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Notebook: Gordon follows in dad's footsteps
06/24/2009 12:06 AM ET
CLINTON, Iowa -- Stop us if you've heard this one before -- a top prospect named Gordon comes into his first Midwest League season, tears up the competition and earns a nod to the league's annual All-Star Game in Clinton.

It's a case of deja vu all over again for devoted Midwest League fans, a familiar story told 21 summers ago in places like Appleton, Wisc., and Waterloo, Iowa. The towns on the map have changed, but the story itself is remarkably the same. In 1988, Tom Gordon took the field in Clinton for the league's annual midsummer classic as a hot prospect on a tear. This year, his son, Dee, will do the same, representing the Great Lakes Loons as the starting shortstop for the East Division.

The Dodgers' 2008 fourth-round Draft pick comes into the game on an 11-game hitting streak, his second such streak of the first half. Nevertheless, he's humbled to be named an all-star starter in his first full professional season.

"Feels good, it's quite an honor, great to be around all these great guys," Gordon said.

He's done more than enough to prove he belongs here. Scouts have him ranked as the seventh-best prospect in the Dodgers' system.

Gordon has turned ballgames into his own personal track meet, using his fleet feet to get on base and create runs for the Loons, who are 9-1 in their last 10 games. He's the league leader in hits (86), triples (eight) and stolen bases (40). He's also second in runs scored with 55.

He says the key to his hot start is his aggressive nature on the basepaths.

"Just to try and get out there and try to get on base in any way," Gordon said. "If it's a hit, a walk, an error, it doesn't matter. Doesn't matter if I get thrown out, I gotta go again. I can't be scared to go."

And while some in Clinton still remember the way his father dominated that hot July night so many years ago, Dee himself first learned of the unique connection from the PA announcer after winning Monday night's skills competition.

"I had no clue," Gordon said. "I don't even know if he knew where the All-Star Game was, so he wasn't able to tell me. He just told me to go and play hard and everything should work out."

Tom Gordon made his big league debut later that summer with the Kansas City Royals, embarking on a 21-year big league career that included time with the defending world-champion Philadelphia Phillies last season. He's currently on the disabled list for the Arizona Diamondbacks with a strained left hamstring.

Dee says he's hoping to follow a similar path to the Show. If he does, he could be the first son to step into the batter's box against his father in Major League history.

"That'd be a good thing, so I'm kind of hoping toward that, trying to work toward that," he said. "It's one of my goals."

HOME COOKING FUELS STARTER: Most Minor Leaguers are spending the summer playing for teams thousands of miles from their hometowns.

But that's not the case for Kane County Cougars right-hander Kenny Smalley. Oakland's 24th-round pick last year has a unique homefield advantage -- he's pitching just minutes away from where he grew up.

"It's a lot of fun being home," Smalley said. "It's pretty relaxing being home, sleeping in your own bed, it's pretty cool. My grandpa comes out to all the games, he'll be here."

So cool that when he found out who drafted him, he couldn't put pen to paper fast enough.

"That's why I signed right away," he said. "I was pretty excited to come and play with Kane County."

Living with his dad has paid big dividends for both Smalley and the Cougars. He came into the All-Star break as one of the league's hottest pitchers, ranking among the league leaders in wins (six, tied for fourth), ERA (2.26, second) and WHIP (1.12, fifth). As a result, he earned the All-Star starting nod.

Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider that he has taken an entirely different mentality to the ballpark each day.

Last year with short-season Vancouver, he worked exclusively out of the bullpen. This year, eight of his 16 appearances have come as the starter. Smalley found out about the change in roles early this season.

"After my first four or five outings, they started stretching me out a little bit and I started piggybacking into a starter," he said.

As for which role he prefers, Smalley's mind-set -- much like his skills -- is flexible.

"It's whatever they want to do with me, whatever they think is going to get me to the big leagues," he said. "Whatever they want, I'll do."

SECOND TIME IS THE CHARM: As a top prospect who has succeeded at every level he's played at, Josh Vitters isn't used to struggling against the competition. But that's exactly what happened during the final part of last season.

The Cubs promoted their top prospect to Class A Peoria at the end of 2008 and the results were less than stellar. Pitchers limited him to three hits -- all doubles -- in 14 at-bats, striking him out five times.

Oh, what a difference a year makes.

The former first-round pick has turned the corner, coming into the All-Star break hitting .308 with 13 homers (second in the league) and 42 RBIs. He was named Midwest League Player of the Week for May 18-24 after going 11-for-30 with five homers and 11 RBIs.

The key to Vitters' turnaround was offseason preparation.

"Just learning how to play at a little bit higher level," he said. "Playing over the offseason in the instructional [league], that kind of got me a little more acclimated to professional baseball. I'm feeling good now, playing well and moving along pretty well."

It also helped that his manager during that brief stint was a certain Cubs' Hall of Fame second baseman. Getting help from former Chiefs manager Ryne Sandberg during his time in Peoria helped Vitters make some needed adjustments to his game.

"He's an awesome guy. I mean, he's got a lot of insight on all the ins and outs of baseball," he said. "He helps out a lot and I really appreciate that.

