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baseball

Baseball Scoreboards Schedules Standings Stats Teams Players All-Time Stats Minors College INSIDE BASEBALL

A Flash in the Pen

Since moving into the Red Sox bullpen, Tom Gordon has been electrifying

by Gerry Callahan

Posted: Wed September 2, 1998
 
Sports Illustrated He was 21 years old, pitching in the big leagues and bunking with Bo Jackson. It was 1989, and life was good for young Tom (Flash) Gordon, who was starting his major league career in Kansas City but thought he was in heaven. At night he would call his brothers back in Avon Park, Fla., and brag about the adventures with his new best buddy, Bo.

In his rookie season Gordon moved in with Jackson, and he says that he will never forget the sheer luxury of Bo's suburban mansion. "I had a Pepsi machine in my bedroom, a real Pepsi machine," he says. "I could wake up, hit the button and—bang!—have a soda. It was awesome."

They were small-town Southern guys who loved fishing and football, so Jackson decided to take Gordon, five years his junior, under his wing. As with his other endeavors, Jackson did not approach this task at half speed; indeed, he did everything but legally adopt Gordon. Jackson bought a Chevy Blazer that he had planned to give a younger brother as a graduation present, "but my brother screwed off," says Jackson, "so I let Tom have it." When the rookie righthander cashed his first Royals paycheck and flashed a wad ("about $6,000," Gordon recalls) around the clubhouse, Jackson took the money, drove Gordon to a bank and helped him open an account. Gordon says it was the first bank account he ever had. "I've still got it," he says. "First National Bank of Kansas City." Free to concentrate on pitching, Gordon went 17-9 with a 3.64 ERA and finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year award balloting to Orioles righthander Gregg Olson.

"Tom was a young kid, and I didn't let any of the older players mess with him," says Jackson. "One night he was in tears after a game. I said, 'What's wrong?' And he said, 'Man, the guys won't leave me alone. They're always making fun of me.' I said, 'Who? I want names.' And we turned around and went right back in the clubhouse. The first guy who was giving Flash a hard time, I got in his face and said, 'If Flash tells me you disrespect him again, I'll kill you.'"

The two had fun for a few years in K.C., but then the world around Gordon started to change. While playing for the Los Angeles Raiders in January 1991, Jackson suffered the serious hip injury that ended his football career and his association with the Royals, leaving Gordon to handle his own finances and buy his own Pepsis. The struggling Royals ran through a succession of pitching coaches, each of whom imparted his own philosophy to the impressionable Gordon. Off the field Gordon was left shaken by the 1995 murder of a former girlfriend who was the mother of one of his four children. When his contract expired and he became a free agent after the '95 season, Gordon ignored the one bit of advice he got before departing Kansas City.

"One of my teammates said, 'Flash, whatever you do, don't go to Boston,'" says Gordon. "He said, 'You will hate it.' I can remember coming out of the bullpen as a visitor there and having people throw beer at me and spit at me. But to me, baseball in Boston is like football in Florida. Pitching for the Red Sox is like playing tailback for the Gators."

At least it is when you pitch the way Gordon has this season. After a successful career as a starter (he was 73-73 in 203 starts over nine years in that role), Gordon, 30, was converted to a short reliever for the last two months of the '97 season, and this year he has emerged as one of the top closers in the game. "He took the role and ran with it," says Boston pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. "He thinks he's an every-day player now."

Says Gordon, "It's true. I feel like a shortstop. I show up every day and feel like a big part of the team."

He has, in fact, been the key to the success of the Red Sox this year. Through Sunday, Gordon had converted 38 of his 39 save opportunities and had held opposing hitters to a .188 batting average. He deserved some of the credit for the double-digit victory totals of starters Pedro Martinez (18-4), Tim Wakefield (15-6) and Bret Saberhagen (11-6), who for all their wins had only five complete games among them. In games in which Gordon had made an appearance, Boston was 53-8. As a result the Red Sox had the second-best record in the American League (79-55), one season after finishing six games under .500.

