Dodgers hope Dee Gordon is up to speed as their starting shortstop
PHOENIX — Even if Dee Gordon could break Maury Wills’ single-season Dodgers record of 104 stolen bases, he says he wouldn’t.
“I couldn’t,” Gordon says.
Relayed the words of his protégé, Wills smiles and shakes his head.
“No way. I wouldn’t allow him to stop,” Wills says. “I love him, he loves me, but we won’t get that far.”
An instructor in the Dodgers’ camp, the 79-year-old Wills is seated near the shortened field where players practice bunting. The field is named Maury’s Pit.
Gordon, the Dodgers’ fleet-footed 23-year-old starting shortstop, is walking to the batting cages when he sees Wills. He cuts across Maury’s Pit to shake Wills’ hand.
Told that Wills disapproves of his refusal to break his 50-year-old record, Gordon laughs.
“It’s an order?” Gordon asks. “If the playoffs are on the line, I’ll go.”
They both laugh.
“He was just expressing his respect for me,” Wills says. “But that goes out the window.”
It was Gordon’s manners, rather than his speed, that first caught Wills’ attention.
They met when Gordon was playing for Class-A Great Lakes in Michigan. Wills noticed that Gordon always responded to questions with either, “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir.”
“I’m in the community a lot in Los Angeles and I don’t find that very much,” Wills says. “I think we could use more of that. I started paying attention to him.”
Knowing that Gordon’s father was a former major league pitcher, Tom Gordon, further piqued his interest.
Then Wills saw Gordon run.
“I saw him lay down a bunt, or maybe it was an infield hit, and when he went to first base, when he went through that bag, I thought, ‘I’ve never seen anyone run so fast,’ ” Wills says.
The average major league left-handed hitter runs from the batter’s box to first base in 4.2 seconds. Gordon was recently clocked by a scout at 3.79 seconds.
“That’s Ichiro fast — in his prime,” the scout says, referring to the Seattle Mariners star.
Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly has compared Gordon’s speed to that of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders. Center fielder Matt Kemp has called Gordon “the most exciting player in baseball.”
In 56 games over two stints in the major leagues last season, Gordon stole 24 bases.
“He has the ability, which a lot of guys don’t have, to excite a crowd,” says first base coach Davey Lopes, who as a player stole as many as 74 bases in a season.
Lopes, the Dodgers’ baserunning guru, thinks Gordon could be a leader in the renaissance of the running game in baseball, which is on the rise since the implementation of a drug policy and subsequent decline in home runs. In the higher-scoring days that preceded drug testing, the attempted steal was widely viewed as an unnecessary risk. Some in baseball still hold that belief.
“Guys going from first to second, second to third, third to home?” Lopes says. “That’s got to be the most boring game in the world. This game is boring. Baseball is very boring. For some reason, some people make it more boring.”
But Gordon can’t excite fans with speed alone.
“I don’t think I was faster, but I would beat him in the race,” Wills says, explaining his superior sense of anticipation would have allowed him to open up an early lead in a footrace against Gordon.
Lopes phrases it this way: “I would rather have a guy who’s a half-step slower, but he’s a half-second quicker in recognizing things.”
If Gordon has shown anything other than his speed, it’s a willingness to work.
He spent the winter in Florida working on defense with Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin. He was in Arizona a month and a half before the Dodgers reported to camp.
Lorenzo Bundy, manager of the Albuquerque Isotopes, recalls how Gordon responded to being sent back from the majors to triple A in August.
Gordon batted .232 in his first major league call-up, but Bundy noticed he returned with greater confidence.
“There was a look in his eyes,” Bundy says.
And every day after batting practice, Gordon visited Bundy’s office. At the insistence of General Manager Ned Colletti, they spent eight to 10 minutes talking about various game scenarios.
Gordon returned to the majors a month later a more mature player. He hit .345 over the remainder of the season.
In that time, Gordon convinced Colletti the Dodgers didn’t have to allocate any of their sparse resources to adding a shortstop.
“I can tell you we didn’t look at any other shortstops,” Colletti says.
If the exhibition season is any indication, Colletti made the right call. Gordon is batting .409 with 10 steals. Two of his last three steals have led to throwing errors by the catcher that have allowed him to reach third.
“That’s what he does,” Lopes says. “That’s the havoc he creates. He gets in people’s minds. That’s what a good running game can do. It gets into the pitcher’s mind, the catcher’s mind, the manager’s mind.”
He has also shown a boldness Lopes and Wills believe is necessary to be a great base stealer.
That trait gets him in trouble at times, such as when Gordon recently tried to stretch a routine single to center field into a double and was thrown out.
But Lopes doesn’t want Gordon to lose his aggression.
“You have to have it,” Lopes says. “For Dee to be the player he can be, you have to let him go.”
“You can be a good player, get the hit and just stay there,” he says.” But if you want to be an impact player, you have to do those kinds of things.
“It’s easier to tone a player down than it is to perk him up. When I teach baserunning, I encourage players to make mistakes. You have to make mistakes to learn. A man who doesn’t make any mistakes is a man who isn’t doing anything.”
Of course, to steal bases, Gordon will have to get on base. Because opposing pitchers fear his speed, Gordon has rarely been walked — he drew seven walks in 233 major league plate appearances last year.
Wills anticipates that Gordon will take a pounding.
“I have scars all over me,” Wills says, exposing his forearms. “My body, I have aches and pains where they roughed me up.”
First basemen will whack Gordon with their gloves on attempted pickoffs. Middle infielders will try to hit his collarbone with their knees when he slides headfirst into second base.
“There are some players, I’m not going to say they’re dirty, but they’re rough,” Wills says. “Dee is built more on the slight side. They’re going to get in there and do things to him.”
Gordon added 10 pounds over the off-season to prepare himself for the abuse. He weighs 161 pounds.
But Gordon will have to be more than physically durable. He’ll have to be emotionally resilient as well.
Wills thinks Gordon has it.
“It’s subtle, but it’s there,” he says. “I can sense it because I have it.”
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