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Hartnett: A Crash Course On Yankees’ Improbable Debut Starter Brian Gordon

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(credit: Harry How/Getty Images)

(credit: Harry How/Getty Images)

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‘Hart of the Order’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

For those unaware of the new Yankee face gracing the mound Thursday, let me fill you in on 32-year-old right-hander Brian Gordon.  His journey is quite remarkable considering the unusual path that has led him to the Bronx.  Gordon will be taking part in his first career major league start and only his fourth ever big league appearance.

His story is closer to fiction than fact and nearer to that of Roy Hobbs than Roy Halladay.  As the famous quote in The Natural goes, “We don’t need no middle-aged rookies.”  Well, this middle-aged rookie like Hobbs is being given an audition in front of the grand stage that is the Big Apple.  No, not on the silver screen dressed in the uniform of the New York Knights but instead the famous navy pinstripes of the most prestigious franchise in baseball – the New York Yankees.

Gordon was originally drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1997, who at the time fielded a rookie league team without even having conducted their expansion draft.  He proved to be a power-hitting outfielder but did not progress to Triple-A until 2003 at the age of 24.  The Diamondbacks let him go at the end of the year and he caught on with the Anaheim Angels for the next two seasons but a major league call-up continued to elude him.

He next signed on with the Houston Astros but struggled hitting for average at the Triple-A level in his first season in their farm system.  Upon the recommendation of minor league manager Jackie Moore, Gordon traded in his batting helmet for a pitcher’s mitt and had the fortune of being guided by one of the greatest hurlers in history.  Nolan Ryan who was a special assistant to the Astros instilled his expertise and wisdom into the converted outfielder.  An eager pupil, Gordon soaked up tips from the hero he idolized growing up in Round Rock, Texas.

After some highs and lows in the Astros’ organization, he was released shortly into the 2008 season but caught fire when the joined the Texas Rangers’ Double-A affiliate Frisco Roughriders.  In an almost supernatural, unearthly fashion Gordon pitched twenty-two innings of scoreless relief for the Roughriders and after a stint in Triple-A Oklahoma finally made his major league debut after twelve years of toiling in the minors.

Gordon’s fantasy was short-lived as he only pitched four innings for the Rangers across three games to the tune of a 2.25 ERA.  The small glimpse of the majors only increased his work ethic as Gordon pitched in the Venezuelan Winter League in an attempt to impress the Rangers’ hierarchy.  He spent all of 2009 in Oklahoma before becoming a free agent and signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Lehigh Valley IronPigs was Gordon’s thirteenth stop in a whopping fifteen-season minor league tour.  Gordon put up steady relief numbers in 2010 that were a near mirror image of a season earlier but again did not receive a big league call-up.  No one could predict entering 2011, that he would record the most sparkling statistics of his career at 32.  Across 55 1/3 innings, Gordon compiled a 5-0 record for Lehigh striking out 56 batters and maintained a minuscule 1.14 ERA.  The funny thing is, he was supposed to be a spot-starter but the promotion of Vance Worley to Philadelphia opened a spot in the IronPigs’ rotation.

An opt-out clause in his contract allowed him to walk away from the Phillies organization and join the Yankees on June 14th, 2011, literally just days before its expiration.  Sometimes timing is everything.  Gordon’s story sounds more like a Hollywood script rather than the real-life journey of a pitcher that would not let his major league dream die.  Maybe it isn’t as unlikely as Jim Morris, a science teacher turned Tampa Bay Ray who made his big league debut at 35 but it’s still pretty darn amazing.

Gordon described to the Philadelphia Inquirer his shock at learning of the Yankees’ interest and his subsequent release by Phillies’ assistant GM Chuck LaMar.  “It was a crazy phone call.  I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to be released.  This release had a happy ending to it,” he beamed.

Joe Girardi gave his verdict Wednesday on what he expects from Gordon.  “He’s pitched well down in Triple-A.  He’s a guy who has a number of different pitches that he can go to.  He’s a control guy.  He’s been a ground-ball guy down there.  He’s been pretty good at getting ground balls.  He holds runners,” Girardi explained to reporters.

Oddly enough, Gordon’s first career major league start Thursday comes against the club that handed him his 2008 debut in the Rangers who are now owned by former mentor Nolan Ryan.  His minor league manager at Triple-A Round Rock, Jackie Moore will be sitting in the opposing dugout as Rangers’ bench coach.  Talk about your storybook tale!

Most fans will be quick to compare Gordon to Aaron Small as a journeyman pitcher picked up off the scrap heap and it would be pleasing to see him achieve similar success.  If he does half as well as Small did in 2005, both Girardi and Yankee fans will be delighted.  A decent stopgap in Bartolo Colon’s absence would due nicely but you never know… he might be able string together a few good starts.

Well, that’s the book on Brian Gordon.  I think you’re all with me in hoping that he can make a solid debut in Yankee pinstripes on Thursday afternoon.  Sound off below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC.

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