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Even with basketball in hand, Dodgers' Gordon meant for ballfield

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Gordon is already on a tear this spring, stealing 10 straight bases for the Dodgers. (Getty Images)  
Gordon is already on a tear this spring, stealing 10 straight bases for the Dodgers. (Getty Images)  

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The first things you notice about Dee Gordon are the velocity and the courtesy. The kid is as quick as they come, and he's so polite it stops you.

"Thank you very much for coming," he says as soon as the interview is over. Gordon is a fortunate kid of 23 with a great ballplayer father and just-as-great gifts, many of them directly from his dad, Tom "Flash" Gordon, the former big-league pitching star who had 138 wins and 156 saves in an excellent 21-year career, which ended only three years ago.

Devaris Gordon (known as Dee, though his dad always calls him Devaris) has a lot going for him, yet being the son of a big leaguer can't shield a child from misfortune; Dee lived through the tragic loss of his mother Devona, who was killed by an ex-boyfriend when Dee was only 6 years old, and he's traveled a great distance to get where he is.

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Originally a point guard with a deft shooting touch and no thought of following his father to the diamond, he's come a long way quickly, which fits him.

"He's accumulated a lot of talents in a very short period of time," Dodgers coach Davey Lopes says about the Dodgers' starting shortstop and still-secret weapon.

Some scouts weren't easily convinced Gordon would make it because he's so slightly built (he claims to be 5-foot-11 and 161 pounds, 11 pounds more than his listed weight). They wonder if he can make it through a 162-game schedule as the majors' lightest starting middle infielder (or any player, for that matter). But this kid is strong, mentally and physically, everyone who knows him agrees.

Outsiders may doubt, but everyone around him knows. They witnessed his late-season cameo, when he flashed his bat, his arm and his 8 speed (a scout's highest grade on the 2-to-8 scale) as the Dodgers played superb ball against the league's best team and finished with a rush to close at 82-79 after their dreadful start. A month was all rookie manager Don Mattingly and Dodgers decision-makers needed to see to know he is their shortstop of the future. "Devaris is very talented," Flash Gordon says, unashamedly.

The kid is flashing those great gifts again here in spring, where he is hitting .397 and stealing bases like they are more gifts for him. The kid who committed to basketball powerhouse Louisville when he was scoring 24 points a game at Avon Park (Fla.) High and whose eyes light up when he hears mention of the Dodgers' new owner, Magic Johnson, finally feels like a baseball player. He stole 10 straight bases to start spring (one when the Royals were caught napping, carelessly tossing the ball between pitcher and catcher), though mistakes of aggression led to him being caught in four of his past five tries.

"Some people have something a little different," Lopes said. "He has that thing. Some people light a room -- he lights up the base paths."

The thing all of Gordon's coaches soon notice about him is how fast he picks things up. He is quick, and just as quick a study. You only have to tell him once. Lopes, one of baseball's all-time stolen-base leaders by percentage, is a master technician and stern taskmaster, and seems amazed at how quickly Gordon grasps the nuances of the art. As Flash puts it, "When you teach him something, it doesn't take him all day long."

The God-given skills have taken him far. He skipped Babe Ruth and youth baseball to hone his dribbling and shooting skills, so there's room to go. Dee was basically a baseball neophyte when a coincidence brought him to historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach, 45 minutes from Avon Park, one spring day to work out for Dodgers people.

One of the Dodgers executives, DeJon Watson, just happened to be a minor-league roommate of Tom Gordon's a couple decades earlier in the Kansas City Royals system. But if anyone thought this was a personal favor, that feeling changed as soon as Dee flashed 6.3 speed in the 60 and wowed them with his arm and hitting technique. The defense was quite a bit behind the offense at the time, but one look was all it took.

"He's fun to watch," Watson says. "He's extremely athletic."

Both Watson and Dodgers scouting director Logan White were shocked at the talent before their eyes. They could not believe the ability they saw. Later, the Dodgers duo staged a workout for Gordon to show him off to their scouts in Atlanta. But Gordon was so weary from all his workouts, he maybe had the worst ball-playing day of his life. He was bouncing throws and could barely get the ball out of the cage.

"I was crushed," he says. He thought his new dream died that day.

No matter, White and Watson still loved Gordon. But they low-keyed it, telling folks they thought the kid was only OK when in reality their eyes were still bugging from what they saw that first day in Vero. Even though Dee was an unknown with former hoops dreams, the Dodgers' plan was to pick him in the fourth round.

On draft day, White began to get nervous after his scouts convinced him big University of Texas power hitter Kyle Russell, who led the country with 27 home runs, just couldn't be passed up in the third round. After he picked Russell, White told the scouts, "Dee Gordon better be there next round."

