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This is due in part to Gordon's mildly obsessive approach to training. He's been lifting weights seriously since he was 14 and is fastidious about his diet. He says he hasn't eaten fast food in more than a year, he cuts off all visible fat from his meat (often then giving it to the lanky Hochevar as a joke), and, as Hochevar says, "he drinks like 19 protein shakes a day." Gordon smiles when told this. "Not that many," he says, "but I will put down four." The shakes, always chocolate and always made with skim milk, are also his stress relievers; he has one before each game, right after he finishes batting practice.
Gordon attributes his strong work ethic to his upbringing. His father, Mike, a beverage delivery truck driver, would leave the house at 4:30 a.m., and when he returned at 5 p.m., Alex and any number of his brothers--he is the second of four boys--would be waiting with gloves in hand. Mike would take them to a local park and throw BP. Nearly every day. For one to two hours. "No ice or anything, no L screen," says Alex, admiringly.
"On Saturdays, I'd bring a bag of 100 balls, and I'd probably empty it three or four times, then do it again on Sunday afternoon," says Mike, who played baseball at the University of Nebraska. "We lost a lot of balls, but watching them play was more than I could ever ask for." When the kids got older, Mike and his wife, Leslie, a registered nurse from whom he's now divorced, would each take a car and a child or two, often in different directions, bound for one amateur tournament or another. They'd leave on Friday night and usually wouldn't return until Sunday night.
Though his brothers were talented--Eric, 25, played at Nebraska-Omaha; Brett, 20, plays at Park University in Parkville, Mo.; and the youngest, Derek, 15, is currently on the reserves team in high school--Alex stood out at an early age. At three he began hitting lefty, after Mike found him imitating his brother Eric and crossing his hands over. (He throws right.) By 12 he was clearly special. "He did things kids his age shouldn't [be able to] do," says Randy Brolhorst, who coached Gordon in youth ball and at Lincoln Southeast High. "Every Memorial Day the 12-year-olds play in a tournament on a field with 300-foot fences. Alex was hitting home runs over that fence at 12. In my 34 years I can't remember another kid doing that."
After batting .587 as a high school junior, Gordon was intentionally walked 25 times in 23 games, by Brolhorst's count, as a senior. Though he would have been drafted, Gordon alerted teams of his intention to go to college. "I didn't think I was mature enough," he says. "It was the best decision of my life because I grew as a person."
At Nebraska he was the NCAA player of the year as a junior. On the day of the 2005 draft he chose to practice rather than wait for a phone call from the team that selected him, because the NCAA Super Regional Series was coming up. He learned the result only when his brother Eric held up two fingers from the stands. Once signed, Gordon impressed quickly. "He had probably the best spring of [any of our players] last year," says Bell. After he hit .325 with 29 homers for Wichita, Gordon was named Baseball America's minor league player of the year for '06.
During the season Gordon developed a friendly rivalry with Butler, his Wranglers teammate. Though two years younger, the 6'1, 240-pound Butler was drafted 14th overall in '04 and may be the better pure hitting prospect (though his glovework at third base was so bad, the team is switching him to the outfield). In Double A Wichita last year, Butler batted .331 with 15 homers and 96 RBIs in 119 games, winning MVP honors at the All-Star Futures game along the way. He has power to all fields, as was on display this spring during his thunderous batting practice sessions. "I hate to compare him to anyone," says Bell, who then does just that, "but he's a Frank Thomas type, a guy with some power who really understands hitting at the same time."
This spring training Butler had eight hits in his first 12 at bats at week's end was hitting .481 with two home runs. Gordon, however, struggled in the early going. During the first week he was swinging under the ball rather than through it, launching too many pop flies. "He's going to have some tough times this year, I won't lie to you," Brett said one early March morning, "but he's got enough brains and confidence to get through it." Brett paused and sent a stream of tobacco juice plummeting to the grass. "Somebody once told me, the worst curse you can put on somebody is unlimited potential, because you can never live up to it. You hit .350 with 50 HRs, and that's not good enough. But Alex is about as close as anybody I've seen in a long time in this organization. We said that about Beltran a little bit. But Alex is going to be a star, no doubt in my mind."