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T.J. SIMERS

Dodgers' Dee Gordon proves you can't keep a good young man down

Dee Gordon, Dodgers' irrepressible 24-year-old shortstop, is as quick with a smile as he is on basepaths. He faced long odds of reaching the majors after losing his mother when he was 6, but here he is.

June 25, 2012|T.J. Simers

SAN FRANCISCO — It's been almost 40 years, so many athletes, too many names to remember, and yet lost in the numbing routine of one game after the next I suddenly find myself rooting for someone to really make it.

And I almost never root for anyone, as you know, and yet here I am preparing to gush.

Who wouldn't pull for a 6-year-old kid who learns his mother has been shot dead only to grow up into the kindest, most approachable and forgiving young man one might ever meet.

"Dee" to baseball fans, "Devaris" to his family and planning in the future to have "Strange-Gordon" across the back of his jersey in honor of his mother and father, this must be what it's like to break open a shell and find a pearl.

It is noon Monday in the lobby of the Dodgers' team hotel here, and Dee Gordon, the closest thing to a human toothpick, has already eaten breakfast twice. And between bites he's smiled at a couple hundred people.

What's he so happy about? It has to be tough hitting only .228 on center stage before realizing how ridiculous that sounds.

How tough must it have been to have a mother for just six years?

Correction: "Six great years," he says while reaching for his cellphone.

"You see my screen saver here? This picture was taken in her final days. It's the one I look at just before every game."

Mother and son, head to head in the photo, appear to be having a blast; the kid's mouth is wide open as if shouting or laughing.

"I'm happy," he explains.

I want to know if he became bitter in time. And how does a kid recover from life turned upside down?

"I just chose to make the best of it," he says. And how do you not root for the kid?

His mother, Devona Strange, meets his father, Tom Gordon, in high school. They do not marry. Tom, also known as "Flash," is just beginning what will become a 21-year major league career as a pitcher.

Dee is in first grade, his school bus pulling up to the gated apartment complex in St. Petersburg, Fla., where his mother lives. Like the other kids, he knows something has happened.

"We knew when cars were parked outside the gate someone had died or there had been a robbery," he says. "A policeman began asking each of us where we lived."

Two women who work with his mom pull him aside.

"I'm already mad at one of the ladies because two days earlier I didn't want to do my spelling words," he says. "I hid them at her work, but she finds them, tells my mom, and I get in trouble.

"Now she wants to take me to McDonald's. I'm 6, we live in a not-so-nice neighborhood and McDonald's is awesome. And I remember exactly what I ordered that day: ice cream and small fries. But I keep saying I've got to go home because my mother will be there."

He was very close to his mother, he says, the memories still vivid. He says they would climb into bed, watch TV together, and he starts naming off the shows.

Gordon's eyes glisten. "I didn't take it in right away," he says. "They told me she was gone. I had one question: 'Is she coming back?' I remember later crying so hard I just went to sleep."

Now he still tries to hold on, her name in his helmet, in his shoes, in almost everything he touches.

But he's still not sure he has it right. He's told his mother and her boyfriend were watching TV, messing around, a gun goes off, his mother is hit in the heart and later the boyfriend serves five years for manslaughter.

Gordon moves to central Florida to a new home and school to be with his father.

"I told my grandmother God might have done this to help me in life," Gordon says upon reflection. "I was getting in trouble a lot and if I had stayed in St. Petersburg, I might not be sitting here today."

There are more hurdles to clear. He takes on his teenage years with a burden no youngster should endure by himself. He begins to blame himself for his mother's demise.

"A few weeks before my mom died I heard my mom choking," he says. "I picked up this purple eight-pound weight and hit her boyfriend in the head."

The kid tells the boyfriend to leave, but then reconsiders.

"I'm 6 and I'm thinking if he leaves he's going to take my toys," he says. "Then two weeks later . . ."

He's in pain, he admits, his anger leading to fights before he works everything out.

"I had a complete turnaround," Gordon says, a "Yes, sir" often mixed into his answers. "I've always been surrounded by great people. I have two grandmothers who are like mothers, Uncle Anthony who texts to say, 'You can't keep a good man down,' and a father, who is just great."

Dad's smart, too. The kid is a terrific basketball player, but his future is baseball. Dad promises him a car if he tries baseball. Gordon makes the switch, but gets no car.

"Would you give me a car at 16 or 17?" Gordon says.

Here we are, Gordon 24 and promising to never change. He mentions the impact on him when he hears someone talking about making minimum wage.

"Someone my own age," he says. "How fortunate are we?"

But he's going to have to do better, the game not caring what he's overcome.

"Every sport came easy to me until this year and honestly I didn't know how to handle it," he says, his candor as refreshing as his bubbly personality. "It was eating me up, but if I didn't let what happened to my mother eat me up, why should this?

"I just have to move forward," he says, and if successful, I know one fan who will be thrilled.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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