The Lincoln Saltdogs enter the American Association playoffs Wednesday night, the first time the team has been in the post-season since 2014. It has been there strong pitching that has carried the team, and Lincoln resident Derek Gordon has been a huge reason for the success, getting the dream opportunity to play in his hometown.
Introducing Derek Gordon
In 1940, a book by Thomas Wolfe, entitled You Can’t Go Home Again, was published posthumously after the author passed away two years earlier. The story is about a man, George Webber, an author who has written several distorted references about his hometown, and returns to find that his reception is less than welcoming. The cool reception makes him conclude that you simply can’t return to the place where you grew up.
This is quite a common theme throughout history. Jesus explained in the Bible that a prophet is not accepted in his hometown. The idea is based upon the parable that too much familiarity breeds contempt, where the more that a person knows about another the less respect they will have for them.
That may seem like a quaint idea but many others know that there is no place like home. That is the sentiment that Lincoln Saltdogs right-hander Derek Gordon has embraced, as he has returned to his hometown to start Game 1 for the team as they head into the American Association playoffs.
Building an Amateur Resume
Baseball is a passion in many families, and that proved to be true for Derek Gordon and his family. His grandfather had been a player and that was passed down to his dad, then to Derek and his brothers. While he played other sports, baseball was always his primary choice.
Derek attended Lincoln Southeast High School, where he starred for his team, opening the door for him to pursue his passion in college. The right-hander opted to attend Park University (MO), the school where brother Brett attended and played ball, where his coach talked him into making an important decision.
“I wasn’t that good of a hitter, and my college coach at Park University really understood that. I was going to be a dual threat guy and then he kind of sat me down and told me, ‘Hey, I don’t think hitting is going to be in your future. I think you’re going to be a pitcher,’ and I agreed.”
The move proved to be a wise one to say the least. Derek set several records during his four-year career. He made 45-appearances, posting an impressive 24-8 record, and a 3.35 ERA. He threw 12 complete games and had two shutouts.
The right-hander set several school records during his career. That included the mark for most strikeouts (172) and innings pitched (212). He was also selected to the American Midwest Conference All-Conference team all four seasons at the school.
An Independent Pathway to Success
Derek Gordon graduated from Park University in 2014 but, surprisingly, was not selected in the MLB amateur draft. That was surprising, but was not going to stop the right-hander from pursuing his aspirations of being a professional baseball player.
Derek signed with the Kansas City T-Bones in the American Association. He appeared in 14-games in 2014, starting four, posting a 1-1 record and a 6.49 ERA. It was not the kind of start he wanted for his professional career, but the T-Bones gave him an opportunity to get his career underway, something he is very appreciative of.
“I was just grateful enough to have a tryout with the T-bones. That’s how it all started because they gave me that chance.”
Derek had shown enough to prove that he deserved an opportunity and, in February of 2015, the Kansas City Royals purchased his contract from the T-Bones. His brother Alex was a star for the Royals already, and it made perfect sense for the club to look to see if they could pluck another talent from the Gordon family.
A Royal Beginning
In April of 2015, the Kansas City Royals assigned Derek Gordon to Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League. He had worked primarily out of the bullpen with the T-Bones, but the Royals had every intention of turning him into a starter. He made 13-starts that season, going 2-3 with a 3.47 ERA.
Most importantly, he gained greater mastery of his pitches. Derek had walked 23 batters in 26.1-innings pitched with the T-Bones, but he walked just 18 in 70-innings pitched a season later. The right-hander also struck out 65.
A season later he was moved to High-A Wilmington in the Carolina League. Surprisingly, the team moved him back to the bullpen, as he made just 6-starts in his 34-appearances. Derek finished 2-2 with a 4.38 ERA, posting impressive numbers, striking out 83 in 76.0-innings pitched.
There Is No Place Like Home
Despite the positive step forward, following the 2016 season the Royals organization granted Derek Gordon his unconditional release. The right-hander had pitched quite well and knew that he could still be a difference maker on the mound. Looking to continue his career, the perfect opportunity arose when Lincoln Saltdogs Manager Bobby Brown offered Derek a chance to join the rotation.
It was a golden opportunity for Derek to get his career back on track. Not only was he playing in his hometown in front of a large contingent of family members each night, but it was also a golden opportunity for his new team.
The Saltdogs Manager had built his team around pitching and defense, and Derek fit perfectly into that model. The starter made 19-appearances during the regular season, going 9-4 with a 3.46 ERA. That included a stretch in July where he was 5-0 with a 1.54 ERA and was named as the American Association’s Pitcher of the Month. It was a well-deserved honor, but one where Derek didn’t feel that he deserved the credit.
“A lot of people are looking at that Pitcher of the Month and thinking, ‘Wow, you had a great month.’ I think what made it a great month is that I was giving up rips into the gaps, rips down the line, and our defense was just coming up with baseballs. I have never had something like that where I would throw a fastball straight down the middle and it headed to deep left to the fence and Matty Johnson came from left-center all the way to right-center and caught the ball. It’s not like I struck out every single batter. My defense behind our pitching staff is the best in the league. That has a lot to do with it.”
