KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As he was growing up in Lincoln, Neb., every … single … time Alex Gordon’s parents asked what he wanted to eat, the answer was pizza. And a lot of it, typically among the classics of cheese, pepperoni or hamburger.
They’d often order a large one just for him, usually from Valentino’s, which he calls “a Nebraska thing” that remains his favorite place.
Sometime in college at Nebraska, though, he reckoned that being at his best for baseball and snarfing pizza didn’t go together. And during his epic career with the Royals as what manager Ned Yost once called the mold for “a perfect player,” he became nearly as legendary for his dietary restraint as he did for making an art form of playing left field.
“I don’t know if I eat to really enjoy food,” Gordon told The Kansas City Star in 2014. “I think I eat just to be successful out here and maintain my weight.”
Even so, Gordon said in a phone interview this week, the craving for pizza never went away. Finally, at age 37, since he retired at the end of the 2020 season, he’d be free to indulge like he said he would after his last game.
And we really wish we could say he’d let himself go a bit.
“Everybody thought I was going to go off the deep end as far as eating and not working out and stuff like that,” he said with a laugh. “I’m still the same guy, but I’ll cheat every once in a while with food … (and) every once in a while I’ll kind of dabble with the desserts.
“But I’m still pretty boring, still pretty much myself. Yeah.”
Plenty is different, actually, and in particularly moving ways when it comes to his desire to spend more and better time with his three children, sons Max (10) and Sam (7) and daughter Joey (3).
And we will get right back to that element of his new life, which seems the most fundamental and fulfilling part of a transition wherein he is realizing the joys of fatherhood in an entirely new dimension.
First, though, the broader point bears mention:
It’s telling that despite this profound change, and what would figure to potentially create a gnawing void, Gordon seems enough at ease with himself and the circumstances that he perceives the adjustment to be harder for others than him.
Case in point was last week at Kauffman Stadium, where Gordon threw out the first pitch to Whit Merrifield. Other than wishing pandemic protocols hadn’t kept him from finding a place to properly warm up and be able to “throw gas to Whit,” Gordon reveled in all of it. He felt not pangs to be back in uniform but appreciation of all around him.
When he arrived in the parking lot, he was struck by hundreds of fans being there again after the “ghost town” of last season and was reminded of the feeling of getting there at the best of times for the team from 2013 through 2015.
“It just kind of gave you that spark, that energy,” he recalled. “Like, ‘These fans are here to see you. OK, I’ve got to go get after it, show these fans why they’re doing what they’re doing.’ “
Meanwhile, after throwing an easy strike to Merrifield, Gordon felt not withdrawals but delight at being there for the first game since his retirement. Never mind that after the Rangers scored five runs in the first inning, he worried the Royals never would ask him to throw out the first pitch again.
But even that vanished as the Royals rallied to win, 14-10, in a game he savored as a fan.
As people he’d bump into that day suggested the scene might be awkward for him, it occurred to Gordon that “it was more weird for other people to have me there than it was for me to be there.”
Indeed, miss it as he might, Gordon feels no need to create distance. So far, he’s been glued to every pitch of every inning and figures on “bothering” his former teammates often.
“Like, ‘Hey, Whit, nice hit,’ Gordon said, laughing and imagining Merrifield’s response: “He’ll be like, ‘Quit texting me.’ “
At least for now, his sense of everything around him being more changed than him applies elsewhere.
Speaking on Sunday after returning from Nebraska for Easter for the first time he could remember, for instance, he playfully said it “felt weird” and that he didn’t think “everybody else is used to having me back.”
Not that it’s not welcome for him to be out of baseball and home, something that’s already been gratifying in ways both memorable and more routine.
Over spring break for the children a few weeks ago, the family went to Breckenridge, Colorado. As a child, Gordon had loved to ski. But the uniform Major League Baseball contract prohibits skiing. Free again, he learned to snowboard with his oldest.
“It was pretty cool just to share that experience with him,” he said.