White sweated out 29 more names. And Gordon was still there.

Dodgers people still didn't know this, but the Phillies were primed to take Gordon later that same round. Mike Arbuckle, the Phillies' scouting director at the time, confirmed that was indeed the plan. That was no coincidence. The Phillies knew Gordon from his frequent workouts at spring training in Clearwater and sometimes in summer when Tom was a reliever with them. Dee Gordon looked up to Phillies star shortstop Jimmy Rollins, a little shortstop who had made it. But Philly also played it low-key, and Dee thought he might go late, to the Braves, the only other team thought to be in on him at all. Scouts clearly were not all in agreement about the little basketball player. They saw a tiny kid who had no power and might not be able to withstand the rigors of a brutally long schedule.

"He has a chip on his shoulder," Lopes said. "A lot of scouts doubt what he can do. But the great ones come in all shapes and sizes."

If slights drive him, that's fine, but the doubters have mostly been sidelined by now.

He stole 24 bases in his two months with the Dodgers late last season as the also-ran team ran up wins against the Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Braves, Brewers and Phillies. The one time his time to first was leaked, it was 3.9 seconds -- Ichiro speed. But that day, Dee had told some folks he suffered from "heavy legs."

The only knock is the lack of power you'd expect from the game's lightest player.

Dee's drive explains how he got to this point in six short years since Flash convinced him to concentrate on baseball. Back when Dee was a junior in high school, Flash made him an offer: Take up baseball, and I'll buy you a car. He was a kid, so he did. And he's just stopped looking back.

He still dribbles a basketball around the clubhouse, and this is the first year when the kid with the great shooting touch and the hoop dream didn't get "the itch" the day Midnight Madness started, he said. To the kid, that is his sign. Sometimes, father knows best. Tom Gordon said he didn't want to push because he didn't want his son to have the pressure of living up to him. But maybe he did nudge a bit. Flash says, "Every father wants his son to follow in his footsteps."

In truth, it was more than that. Father knew 5-10 was tough a height in basketball.

"Even as a point guard, he was going to go up against guys who were 6-2, 6-3 or more," Flash figured.

"My dad saw something. I have no idea what he was looking at," Dee Gordon says now.

Flash's true contribution as father was not as a talent scout but as parent, however. Flash always puts family and faith first, even ahead of the game he loves. Dee is that courteous because that's his dad's way.

"He was a great dad," Dee says. "He was always Dad when he came home. He was never 'Flash.' "

Tom Gordon took over custody of Dee right after the tragedy, and the 6-year-old moved almost the next day from St. Petersburg across Florida to Avon Park, not far from Orlando. But as a major leaguer, Flash had to be away a lot, and that's where Flash's mother Annie came in to do the job of both parents.

"We are very grateful," Flash says. If not for Flash's mom, he said, "I don't think I could have played the game."

Dee's deceased mother's mom, Gwyn, also pitched in, as did uncles, aunts and cousins who surrounded them in the area of Avon Park. Flash has six children, three girls and three boys, who all live with an hour or so away. Dee's mom, Devona Strange, was Flash's high school sweetheart at Avon Park, and Flash says, "I want him to get to know his mom as much as he can. She was a wonderful person." By all accounts, she was very kind, much like Flash. On the ballfield, Dee salutes his mom with points to the sky, and Flash approves. "He's looking up to the heavens," Flash says.

Dee was at school when it happened. He can talk about it now. But to say it is a defining moment is no exaggeration. A bullet from a gun held by her ex-boyfriend struck her in the heart. The shooting was ruled an accident, Dee said, so the fellow spent only five years in jail. It's a lifetime of adjustment for Dee, though.

"It was tough," he said. "You only have one mom. When she's gone, you can have people try to play that role, but they're not that. I'm happy my family was there for me. I could have gone down the wrong path."

Instead, he honors her legacy daily. "I'm here to show people what she taught me." He points skyward for her.

"I have to represent her," he said. "I have to do that to the best of my ability."

Father and son are so much alike. You look at Dee, you see Flash 20 years ago. But Flash had that great curveball (though Flash says Dee has a pretty good one too), and Dee is quite a bit thinner and faster than you remember Flash being. (Flash says he too was only about 160 pounds in his early years, when he was drafted by the Royals as a shortstop before they discovered that curveball.)

Dee is fortunate not only to have the gifts Flash gave him, but also for the lessons he taught him. Flash is a humble and religious man. He knows he's not perfect (he answered "not yet" when asked if he's married), but he never makes mistakes when it comes to how he treats people. Flash is remarkably humble and courteous, just like Dee, who calls coaches, reporters and his bosses "sir." He truly has all the gifts given to him by both his father and his mother.

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