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THE SURE THING
TO UNDERSTAND the significance of the moment, two years ago, when Alex Gordon first met George Brett, consider where Gordon had come from. He grew up in Lincoln, Neb., and often made the three-hour trip to Kansas City for Royals games. He spent nights taking batting practice in the family basement, smacking balls into a rug hung from the ceiling, not far from posters of Brett. Through high school and college, Gordon played third base (just like Brett), batted lefthanded (just like Brett) and accumulated hits at a prodigious pace (just like Brett). Gordon was the second overall pick of the 2005 draft, taken by the Royals, the same team that had drafted Brett in 1971. Gordon even has a brother named Brett, and it is not a coincidence.
So one can imagine Gordon's reaction when he walked into a conference room at Kaufmann Stadium in the summer of 2005 and there, awaiting his arrival, was Brett himself. At the time, Gordon and Royals management were negotiating his signing bonus--it would end up at $4 million, the highest ever for a Kansas City draftee--and they were haggling over the final $200,000. Brett, a team vice president, made an offer to Gordon and his agent. "I said, 'Here's what I'll do,'" recalls Brett. "I'll write you a check for the difference, out of my own pocket. But instead of up front, I'll give you 10 grand for 20 years. I'll do that for you, just because I want to watch you play. I've heard so much s--- about you, I'll do it.' And I would have."
It was an unusual proposal, and Gordon politely declined. Brett tried again, and then again, but Gordon was steadfast. He respected Brett and was flattered by his interest, but he wasn't so starry-eyed that he'd accept less than what he thought he was worth. "It was a pretty funny conversation," says Gordon. "They basically locked me in a room, and he was trying to convince me to sign." Laments Brett, "I thought I was making progress, but"--and here he laughs--"I think he might have listened more if I wasn't employed by the Royals."
Gordon finally signed, but not until September, and now, less than two years later, the 23-year-old prospect is viewed as the great hope of a Royals franchise that last made it to the postseason 22 years ago. Though he has faced only Double A competition so far, Gordon has been described as Eric Chavez with more plate discipline, Lance Berkman with more speed ( Gordon stole 22 bases last year) and Joe Mauer with more power. And, of course, there are the inevitable comparisons with Brett. "He's a total stud, a five-tool guy," says one AL West scout. "And he's a gamer. I saw him last year, and he dived headfirst into first base to try to beat the throw. In Double A ball!"
Gordon is but Prospect 1A in a highly touted Royals crop that also includes outfielder Billy Butler and righthanded pitcher Luke Hochevar, both of whom could make the big club this season as well. The trio gives Kansas City that most valuable of commodities in this era of contractual excess: a young core of "0 to 3" players, meaning they have fewer than three years of big league service and are not yet eligible for arbitration. As such they earn near the major league minimum of $380,000. For a small-market team like Kansas City, it's the best, and perhaps only, way to compete: Grow your own stars.
Of course, while Gordon is homegrown, he did not come cheap. That has only fueled expectations that he could become the club's first breakout star since Carlos Beltran, who was traded away in the summer of 2004. The Royals, though, are aggressively trying to downplay the hype. Despite starting Gordon at third base this spring and moving Mark Teahen--another dangerous young hitter--from third to rightfield, general manager Dayton Moore and manager Buddy Bell have yet to even confirm that Gordon has a spot on the team. Moore's hope is to ease Gordon into the spotlight, the way the Atlanta Braves, Moore's previous employer, did with their top prospects in the 1990s. So don't expect to see Gordon batting first, third or cleanup this year. He'll bat lower in the order, or perhaps second. "He has a lot of confidence about him," explains Moore, "but there's no need to add more pressure than is necessary."
It's an understandable, though doomed strategy, for Gordon is almost perfectly cast as a Midwestern baseball hero. Not only is he from Nebraska, but he is also sturdy (6'1", 220 pounds), strong (he can bench-press 225 pounds 15 times) and handsome in an Army-recruitment-poster way, with close-cropped blond hair, a strong chin and blue eyes. He is approachable but measured, trafficking in neither the cocksure arrogance nor the false deference of many top young athletes. "He's very professional in his approach," says Teahen. Says Hochevar, who played with Gordon at Double A Wichita during last season's playoffs, "I don't think you can be jealous of Alex, because of how he handles himself. I think more than anything, guys are in awe of him."