Vitters improved so much this season that he's drawing even more attention from fans and the Cubs' front office, even the man in the big office at Clark and Addison. Cubs manager Lou Piniella brought Vitters up during a news conference earlier this month when discussing a possible solution at third base.

While Cubs fans have high hopes for him, Vitters is staying focused on himself in order to get to where he needs to be.

"I don't really handle it as pressure," he said. "I think it's really cool to get that kind of attention. I just try to go out there and give it 100 percent and not worry about that kind of thing."

NEW POSITION, SAME RESULTS: The Brewers drafted Brett Lawrie in the first round last year out of high school, thinking he could be their catcher of the future.

So how did the catcher of the future wind up as an All-Star playing 180 feet away from where he was drafted?

"Instructors kind of drove me away from catching, and I just thought second base was a better fit. It was a position I could see myself going to the field every day and playing," Lawrie said. "Catching wore me down in the instructional league."

So far, so good for the West Division's starting second baseman. He's only made 11 errors in 207 chances in his first professional season. Lawrie says the transition from behind the dish to the infield has been a fairly smooth one.

"It wasn't that hard. I played infield all my life," he said. "I played for Team Canada and stuff like that, so it was pretty easy."

Lawrie played for Canada in the Olympics and the World Baseball Classic in the past year. In the Classic, he was able to rub elbows with established big leaguers such as Russell Martin and Justin Morneau.

"Seeing how they do things day by day and how they go about themselves," he said. "It just teaches you little things."

REBEL YELL: His Peoria teammate, Josh Vitters, may get all the headlines, but Monday was Rebel Ridling's night turn to shine. Ridling turned Alliant Energy Field into his own personal practice range, knocking 12 pitching machine offerings out of the yard to run away with the All-Star Home Run Derby.

The first Derby in Clinton history started off with a whimper. Kane County's Jason Christian and Jeremy Barfield and Fort Wayne's James Darnell hit long foul balls but were unable to knock any out in fair territory.

The machine's dominance didn't last long. Only a couple pitches into his turn, Ridling sent an offering out to deep left-center field, setting the tone for what would become a dominant evening.

As the night went on, everything became a target. Ridling knocked two balls off the scoreboard, put one over it and sent another into the Coors Light Pavilion in left field.

While most of his home runs went out to left, Ridling said he wasn't aiming that way.

"I was actually just kind of aiming for the middle," he explained. "If I was a little early, I could pull it out of here. Try to aim a little to the left, that's when I start yanking it into the dugout, so I tried to aim up the middle."

The machine gave batters fits all night long. Five of the 13 participants were unable to leave the yard in the first round and only four could do so more than once. Ridling said he was able to beat the machine by relaxing at the plate.

"Just try to go out there and have fun," he added. "With the machine, once you get the timing down, you know what it's gonna be pretty much every time. You've just gotta find the timing and kind of go with it."

The setting also didn't hurt. Ridling has hit well his entire career when visiting Alliant Energy Field, something he credits to the hitters' background.

"Something about it," he said. "Sometimes players just have parks for whatever reason and this is mine, so it worked out good for me."

HE'S GOT SKILLS: Loons shortstop Dee Gordon won the first-ever skills contest in sudden death by successfully bunting into the three-point circle twice.

The competition featured a throwing contest in which players threw from their respective positions at targets set up on the infield.

EVERYBODY GETS TO PLAY: Managers substituted often in the All-Star Game, giving just about everyone who made the trip to Clinton a chance to have a personal memory. Every position player got into the game, while only five pitchers from both teams did not.

BEAT THE HEAT: The game-time temperature was 90 degrees with heat indices even higher. To keep players from getting worn out, both managers held batting practice at Alliant Energy Field's indoor cages.

SAUSAGE RACING: It's a Wisconsin fan favorite rarely seen at games outside of Milwaukee's Miller Park. For the first time ever at a Minor League park, all five of the Milwaukee Brewers' world-famous racing sausages appeared together, sprinting from right to left field after the seventh inning.

The hot dog was able to hold off a late charge to earn the win in the historic race.

SEE YOU NEXT YEAR: Fort Wayne's Parkview Field will host the 2010 All-Star Game. It will be the city's second time hosting the game -- the other came in 1994 -- and the first for Parkview Field.

NOTES: The average age of the East Division All-Stars was 21.69, the average for the West was 22.34. Lansing Lugnuts RHP Henderson Alvarez is the youngest player in this year's game, having just turned 19 back in April. Timber Rattlers' closer Jim Henderson is the oldest at 26. ... This is the fourth time Clinton has played host to the midsummer classic and the second time hosting it since the Midwest League went to an East vs. West format. The West won that 1998 contest, 7-4, behind the hitting of Kane County's Ross Gload, who doubled and drove in two runs. ... Great Lakes comes into the break as the hottest team in the league, having won nine out of its last 10. East manager Mark Haley's South Bend squad had the same numbers in the other direction, his team snapped a nine-game losing streak with an 8-3 win over Fort Wayne on Sunday.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.