Lakeland, Fla. — Gordon Beckham has asked himself some very difficult questions the last couple of years. Spending the bulk of two seasons in Triple-A after turning 30 will do that to a player, especially one who got to the big leagues and had success less than a year after he was drafted.
Questions like, What the heck am I doing with my life? Do I even like this game anymore?
“I got a lot of perspective over the last two years,” said Beckham, who is making a serious bid to make the Tigers opening day roster as the second utility player. “Having to go play at Triple-A Tacoma, having to grind that way, something I didn’t really have to do when I was younger. I got called up so quick, I didn’t have to deal with it.
“So, dealing with this stuff as a 30- and 31-year-old versus as a 20-year-old — it was kind of an eye-opener.”
The question he’s asking himself these days, as camp is winding down and final roster cuts are near, is what happens if I don’t make it? Can I abide another season in Triple-A?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I want to make the team. If I don’t make the team, I want to be in the big leagues somewhere. I’ve thought a lot about what I’m going to do if I don’t make it.”
He talked at the beginning of camp about the possibility of retiring as a player if he didn’t get a big-league job. But, given how impressive he’s played this spring (.314/.429/.429), there’s clearly a lot of productive baseball left in him.
“A lot of people have said to me, ‘You can’t stop playing,’” he said. “It’s like, ‘I don’t know, we’ll see.’ It’s crazy to think I have to make this decision.”
It’s looking more and more like he won’t have to. Manager Ron Gardenhire has talked about wanting more veteran depth up the middle to spell shortstop Jordy Mercer and second baseman Josh Harrison. Niko Goodrum would be the primary backup there, but the Tigers also want to use him in the outfield and at first base.
And Gardenhire hasn’t been shy with his praise for Beckham.
“He’s got that excitement back in his life about baseball,” he said. “He had a good year in Triple-A and he feels good about baseball again. He’s having fun. He doesn’t look like he’s putting pressure on himself to do anything.
“We like him around here. We like him a lot.”
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'It crushed me'
Hard to imagine the mental toll it takes on a player to experience sudden failure five years into a career. Beckham was a first-round pick of the White Sox in 2008 and made his big-league debut in 2009. From 2009 through 2013 he hit .249 with a .314 on-base percentage, hitting 54 home runs. Not all of them were against the Tigers and Twins, it just seemed like it.
But then it went off the rails. From 2014 to 2018, his average plummeted (.218, .277 on-base) and he began getting bounced around to different organizations — Angels, