Handling the pressure

Royals' Gordon faces otherworldly expectations as designated successor to Hall of Famer Brett

Mlb Week


There are no excuses in major league baseball.

No matter how good you might be, no matter how highly touted or how well you've done at other levels, you must consistently produce on the field.

Those are the rules in this elite fraternity.

Still, Alex Gordon, the Kansas City Royals uber-prospect who was selected second overall in the 2005 amateur draft, deserves a little slack for the rough beginning to his major league career.

In his first 33 at-bats, he had just three hits and 13 strikeouts.

In his first six starts, he had a lonely single, nothing else.

It was an awful run for the only person to win Baseball America's College and Minor League Player of the Year awards in consecutive seasons.

But take a closer look. He's 23, in just his second pro season and here are the first five starters he had the pleasure of swinging against: potential Hall of Famer Curt Schilling, 2003 World Series hero Josh Beckett and Japanese phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka, all with the Boston Red Sox, followed by the Detroit Tigers' Justin Verlander, the reigning Rookie of the Year, and Jeremy Bonderman, a 14-game winner.

Gordon got a break in start No. 6 with the Toronto Blue Jays' A.J. Burnett, the $55 million man who isn't as accomplished as the others, but may have the nastiest stuff of all.

"I don't think I've ever faced in a row what he had to face," said Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis, who played against Gordon in the 2005 Arizona Fall League. "But it is good to get them out of the way early, and he'll get to see them a lot more."

Here's the common sentiment: The initial reaction is "My goodness." The secondary thought: "Oh, well, that's big league baseball."

"I wouldn't want to face them at any time," Royals manager and five-time All-Star Buddy Bell said. "I wouldn't want my big league career to start against guys like that, but the fact of the matter is you've got to figure it out. It's the big leagues."

Gordon mixes the proper amount of understanding and awe.

"You don't want to blame it on other players being too good and that's why you didn't come up with hits," said Gordon, who played at Camden Yards for the first time last week. "But you have to tip your cap to them because they are good pitchers and have all done good things up here. That's one positive way to look at it."

It's all about attitude, said Markakis, who went through a similar awakening when he debuted with the Orioles last season. Through May 28, he was hitting just .209, before figuring things out. He ended up hitting .291 for the year.

"Everybody thinks so highly of you and if you don't succeed, there is a lot of pressure on your shoulders, but you can't let that bother you," said Markakis, the seventh overall pick in the 2003 draft. "You are here for a reason. You worked hard to get here and you have to keep at it."

You also have to ignore the distractions, all of the damning praise. That's not easy, once-hyped Royals outfielder David DeJesus said.

"The more people talk, you hear. You are trying not to worry about it, but it is out there," DeJesus said. "It is around you. People are talking about it. People are putting their judgments on it. So blocking it out is definitely tough to do, but it is something you need to do as a professional."

Gordon's in Kansas City, not a media hotbed like New York, Boston or Chicago. But he grew up in Lincoln, Neb., as a Royals fan. And he plays third base, the same position as the organization's ultimate iconic figure, Hall of Famer George Brett, whom Gordon's brother was named for.

"Alex, he still has pressure, we are still a major league team and he still is supposed to be the next George Brett," DeJesus said. "That's pressure that comes with the territory and you have to deal with it."

Gordon has seen both sides of the hype machine this month.

When he was introduced at Kauffman Stadium on Opening Day, he received a standing ovation that eclipsed the cheers for any other Royal. He then was razzed while playing on the road in Toronto, and, in the seventh inning Thursday, a quintet of frat-boy types stood on the Camden Yards concourse behind home plate and repeatedly chanted "Gorrr-donnn" tauntingly as he flied out to Markakis.

"Obviously, that's what people are going to do," Gordon said. "That's what fans go there to do at times and that is their right."

That's what happens when you receive the largest signing bonus in club history ($4 million) and when you follow up a tremendous college career at the University of Nebraska by hitting .325 with 29 homers and 101 RBIs in your only season at Double-A.

That's what happens when you can't buy a hit after the hype.

But the Royals aren't yet worried about their future star. Because they've seen glimpses, like his homer against former Oriole Josh Towers in start No. 7. And because he keeps working and studying.

"He's the greatest kid in the world," Bell said. "I am just trying to get him to not be so hard on himself."

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