By Cary Osborne
Last year in October, Dee Gordon was on the Dodgers’ postseason roster, but practically in name only. He played in two games, both as a pinch-runner. Gordon was in the playoffs because he was fast — and only because he was fast.
This year, Gordon was still fast, but he also became much, much more. But as Gordon will tell you, that development, however ironically, was a long, slow process.
Drafted by the Dodgers in 2008, Gordon burst —and we mean burst — onto the scene in 2011 by stealing 24 bases in his first 56 big-league games and batting .304. But in 2012, he had a .280 on-base percentage when he injured his thumb on an Independence Day slide, and never got the starting shortstop job back after the Dodgers acquired Hanley Ramirez three weeks later.
Once considered the Dodgers’ top prospect and its shortstop of the future, Gordon began 2013 in Triple-A Albuquerque and barely played in the Majors that year. After the season, Dodger general manager Ned Colletti told him it was time to try learning some other positions.
So he played some center field and also got familiar with second base, not that he was keen on it. But that job, after Mark Ellis’ departure as a free agent, was there for the taking — if he could beat out veterans Justin Turner and Chone Figgins, as well Cuban import Alex Guerrero, who had just signed a four-year deal with the Dodgers.
A year later, the reluctant second baseman became a 2014 All-Star at his new position. His batting average hovered around the .300 mark the entire season and his offensive numbers across the board were up. He led the Major Leagues in triples and stolen bases, and his defense was more than steady —at times, it was superb, with flying, diving and sliding efforts apropos for a player who wore a Superman shirt underneath his jersey this season.
That’s the table-setter about the Dodgers’ table-setter. Now, describing his developmental journey in his own words, Dee Gordon will bring it home …
“Last year I got sent down to Triple-A Albuquerque,” Gordon said. “I remember exactly where we were. I flew into Memphis, Tennessee. I told our hitting coach, Franklin Stubbs, ‘I can go out here and get two hits. But teach me how to hit.’
“I was so athletic. My uncle taught me how to hit. He told me to take my hands to the ball. I didn’t know anything about using my legs. And it always worked for me, so I never changed. I needed to make a change. So I told Franklin Stubbs to take me to square one with hitting. And at the time I was hitting like .330 in Triple-A. So he took me to square one and my average went to about .275 quick. I was freaking out.
“ ‘This sucks,’ I thought. ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ But he told me, ‘Trust the process. It’s going to work out.’
“Then I started feeling better. I was driving the ball and getting my base hits. The biggest thing is I told him I didn’t think I could hit the ball the other way. My hands didn’t feel like they could shoot the hole anymore. I felt that way for about two years.
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“But we’d get out there and work nonstop, and I’d be mad. I remember I had video on my computer and I was watching it. I was like, ‘I quit. I don’t want to hit anymore. I quit.’ I’m laughing as I remember this. He said, ‘Get in the cage. Get your butt back in the cage.’
“And so just listening to him and trusting the process of hitting — it sucked at the time — but then I started seeing the benefits of it. I came up last year, and when I did get up I’d get a hit or two a game. I was playing well. But I wasn’t hitting well enough to get in the lineup for this team.
“Hungry. I was hungry going into the winter. I was mad. Upset more than anything because they had nowhere to play me. Last year my job was taken. We just signed Guerrero. I was told I was going to be a super-utility man. That’s the only way I would see the field. I was mad. I thought, ‘I have to do something. I have to make something shake.’
“So I worked. Worked. Worked. More than anything I worked. Grinding. People say, ‘Is he tired?’ because I’ve been playing nonstop since last year. I went to winter ball twice. … I played for a month in the Dominican. Hit like .360 doing the same things and feeling good. I stopped playing for a month and a half, then went to Puerto Rico to play. I hit like .400 there and still felt good.
“In the winter I worked on pulling the ball a lot. And I get to spring training and it was, ‘We don’t want you to pull the ball anymore.’ I was like, ‘Ah snap. I’ve been working on this all winter.’ So it took a little adjustment. I suffered for a little at first, then found my swing and pieced it all together.”
And now, Gordon says, he is a second baseman — a vital piece and positive force for a Dodger team that leaned on him to make things happen in 2014. This is what people thought Dee Gordon would become. It just took some work to make things shake.