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."