In the summer of 2012, Dee Gordon was beginning to see a once-promising career slip away. He had been a fourth-round pick in 2008 who had been told so often that he was the Los Angeles Dodgers' shortstop of the future that he started to believe it, regardless of what he was doing on the field. But that summer, he had hardly earned being the future anything.
The problem with top prospects in this modern era of information is that they are fully aware of their status. Beyond what's available to read online, a copy of Baseball America -- and its proliferation of prospect rankings -- sits on one or more coffee tables in a major league clubhouse. Often, the same young players on the cover of that magazine are often appearing in those major league clubhouses at the same time.
Earlier this year, Boston Red Sox phenom Xander Bogaerts, signed as a virtual unknown from Aruba, told me that his career was aided because he had never grown up being ranked a day in his young life. He never knew how good he was or how good he was supposed to be. It was not until he had almost catapulted to the majors and began being noticed by a mass audience that he was aware that a lot was expected of him. By then, he was ready to handle the pressure.
But it was not that way with Gordon. He had grown up with a famous baseball playing father, former pitcher Tom Gordon, and he'd starred in high school and had quickly become a prospect even though he had started playing the sport late in life after preferring basketball as a kid.
By the time the draft arrived, Gordon was a known entity, not only in baseball front offices, but anywhere were fans could find out information about the draft. Gordon quickly ascended through the minor leagues, and had a good rookie season with the Dodgers in 2011. That was when the trouble started.
Gordon had been lauded so much and experienced so much minor league success that he was ill-prepared for the troubles that awaited him in his second season. Gordon was aware of the expectations placed upon him, so every bit of failure was painful. And he failed a lot in 2012.
After going hitless in a game, Gordon would often panic. He'd begin to doubt himself. But prospect rankings always had him believing that he was going to be given extra chances. His perceived status within the organization became a crutch.
"I think a lot of times with a young player, I think they feel entitlement," said Dodgers third base coach Lorenzo Bundy, formerly Gordon's Triple-A manager at Albuquerque. "The only thing you're entitled to here is to go out there and perform. When you don't people are going to look for other people. That's the nature of the beast. This Major League Baseball, the highest level there can be, toughest game to play in the world. It's all about competition, it's all about competing."
When Gordon tore ligaments in his thumb on July 4, 2012, he was hitting just .229 with a .562 OPS. Two months later, once again healthy and with a minor league rehab assigment under his belt, there was no longer room for him in the starting lineup. Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez had been acquired from the Miami Marlins while Gordon was out. Veteran Mark Ellis was already entrenched as the Dodgers second baseman. There was nowhere for him to play. It became the low point of his young career.
Gordon sulked for several weeks and refused to even consider a position change that might have gotten him more playing time in a utility bench role. All those prospect rankings had him convinced that shortstop was the only place for him. Recalled to the big leagues in early September after rosters expanded, Gordon had just three plate appearances the rest of the year.
"I didn't handle it well," Gordon said. "I was young. I was pissed. But then I just looked in the mirror and said, 'Dude, you have to get better. You want to play? Get better.'"
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After a recent game against the New York Mets, Gordon, now 26, spent several moments simmering in the clubhouse. The Dodgers had won the game, but Gordon had committed an embarrassing gaffe on the basepaths. He had forgotten how many outs there had been during one inning and had been tagged out at third base because he had stopped running hard. Gordon was angry and embarrassed.
"That can't happen," Gordon said that night.
These days Gordon, one of baseball's biggest and most pleasant surprises this season, takes nothing for granted. He knows he's one long slump away from being sent to the minors, or at least to the bench. Gordon's torrid April start (.344 average, .853 OPS) has been tempered in May (.243 average, .609 OPS), but he's become an important cog for the talent-laden Dodgers.
"I'm more patient now," Gordon said. "I don't panic as much as I did in the past, to be honest. You get mature as a player, learning what you can and can't do."
Gordon leads all of baseball with 30 stolen bases, and is generally a terror for opposing teams on the bases. In an era where run scoring has diminished, Gordon's ability to steal a base or take an extra base on a ball hit to the outfield becomes magnified. He's been caught stealing only three times this year while hitting at the top of the Los Angeles lineup.
