LOS ANGELES -- Dee Gordon glanced at his buzzing phone. The caller ID said, “Ned Colletti.”
It was mid-December. The conversation he was about to have with the Dodgers general manager had the potential for some heightened awkwardness. Gordon had just gotten back from the Dominican Republic, where he played winter ball at the team’s behest so he could improve as a center fielder.
Now, Colletti was on the phone with another request. Go back to Latin America and play second base.
A few thoughts went through Gordon’s mind. He could ignore the request. A surprising number of players go against a team’s wishes when it comes to winter ball. He could accept it, but insist he get his work in Arizona at the team’s spring training complex, with all the comforts of home. Or, he could jump in with two feet and fully commit himself to the change.
Soon, he was on a flight for San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“ ‘Just go do it,’ “ Gordon remembers telling himself. “We’ve got Hanley Ramirez as our shortstop. The team just needs me to get in there some type of way. I was down for whatever they want me to do, because I just want to be in there and help as much as I can. I don’t think people thought it was going to go over as well as it has, to be totally honest.”
Four-and-a-half months later, that winter decision looks like a moment in a young player’s career where everything changes. Gordon went from a borderline failed shortstop prospect -- even he now acknowledges, “something was a little bit missing,” as a shortstop -- to one of the league’s most pleasant surprises at second base.
Gordon, 26, is fifth in the major leagues batting .353 and he leads the majors with 13 stolen bases. He has been caught stealing just once and he has displaced Carl Crawford as the team’s leadoff hitter, stunning a packed stadium recently by making it all the way to second on a ball that trickled away from Colorado Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu. He has made just two errors in 98 chances.
Going into spring training, Gordon was an afterthought. Second base was supposed to be Alex Guerrero's to lose. The Dodgers signed a handful of major-league veterans to minor-league deals as a safety net in case Guerrero struggled.
But they could see early on that Gordon had committed himself to what they were asking. He showed up having packed on 15 pounds of muscle, his game razor-sharp from all that winter ball. His frame wasn’t exactly bulging with muscles, but he had built himself up to 175 pounds by practically force-feeding himself and eliminating one of his favorite offseason activities: nighttime pickup basketball games.
Every morning, Gordon would indulge in a breakfast of five eggs, grits, sausage and a protein shake. He would go to the gym and, by 11 a.m., he would have a snack -- usually, a sandwich and a protein shake. Lunch would often be a sandwich and potato chips. He’d have another afternoon snack, a big dinner and try to remember to have a midnight snack.
The hardest part was not playing basketball, a sport he had starred in all through high school, not picking up baseball -- his father, Tom's profession -- until his senior year.
“I felt it helped with my conditioning and kind of helped me keep a competitive edge in the offseason, but I needed to focus hard on baseball,” Gordon said.
For the Dodgers, “pleasant surprise,” probably doesn’t quite cover Gordon’s impact. His strong play has cleared up questions -- at least for now -- about their most troubled position and catalyzed what otherwise has been a slightly disappointing offense. The Dodgers, who have a record $245 million payroll, are 17th in the majors in runs scored and 21st in on-base percentage.
Gordon batted .229 combined over 2012-13 and he played 92 games at Triple-A last season. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who wrote Gordon’s name on his Opening Day lineup when Gordon was just 23, sees it as a matter of timing. He thinks the Dodgers rushed Gordon to the major leagues and are only now seeing his true talent shine through.
For years, Mattingly and various Dodgers hitting coaches have tried to teach Gordon to hit the ball low only to see him strike out and pop up at a frustrating rate. Now, everything is coming together.
“We brought him early, we got excited and now, two years later, we’re starting to see what we thought we had,” Mattingly said.