It was a bizarre Thursday night at Kauffman Stadium. First, the Kansas City-Cleveland game was delayed for more than two-and-a-half hours by rain. Then, near midnight, during the sixth inning, the lights went out due to a preset computer program.
At some point in there, the Royals were up by a run when Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis hit a long fly ball to left. Alex Gordon went back trying to make the catch at the wall, but then awkwardly fell back, seemingly hitting the back of his head on the wall as the ball rolled forward. Kipnis came around for a three-run, inside-the-park home run to put his team up 3-1. The Royals actually battled back and ended up winning 6-5 on Eric Hosmer‘s solo home run, which was fun for Royals fans.
Gordon’s injury, however, was not. He did not get carted off, but from the looks of things, he hit his head pretty hard. The initial diagnosis was that Gordon suffered a mild concussion (to the extent that any concussion can be called “mild”) and a bruised hip. It is not clear how long Gordon will be out at this point, but it was definitely scary at the time. 3
Any serious (or at least serious-looking) injury to any player is frightening, but for Royals fans this was particular hard because, after a frustrating start to his career, Gordon has been the Royals best player since 2011. He might be be classified as a “superstar”, but he is not merely above-average, either. He gets on base, gets extra-base hits, plays excellent defense in left field (despite the ugly play last night), and (in an underrated part of his game) is a very smart base runner.
Gordon was in a horrific slump for most of June (not that it means anything in terms of prediction, but he usually seems to have one bad month in his good season, either May or June), but was excellent in April and May and seemed to be getting it together at the plate, with three walks on Sunday, a grand slam on Tuesday, and a single and a double prior to his injury last night.
Whether it is just for a few days or for a huge chunk of the season (concussions can do that, even ones that seem “mild” to start with), the Royals will miss Gordon’s contributions. It is not that Gordon necessarily spells the difference between them contending or not — he’s a very good player (by one measure of the the 10 most valuable position players in the game since 2011), but few players make the sort of difference over half of a season the Royals need. They are five games behind the much-more talented Detroit team and four-and-a-half games behind Cleveland. But it is also difficult for fans to tune in. Yes, Eric Hosmer seems to be coming around (finally), Billy Butler‘s bat is coming around, Sal Perez is good (if overrated), and James Shields‘ starts are not to be missed.
I get the sense, though, that many fans are like me when it comes to the Royals without Gordon. We know he isn’t a godlike player in the mold of Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, or Ryan Braun. Even in 2011, his best season, he just did a lot of things well without having a massive power breakout like Chris Davis. All in all, Gordon has always been a strange choice for a person’s favorite player: no one standout baseball skill, not particularly quotable. Yet the Royals just seem to be missing something without him, even without thinking about the wonders of a David Lough-Jarrod Dyson-Lorenzo Cain outfield.
Perhaps some comparisons would help get the point across. The Royals without Alex Gordon are like…
…the Blue Jays in games in which either Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion sit. Yeah, the Jays are back in last after the fun of a long winning streak. Cool Standings currently gives them just a 12.7% chance of making the playoffs this year. R.A. Dickey has been a big disappointment, Jose Reyes‘ injury was frustrating, and Brett Lawrie and Melky Cabrera have mostly sucked.
But the Jays are still a fun team to watch, at least for me. Maybe I’m just shallow, but DINGERS. The Jays are currently second in baseball in home runs behind the Baltimore Davises. Yeah, Colby Rasmus, J.P. Arencibia, and Adam “I Heard Those Jokes You were Making About Me, Matt” Lind and have done their share. When I think of big shots to left field at the Rogers Centre, I think of
expensive, lousy concessions Encarnacion (23 homers so far this year) and Bautista (19). Even when the Jays are bad, that is something to behold.
Barring injury, both should easily have 30 home runs this year, and it would not be too surprising if both ended up with 40. Like Gordon, neither is one of the games best players (even if Bautista was a couple of years ago), but the power of power can’t be denied. Having even one hitter like that is thrilling, having two is what make the Jays dangerous in any game. When one of them sits, the Jays are not nearly as compelling a spectacle.
…the Astros without Jose Altuve. Yeah, Altuve is sort of overrated. Why saber-nerds were okay to get excited about him when he is not all that different a player than David Eckstein is a mystery. Okay, it isn’t a mystery — it’s fun seeing a little guy play baseball that well and even hit home runs — but, of course, the widely-mocked David Eckstein was the same sort of player.
While Altuve has not even been the Astros’ best position player this year, he is one of the few reasons to watch. It isn’t like the Astros have no other players worth watching. Bud Norris is having a pretty good year from the mound, Jason Castro is hitting well, and Chris Carter has 17 jacks already. But the one player who is, well, actually “fun to watch” (to use a decidedly non-objective term) is Altuve. He is not exactly Chase Utley in the field, but he can steals 30 or more bags a year and when he does he a home run, well, that’s just a hoot. Plus, he’s the one Astro your friends who are casual fans might know. The Astros probably could do better without Altuve than the Royals without Gordon. Still, without Altuve, the Astros mostly would be a bunch of nearly-anonymous reclamation projects,”maybe ifs”, and stopgaps.
…the Yankees without Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. This seems might seem like a wrong-headed comparison on a number of levels. Gordon is not, even at his best, on the same super-duperstar level as A-Rod and Jeter were in their primes, either in terms of name recognition or actual baseball talent. On the other hand, in terms of actual baseball talent these days, Gordon seems far better than either of them, so that seems unfair to him.