"He's incredible," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly says of Gordon's base running abilities. "I don't care [in what era] you're playing. When he's getting on base, you don't stop him really. You just don't throw him out. It's not like it's just against guys who have slower times. He's not afraid of anybody. I think his percentages are showing that he's going to get you. For the most part, there's not a lot you can do about it. He's been patient with the guys you can't run on. But there's very few of those guys that are fast enough to keep him from running at all."
Gordon's resurgence began from the moment he began to ignore the expectations that had once been put upon him. He spent the majority of 2013 in the minors. Finally, after much prodding from Bundy and the organization, Gordon accepted a position switch. He played 20 games at second base for the Triple-A Isotopes.
At the end of the year, during the Dodgers' organizational meetings, it was suggested that Gordon learn to play center field in order to boost his versatility for a possible utility role in the majors. The team suggested he try the position at winter ball in the Dominican Republic. Gordon spent more than a month in center.
Shortly after his return, Ellis, whose team option had been declined, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, which left the Dodgers second base job wide open. Gordon was asked to go to Puerto Rico to play second base. He did not hesitate.
"It was a grind," Gordon said. "I didn't have an offseason to be totally honest with you. I was able to get through it."
Gordon beat out Cuban Alex Guerrero, who had been signed to a four-year $28 million contract in the offseason, to win the Dodgers starting second base job during spring training. After having resisted moving away from shortstop, Gordon found the transition to second base had revitalized him.
"You don't have to be everywhere," Gordon said of playing second base. "It's just better comfort-wise, to be honest with you."
Scouts began to notice that spring that Gordon appeared more relaxed at second base.
"He's starting to learn what he is," said one American League team scout. "He had confidence and swagger to his game for the first time in his career."
His approach at the plate also changed. Prior to the 2013 season, Gordon, always rail thin, gained about 10 pounds to try to help his game. The problem was that he really didn't know what to do with that weight. Being stronger only encouraged him to try to hit the ball farther.
In his 38 games with the Dodgers last year, Gordon had a career-low 1.63 ground ball to fly ball ration, an almost inconceivable number for a player whose strength is his speed. This year, his GB/FB rate is a career-high 2.97.
"For me the biggest thing with Dee's offense has been getting the ball out of the air," said one National team scout. "When I saw him in the Dominican Winter League last year you could tell he was really focused on getting on top of the ball and keeping it on the ground. He's always had the type of speed that if he hits it on the ground anywhere, he's got a chance for a hit and anything that falls in the outfield always has the potential for extra bases. One of his bigger issues in the past was he was hitting too many fly-balls, which given his lack of power, were usually easy outs."
The National League scout also noticed that Gordon is now standing closer to home plate during his at-bats. Teams are more reluctant to pitch him inside for fear of hitting him. Any trip to first base for Gordon could turn troublesome for opposing teams because of his speed.
Standing closer to home plate also sets up Gordon to see his favorite pitch on the outside corner of the plate. This year, he's swung and missed at an outside pitch only three times.
"I don't miss that," Gordon said. "That's my pitch."
The keys for Gordon's longterm success will be for him to handle the adjustment teams are making, and for him to handle the grind of a long season. Gordon gained 10-15 more pounds this offseason so his body will not wear down.
"I thought gaining more weight would help," Gordon said. "I can say that it kind of has."
Gordon has always had proper perspective in his personal life. His mother, who had separated from Tom Gordon, was shot and killed by her boyfriend when Dee was just six years old. After his mother's death, Gordon was sent back to live with his father and grandmother. To this day, he fondly remembers everything he can in those six years he spent with his mother.
But at some point, Gordon needed to also learn perspective in his baseball life.
While in Albuquerque last year, Bundy saw a gradual change in Gordon's demeanor. His bitterness at being sent down to the minors had been replaced by a determination to return to the majors. Gordon did not want to be a minor leaguer.
He offered to do what it took to get back to the Dodgers. Gordon, the former top prospect, had been humbled.
All the changes he had made to his attitude and to his baseball game have finally resulted in him being a major league regular once again. But Gordon refuses to acknowledge that he's attained any type of success yet. Anything can happen in a long season, he says.
But the people around him have noticed a difference in him.
"Dee Gordon is having fun on the baseball field again," Bundy said. "And that's the most important thing."