KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Royals all lined up at the top of the home dugout and Alex Gordon’s family stood from their seats in salute, alone in an otherwise nearly empty Kauffman Stadium on Sunday afternoon, when a 14-year Major League Baseball career came to an end.
Gordon, a Lincoln native and former All-American at Nebraska, had a short day of work before heading into retirement.
The seven-time Gold Glover, three-time All-Star and beloved Royal recorded a putout in the top of the first, ranging in from the No. 4 mowed into left field here late in the week after Gordon announced he planned to hang up the glove. Then, he struck out to lead off the home half of the first, hitting in that spot for the first time since 2017.
On Alex Gordon Day, that was all the work asked of the honoree.
“He was mad at me for pulling him out. He made that really clear,” Kansas City manager Mike Matheny said with a smile after a 3-1 victory against the Detroit Tigers. “He wanted nine today. … I was afraid of a couple of things: I thought he might swing so hard that first at-bat that he might hurt himself and have to come out and that would be anticlimactic, but it was that or the weather would come along and take away from the privilege of honoring him the best we can.
“Obviously it would have been better if this place was packed full of Royals fans.”
As Gordon made his way from left field to the dugout before the second inning began — fittingly, it was Whit Merrifield who moved from right to left when Gordon was lifted — he hugged teammates, tipped his cap to the visiting Tigers and progressed down the home receiving line, beginning with Matheny.
Just like that, the kid from Lincoln’s playing days ended.
“Even though everybody knew and I knew and I was getting recognized for retiring and all this stuff, I was still locked into the game and I think today was kind of the day where it was just like, ‘Sit back and enjoy it’ and just try to take it all in, because this is the last time you’re going to be in this clubhouse and competing,” Gordon said.
He almost never got those final cuts, thanks to Mother Nature. At 11:29 a.m., the game — which was already moved up two hours in order to account for forecast rain — was delayed for what ultimately ended up being 1 hour, 30 minutes before the Royals dispatched Detroit.
Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed during the delay, illuminating from the drab, dark-green batter’s eye in center, where Gordon’s game-tying, ninth-inning home run in Game 1 of the 2015 World Series landed, delivering the Lincoln native to where he was already headed: The pantheon of the most beloved Royals players of all time.
When that ball cleared the fence five years ago, the accompanying roar was the kind that can be clearly differentiated from even a standard-issue big moment. The kind that has not been heard during a sporting event in the United States since the coronavirus pandemic first sent teams and fans home in mid-March.
The reception for Gordon in another universe would certainly have been a raucous one on this day. Royals fans would have waited out the rain to give a final farewell to the Lincoln Southeast graduate, who played his entire professional career just down Interstate 29.
“I’m pretty sure that he likes it. Not that he doesn’t like the fans around, but he doesn’t want the recognition,” his older brother, Eric, said via phone from a suite just above the home dugout. “He’s just not that kind of guy. He’s just the quiet type that just wants to kind of walk off into the sunset without a lot of hoopla for him. It’s really more about the team situation.”
But recognition abounded over Gordon’s final days here.
The Royals unveiled a permanent No. 4 over his locker in the clubhouse. His current and former teammates donned jerseys with the trademark scuff on the back where his bat makes contact with his jersey on the follow-through.
When the rain finally let up and Gordon took the field with his teammates to stretch, tribute videos started playing on the video board out in center. He took a knee, the sun shining for the first time on the day, as his teammates stood around him and watched highlights and kudos from franchise legends.
“It’s just overwhelming to hear things like that,” Gordon said of all the praise.
Then he took the field, making it all the way across the infield by his lonesome before the rest of his side followed behind.
Just before, Gordon delivered the lineup card — the one with his name atop it for the 338th time in his career — to home plate umpire Erich Bacchus.
Actually, he didn’t just deliver it. He had a hand in crafting it, a move Matheny before the game called “very appropriate.” So maybe that top-of-the-order billing should come as no surprise.
When Alex’s oldest son, Max, told his older brother, Eric, that news on Sunday morning, the older brother admits he laughed.
“He’s not what he used to be with his legs and he’s slowed down quite a bit,” chuckled Eric, sounding like a true big brother as more than 20 family members and friends crammed in, watched old highlights and reminisced as the rain delay dragged.
Eventually, Gordon stepped into the batter’s box and took a mighty rip at the first offering from Detroit starter Jordan Zimmermann.
“I told everybody that no matter where the first pitch was, I was swinging first pitch to try to add to the leadoff home run record,” Gordon said. “It didn’t work out, but it’s fitting that I entered this league with a strikeout and ended it with a strikeout.”
Gordon has known all year he planned to retire and told Eric weeks ago that this was it. Still, Sunday and the past few days were filled with emotion.
“One thing that got me pretty good is when I went into the dugout and our strength coach Ryan Stoneberg … we’ve had a great relationship over the years, a lot of time together, and he was bawling crying,” Gordon said. “It kind of hits you when you see things like that and not only how much he meant to me but I meant to him. There have been a lot of situations like that. That’s just one example.”
Upstairs, Eric was thinking back to their childhood.
“There are memories that you sort of forget about, the trips that we went on to watch him play. The one that always gets me choked up — in fact, I just did get choked up — is talking about my dad. That always gets me,” Eric said.
Mike Gordon died Feb. 14, 2018, at 63 years old after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. In the years since, Eric has accompanied Alex on the Royals’ annual father’s trip.
“The memories that I have are of me and Al playing baseball together with my dad and taking batting practice on the field and things like that,” Eric said. “The last time I really, really thought about it was probably the father-son trip (in 2018), the year my dad passed away. Al took me and that was an emotional thing for both of us together. …
“For him not to be here with Al and all of us is tough, but we know he’s smiling down.”
Alex Gordon said it only hit him this morning that this was actually the end. His family watched on, flooded with memories. His brother, Brett, drove from Louisiana overnight to see a couple of games before leaving early Sunday morning. His teammates and manager and general manager have all marveled at the legacy he is leaving. And yet, the 36-year-old insisted that as he stood in left field in the top of the first, the lone inning of his 1,753rd and final appearance in the big leagues, all he had on his mind was doing what he could to help 24-year-old rookie starting pitcher Brady Singer get through the frame smoothly.
“When I’m out on that field,” he said, those days now behind him, “It’s just about competing and getting after it and doing whatever I can for the Kansas City Royals.”
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