But think in other terms. The Royals just are not the Royals (at least from a positive, Royals-fan perspective) without the one guy on the team you feel will deliver over a full season, whether at the plate or in the field. NOw, one might think that only Captain American Jeter fills that role for the Yankees, but that is to view things narrowly. Yes, from the perspective of Yankees fans and the press, that might be true. Jeter, even the aging Jeter, is the intended face of the franchise. But really, we need the full picture.
And while Jeter is and aging, overpaid player who is cramping the Yankees’ budgetary style, no other player really embodies that Yankees’ excess, short-term vision, long-term problems, and the way they irritate baseball fandom at large than Rodriguez. Fairly or unfairly, Jeter and A-Rod are twin symbols that make the Yankees the Yankees.
…Judas Priest without K.K. Downing. It is not as if the Royals would just roll over and die without Alex Gordon. And Judas Priest did pull of their farewell Epitaph tour (which — suprise! — turns out not to really have been a total farewell) with Richie Faulkner in Downing’s place. While Downing was one of the two “original” members of Judas Priest left (from their pre-Rob Halford, pre-recording days), he was not the face of the band. That was Rob Halford, even after he left for more than a decade and came back. Is Gordon really the “face” of the Royals? Maybe they have pushed him a bit more lately with others playing badly, but that is rare — since 2011, the Royals have, at various times, marketed Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, and even Jeff Francoeur as or more heavily than Gordon. By all accounts, Downing is not really the leader of the band behind the scenes, either, that would be Glenn Tipton, with whom Downing comprised perhaps the classic two guitar attack in classic metal. The Royals have been pushing the “Gordon is our leader” thing lately, but it always comes out that he “leads by example,” not that he is very vocal.
The general feeling among fandom, as far as I can see, is that while both Tipton and Downing progressed as guitarists from their bluesy, hard rock licks in the 1970s to incorporate more advanced techniques and superior chops in the 180s and beyond, that Tipton was the better player. He certainly took more solos. Tipton’s superiority is debatable, in my view, but I can see the case for it. It is similar with Gordon — I can see why people would argue that, say Butler (better hitting) or Perez (good defensive catcher with a bat that can progress) or Hosmer (upside) are better players, even if I do not agree.
But ultimately, the Royals without Gordon is really hard to take, because he embodies so much about the Royals hopes both objectively (their best position player, I believe) and more existentially (former “can’t miss” prospect seemingly busting who turns it around). And, as written earlier, he is always worth watching, even in his slumps, because he does subtle things well.
While Downing may not have been the one calling the shots in terms of songwriting or business (and the scuttlebutt is that Downing left over disagreements with management, who allegedly are aligned with Tipton and his Jeanine-esque manager girlfriend over this stuff), and Tipton may take more solos and superficially have better technique (again, I disagree — maybe that was true in the 80s, but since Halford’s return, I think Downing has caught or surpassed him, but whatever), Priest just is not Priest without Downing, any more than they were without Halford.
Part of this has to do with superficial things like imagine. Visually, yeah, you have bald Rob and a bunch of guys in leather, but whatever the internal division of labor is, the picture of a Judas Priest guitarist is Downing with his Flying V and blonde locks. Alex Gordon is the one decent position player on the Royals who definitely looks like an athlete in terms of his conditioning, and it was his looks that helped the (ill-advised) comparisons with George Brett when he was drafted. Just as Downing, along with bassist Ian Hill, was one of the two last pre-Halford members of the band, Gordon is one of the few pre-Dayton Moore players on the Royals (Billy Butler being one of the others… hmmm….)
As mentioned above, it is not all image or length of tenure that makes Downing an essential part of Priest. Even if you buy Tipton having better technique and being the driving force, Downing was essential to the sound of Judas Priest. Part of that is literal sound. While Tipton’s sound was more bassy and warm, Downing opted for a sharper rhythm and lead tone with more trebles and upper mids. That kept them from getting in each other’s way even when playing the same chord inversions. It also made them easily distinguishable when trading solos (that, and Downing was almost always panned stereo left [to be like Hendrix, who preferred stage right when playing live], with Tipton on the right right).
And just as Gordon’s overall package makes him a superior position player, Downing’s more distinctive tone (the midrange emphasis makes his attack more prevalent and gives his tone a “stringier” character), as well as his more subtle incorporation of modern techniques into his classic, Hendrix-inspired wildness, makes him an indispensible part of Priest’s sound. I have nothing against improving chops — the animus against technique is a silly pop-music writer holdover. I love Iron Maiden’s Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, too, but they are pretty much the same players now that they were in 1982. It was great that Tipton and Downing improved their speed and articulation in the 80s and 90s, and incorporated stuff like sweep-picking.
However, while Tipton seemed to alternate between ripping around with his new tricks and his older, more melodic, Peter Green-derived style, Downing was more selective, and retained his identity. Check out Downing’s extended solo on their all-time metal classic, “Victim of Changes” during what I believe was his last tour with the band. Yeah, he totally rips in a way he couldn’t have in the 70s or 80s, but it is still Downing. He still is crazy with the whammy bar. He is not just ripping to rip, or throwing in sweeps just to show he can, as Tipton sometimes has in later years. It is still the classic K.K., just updated, and yeah, he hits that “scary” whammy bar lick at the end of the solo, too, just as he did in 1976 in the original recording.
Just like Gordon throwing out some silly base runner trying to take second on him, right?
…the Mets’ offense without David Wright. Okay, nothing is quite that horrible to contemplate. Sorry.