphs' WAR among position players from 2011 to 2014. He thrives thanks to a diverse skill set. His .810 on-base plus slugging percentage those four seasons is useful. He runs the bases well, providing 13.5 runs above average since 2011. His ability in left field is certified with three Gold Gloves, and his throwing arm is one of the game's most devastating defensive weapons.
"He's a special guy," first-base coach Rusty Kuntz said. "That's for sure."
His revival occurred after four big-league seasons, an agonizing period marked by failures, demotions, injuries and a position change. After 2010, he rededicated himself on a pair of fronts. The first portion of the story is well-told. Gordon wintered at the training facility of then hitting coach Kevin Seitzer and rebuilt his swing.
The second portion revolves around the exercises in his notebook. He began working out at BarNone Training, a Lenexa gym run by a former Chief and Packer Wilson Thomas. A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Gordon's alma mater, Thomas had trained Gordon's wife, Jamie, before and considered Alex a friend.
That winter, Gordon asked Thomas to help him in the gym. Thomas sought to improve Gordon's functionality, not just his muscle mass. Gordon conducted exercises to improve the imbalances in his hips, which stemmed from surgery to repair a torn labrum in 2009.
Gordon always had been fiendish in the weight room, but Thomas felt Gordon trained like a body builder, completing static movements that only trained one specific muscle group at a time. So instead of pushing a bench press upward on a flat surface, Thomas handed Gordon a pair of dumbbells and told him to lay down on a stability ball. The new exercises activated muscle groups throughout the body, especially Gordon's core.
"You may feel weaker," Thomas said. "But yet your whole body is stronger, because the body is now able to produce this force under this type of circumstance."
Gordon rode that offseason into the best offensive season of his career in 2011. He still communicates with Thomas regularly during the season. Thomas emails him video workouts during the offseason, and when Gordon visits Kansas City during the winter, he stops by BarNone.
Gordon has made subtle tweaks to his routine during the past few years, but his philosophy has not changed. The Royals promoted Ryan Stoneberg to become their strength and conditioning coach for the 2012 season. In Gordon, Stoneberg found an ideal subject. Stoneberg champions a trio of factors in an athlete's work ethic: Consistency, control of volume and intensity.
"Alex Gordon does those three things as well as anyone," Stoneberg said.
Gordon spends an hour inside the weight room, and wastes nary a second. He dedicates 40 minutes to stretching, band work and core exercises. The 20 minutes of lifting is fierce but measured. "He does not over-train," Stoneberg said.
Inside the visitors' dugout at Tropicana Field, Stoneberg looked at his watch, and jogged back inside. It was a 2:44 p.m., and he knew his man was busy.
"He's in the weight room right now!" he called back over his shoulder.
Dale Sveum rounded a corner toward the batting cage at Target Field. A solitary figure stood beside a tee. A sheen of sweat gleamed off the back of Alex Gordon's neck in the dim light.
"Doing more?" asked Sveum, the hitting coach.
"I just wanted to get a smooth, good rhythm," Gordon explained in between hacks.
Sveum stepped into the cage, slipped behind an L-screen and began lobbing balls toward Gordon. It was 4:49 p.m. After his weight training, Gordon takes an hour-long break, which often involves visits to the trainers' room for maintenance and treatment. Then it's time to hit.
At his lowest moments before 2011, Gordon felt he moped to the plate without a plan. His approach became too simplistic. By picking Seitzer's brain, he explained, he developed a method for success beyond "see the ball, hit the ball."
Gordon admitted he missed Seitzer, who was fired after 2012, and the team's continual midseason reshuffling of hitting coaches has hampered him. But if Gordon has proved anything in his eight seasons as a Royal, he can adapt. "He's one of the most special players I've ever been around," general manager Dayton Moore said.
Moore regards Gordon as an organizational exemplar. When younger players Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas falter, Moore references Gordon's resurrection. Gordon absorbed the hells of development at the big-league level, and only came back stronger.
"He was written off in a lot of circles," Moore said. "I'm talking about in baseball circles. I'm not talking media or fans. I'm talking about scouts. I'm talking about people that make their living based on evaluations."
Gordon has not forgotten those years, when he worried he was wasting his career. Fear is a powerful force, one strong enough to propel him inside the batting cage, alone, day after day in the midst of a lengthy road trip. He tinkers for about half an hour, then joins his team to stretch. After batting practice, he hops in the hot tub and cold tub to refresh himself, then eats a pregame meal.
At last comes the game, the three-hour period to which he dedicates himself. Afterward, his discipline remains. The players hosted their fathers on a road trip last month. Each night, as his teammates clinked bottles of Bud Light and Tecate with their elders, Gordon downed his customary plates of grilled chicken and steamed vegetables while sipping bottled water.
The next day, he repeated the cycle. It is his foundation.
"Gordo's the type of guy," Hochevar said, "that if you broke down in the middle of the night, and said 'Alex, dude, I'm four hours away. I know you've got a game tomorrow, but can you pick me up?' He'd pick you up.
"And he'd still be at the field at 11."