It’s about the Chemistry
To hear Derek Gordon deflect the praise off of himself and onto his teammates is not a surprise at all. That is simply the character of this young man, who is more interested in the success of his team and the development of relationships with his teammates than he ever could be about his own personal success.
Baseball is a sport where relationships are critical to success, especially between a catcher and his staff. Derek has loved that he has not only built lifelong relationships with his backstops, but that the whole staff has become one big family.
“It’s not even just the pitcher and the catcher here; it’s all of us together. We had a group chat within the first three days with the team, just building that bond that we have. I think that has benefited us. It’s not just between me and the catcher, it’s between all of us on the pitching staff, and all of the pitchers and the position players. That’s kind of unheard of. The Royals have that too where you’re almost like family, and that’s what we have here. We’re so close to each other.”
The Lincoln Saltdogs finished the 2017 season with the best ERA in the American Association, thanks in large part to that chemistry. This is a team that is built on pushing each other to greater success, and that is no more present than with the pitching staff.
“We drive each other because we all want each other to be successful and to move onto the next level. We all want each other to move onto another team and to pursue our careers. We all drive each other to do that. We want each other to see each other go to the next level.”
It’s about the Chess Match
After two seasons out of the post-season, the Lincoln Saltdogs won the Central Division this season, going 58-41. The Saltdogs had the best ERA in the league and the top fielding percentage, a model that historically leads to titles. It’s a model for success that is not lost on Derek Gordon either.
“Coming to the ballpark is a lot of fun. We’re here because we all love the game. We come here because we love to play, and we all come here to win. When everything clicks – offensively, defensively, and pitching – it’s a lot of fun to just watch. The starting rotation, when wer’e not starting, we have the best seat in the house. We have one of the best defenses to watch showcase their talent. It’s a lot of fun.”
It’s also a lot of fun because Derek likes the one-on-one battles that he has with each batter. What he enjoys is that it is not just about being in the moment but, as a starter, he must plan a strategy for six or seven innings each outing, understanding that the strategy he uses in the first inning against a hitter is not the strategy he can employ two or three innings later against the same batter.
“You have to outthink the hitters and you have to trust that the catcher is on the same page as you. It’s fun to get into the mental side of the game. Just mentally trying to wrap your head around what he’s thinking and how specifically you can get the advantage over him. The odds are in my favor in baseball and so he is trying to put the odds in his favor and I don’t want that to happen. I love that part of the game because it about me finding a way to think ahead of what he is doing. That’s just fun.”
Being a successful starter is also about erasing one’s memory after a bad outing. Every player will have a bad game, or two,… or a dozen at some point, and one of the keys to success is being able to let go of those outings and focus attention on the upcoming start. It is not an easy thing to do, but is an area where Derek has matured quite a bit.
“If you have a rough game when you’re starting, you can’t hold onto that. You spend the next day thinking about what you did, but by the time your bullpen session comes you have to clear your mind and prepare for the next one. You can’t keep focusing on what’s behind you and you have to keep going forward. If you have to face that team the next time you pitch then you have a perfect blueprint of what you did wrong so you can figure out what to do right the next time. It’s part of becoming more mature that you can let that go, because if you don’t you beat yourself.”
Influences Leading to Success
If a person is going to have success in anything, there are likely to be several people who have had influence or been of inspiration that aided in that success. Derek Gordon is not an exception. Besides his grandfather, dad, and brothers, his fiancée, Tarrah, has been of special assistance, not only helping to keep him focused, but actually taking on the role as his personal trainer.
“I want to center my mind and try to focus on what I need to focus on, which are all the positives in my life that I have going on. I get paid to play a sport that I love. I have a beautiful fiancée, who has been a lot of help to me. She has played catch with me since we started dating, and has really helped me in my training. She has been a big part of my success. I am really thankful for her as I am for my family. We are all healthy and that’s kind of what my main focus is. I have a great relationship with God and that is what I am focused on this year.”
Tarrah has been of great help in making Derek a better ball player, but the people who have had the greatest influence in making him a batter man are his mother and father. They have not only been great teachers, guiding their son toward maturity, but his mother’s challenges have served as an incredible inspirational for the Lincoln hurler.
“She’s had cancer twice and fought and came out on top. She’s always pushing me not to just be the best ballplayer I can be, but to be the best man I can be, as well as my father. He’s always supported me and told me the right things to be better in professional baseball. When I wanted to play baseball he told me he was proud of me, always wanted me to live my life the way that I wanted to live it. He taught me that when it is over that I will be happy if I didn’t hold anything back.”
With the influences, talent, and mental approach to the game, it is easy to see why Derek Gordon is having such a successful season for the Lincoln Saltdogs this year. He is the Game 1 starter for the team in their series with the Winnipeg Goldeyes, and it would not be a surprise to see him set the tone for this series right away. It would also not be a surprise to see the right-hander lead the Saltdogs to their first American Association title since 2009. That would prove that their truly is no place like home.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA