PHILADELPHIA — Baseball prospects seldom bloom in the wild anymore. Instead, like hothouse flowers, they’re carefully nurtured in private academies, camps, and clinics.
Increasingly, they also are taking root in big-league clubhouses, where the genetic gifts ballplayers’ sons inherit are pollinated by the kind of exposure and experience other hopefuls only dream about.
“The kids of major leaguers hang around major leaguers. That gives them a tremendous advantage,” said Bob Boone, the ex-Phillies all-star whose father (Ray) and sons (Bret and Aaron) also played at that level. “They see and learn how things are done. And when it’s their turn, they’re not intimidated.”
The clubhouse’s effectiveness as a greenhouse for baseball talent will be evident again on Thursday when the 2014 draft commences in Secaucus, N.J.
Nick Gordon, the teenage son of ex-Phillies closer Tom “Flash” Gordon, is expected to be among the top five or six picks in this year’s draft. It’s an unfortunate forecast for the Phillies, who have the seventh overall selection.
The 18-year-old shortstop had a double advantage on his talented peers. Not only did his father pitch 21 years in the majors, but his brother, Dee, a fourth-round choice in 2008, is a speedy superstar-in-the-making with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Gordons may be baseball’s latest power family, but, in their eyes, it’s about more than inherited chromosomes. The benefits of having a father in the game go beyond passed-on physical gifts.
“Both my father and brother have been there (in the majors), so that helps me a lot in a lot of different ways,” said Nick, a senior at Olympia High School outside Orlando, Fla. “They’ve helped me with the physical stuff, but all the other things, if I have any questions about it, they’re there to answer them.
“My dad knows all the old-school ways, and my brother is more new-school,” he said.
Six-foot-two and 170 pounds, Nick Gordon’s arm is so strong some teams see him as a viable pitching prospect. Most project him as a fleet, top-of-the-order shortstop, much like his brother, but with more pop in his bat.
Tom Gordon, who brought his son with him whenever possible during his long and well-traveled career, knows where Nick developed his power.
At Citizens Bank Park or any of the other ballparks where he accompanied his father, Nick liked to take a bat and a bag of shag balls into the outfield. There, imagining himself at-bat in a crucial big-league situation, the youngster would belt the balls as far as he could.
“The only problem is that when he was through he’d run off, and I’d have to go get them all,” said Tom Gordon.
Just being around professional athletes and seeing how they acted and prepared in their closed environment, Gordon said, provided both his boys with invaluable lessons.
Dee, despite that exposure, initially was more interested in basketball. He didn’t take up baseball seriously until he was a high school senior.
Nick, on the other hand, always knew he wanted to see his own name above one of those baseball clubhouse lockers that fascinated and attracted him. More importantly, he saw what it took to earn one.
He got an up close-and-personal look at how hard Derek Jeter worked, how long Chase Utley studied film, how intensely Jamie Moyer focused. He got professional instruction and personalized advice, not just from his father but from his father’s teammates and coaches.
It’s an edge that baseball academy-produced talent can’t match.
“When the son of a ballplayer starts playing the game, right away he knows the proper way to grip a bat or a ball,” said Bob Boone. “That gives him a leg up.
“I always say that it’s really similar to golf,” Boone added. “A PGA Tour player’s son might not become one himself, but you probably wouldn’t want to go against him in too many $5 Nassaus.”
When, for example, Dee Gordon began his Dodgers career miserably and had to be sent back to the minor leagues for additional seasoning, he understood that, painful as it was, such a setback was part of the process.
“My dad used to say that no matter how good you are in baseball, there are going to be lots of tough times that you face,” Dee Gordon said. “I was more into basketball at first, so I probably wasn’t sure what he meant back then. But when I had some (tough times) earlier in my career, I understood, and I was more ready for them.”
Nick Gordon has been playing baseball full-time practically since Little League. In his senior year at Olympia, he hit .494 with 5 home runs, 27 RBIs, and 13 steals. He’s also got a 90-mph fastball that’s tantalizing to baseball people, though not quite as much as his offensive skills.
“He saw me playing the game, and eventually he saw his brother doing the same,” his father said. “He committed very early to the game, and he was willing to play it every day. When you’re willing to do that, you’re making a commitment to get better.”
And having a father whose face appeared on a baseball card didn’t hurt either.
“When people know that your father and brother played and were so successful, it puts a little pressure on you,” Nick said. “But I really like that, that pressure of knowing people expect you to do good because you’re a Gordon.”