Even though Gordon was Boston's Opening Day starter in '97, the Red Sox were already thinking of making him their closer. When Boston traded Heathcliff Slocumb—with his 0-5 record and 5.79 ERA—to the Seattle Mariners on July 31, 1997, Gordon moved into the closer's role and earned a save in 11 of his 13 chances in the final two months of the season. The experience convinced him that he didn't want to return to life as a starter. "I never knew what to do with myself between starts," he says. "I used to sit around the clubhouse and eat. Now I'm up and excited. By the sixth inning, I want to get in the game."

These days Gordon takes on hitters as aggressively as his old pal Bo took on linebackers. A star tailback at Avon Park High, Gordon says he turned down a football scholarship to Oklahoma State, where he would have backed up Barry Sanders. Instead, after being selected in the sixth round of the 1986 draft, he signed with the Royals. But he still feels as if he has a lot of football player in him. When Gordon's on the mound, he pulls his cap down around his eyes and stares at the hitter as if the poor guy had scratched Gordon's car. He looks as menacing as a 5'9" guy can. "He knows how to act like a closer," says Mo Vaughn, smiling.

Since his arrival in the big leagues Gordon has had a vaunted curveball and an above-average fastball, but throughout his career as a starter, coaches tried to get him to develop an effective third pitch, usually some form of changeup. Once they moved him to the bullpen, the Sox viewed that as unnecessary because closers only need two pitches, especially if the pitches are as nasty as Gordon's. "You want to know why he's been good?" says teammate Dennis Eckersley. "Two reasons: a 95-mile-per-hour fastball and a hook from hell."

Mike Stanley, who is back with the Red Sox after starting the season with Toronto, caught Gordon as a starter last year and faced him as a closer this season. He says his teammate is most effective out of the bullpen because hitters only see him once. "You don't get the chance to gauge that curve when you only get up against him once," says Stanley. "If you don't get a chance to time him, he's as nasty as any pitcher in the game. It's like Roger Clemens coming out of the bullpen to face three hitters."

When he was knocked around by the Braves in a game on June 8, Gordon was summoned to manager Jimy Williams's office, where Kerrigan brought a small fact to his attention. "We said, 'Hey, this was your 30th appearance and your first bad game,'" says Kerrigan. "We want him to understand that it takes one other thing to be a good closer: a bad memory. You're going to have bad games, and you've got to forget them."

While Gordon's coaches and teammates applaud his efforts, they also know the real test has yet to come. At week's end he hadn't had a bad stretch yet, nor had he served up a game-ending, three-run blast, the kind that tears a team's heart out. In 29 of his saves Gordon had entered the game with a cushion of two runs or more. "You find out about a guy when the team is struggling and he's had two or three bad outings in a row and the fans are wondering if the manager's going to go to someone else," says Eckersley. "You've got to see how a guy handles adversity."

Gordon has overcome off-the-field tragedy. In May 1995 Devona Strange, his high school sweetheart and mother of his now eight-year-old son, Devaris, was shot and killed by her boyfriend, Lynford Schultz. Schultz pleaded no contest to manslaughter, claiming the two were fooling around with a handgun when the gun went off accidentally; he was sentenced to five years in prison.

Gordon now has custody of his son and says he's still trying to help Devaris get over the tragedy. "It's not easy," says Gordon. "He still asks a lot of questions." Gordon says Devaris lives with him some of the time and with Gordon's mother, in Florida, the rest of the time. Gordon, who has never been married, has three more children by two other women and says he sees and supports them all.

"People ask me sometimes, 'How will adversity affect you? Could you handle it?'" says Gordon. "Well, I think I've been through a lot, and maybe sometimes it has affected me on the field. But now the Lord has given me a chance to start my career over. I know I've been playing for 10 years, but in my mind this is my first year. I feel like a rookie again, and I'm having more fun than I did the first time."

Issue date: September 7, 1998

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