He’s also spending some time coaching teams of his sons. Even if some of that perhaps will entail preaching his own habits, he’s likely not encouraging Max to continue the imitations of his father he liked to do when he was 2 or 3: At the time, he’d charge out of the bathtub and run into a wall and lie there for 10 seconds or so and declare “what a catch by Alex.”
But much of the refreshing change for Gordon is in the day to day, a term that amuses him to use in this context after applying it so long to the grind of a season.
For so long, he’d seldom see the children during the season even when the Royals were at home. Playing night games meant not going to bed until 2 or 3 a.m., so he’d get up to see the kids briefly before his wife, Jamie, took them to school and he’d go back to sleep to be properly prepared for the next game.
Now, he’s much more hands-on. On weekdays, he’s up at 5:30 a.m. to do a workout in his home gym (an ongoing passion of his that he calls “a lifesaver”) before the children rise.
“So it’s good to just be able to wake up and be in that routine with them, cooking them breakfast, getting them ready and taking them to school and whatnot,” said Gordon, noting he’s glad his presence frees up Jamie to be more able to follow her own interests and volunteer work.
The simple pleasures of all this perhaps are what resonate most with Gordon, who said he never stopped loving playing but that he had been “kind of looking forward to the end as far as being around those activities … and just being around my kids more in general.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that what he misses most about baseball is the simple moments of camaraderie, of grinding out a season with so many he’d become close with through the years.
“Just the plane rides, playing cards together, swinging in the cage together,” he said. “Little things like that. Yeah, absolutely.”
As he reflected on the end of the “roller coaster” career, he also thought about his gratitude to general manager Dayton Moore for believing in him when “things weren’t great.”
And he considered not just the pinnacle of back-to-back American League championships and winning the 2015 World Series but the injuries and struggles that led him from third base to left field and to recognize how quickly the game could be taken away from anyone.
That meant resolving “never taking a minute, an hour or a day for granted,” he said. “And just trying to put everything I could onto the field as much as possible.”
And leaving it there, in more ways than one, from his sheer effort to the blood and sweat he shed all over the range he patrolled.
The Royals and fans reveled in that, part of what makes him an icon.
Shame that it was fans couldn’t attend his last game because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Royals made it special with season-ending celebrations that even reverberated with the typically stoic Gordon.
“They went above and beyond what I wanted, what I expected,” he said. “Every day was just something new that was very humbling, very flattering. I don’t like a lot of attention, so it was kind of awkward a little bit.”
Even so, Gordon’s favorites among many gestures were having each of the team’s jerseys smeared in pine tar for the penultimate game of his Pigpen-like career … an act duplicated that day by the likes of former teammates Mike Moustakas, Drew Butera and Eric Hosmer.
And he was honored to have the area above his locker permanently embellished with his jersey No. 4 and the silhouette of him rounding first base with a finger in the air after his home run in Game 1 of the 2015 World Series.
“Just the fact that that’s going to be there I hope forever, as long as I don’t do anything stupid, I guess, that meant a lot to me and is going to stick with me forever,” said Gordon, laughing as he recalled that he was in the training room preparing for the game before that dedication, keeping everyone waiting.
Noting that he doesn’t usually “get caught up in emotions that well,” he recalled his last day in the uniform with a certain unusual tenderness.
He woke up that morning, Sept. 27, to an Instagram post from his wife that evoked testimonials from a number of teammates about what he had meant to them.
“I was by myself, and I kind of teared up when I read those things; that kind of got me a little bit,” he said.
The entire spectrum of emotions conveyed by others that day would stay with him.
“I knew how much they meant to me,” he said. “But it kind of hit me that I meant a lot to them, too.”
It also strikes him now that he misses the game enough to envision a future within it in some other undetermined form, one he hopes is with the Royals.
But for now, he’s committed to taking at least a year off to be with family and get the “retirement life rolling and kind of see where life takes me.”
In the moment, that also involves playing a lot of golf, with which Gordon says he has a “love-hate relationship” but has determined he will “figure out at some point.”
Just like he seems to have sorted everything else out … including that he can even “dabble” in pizza now.
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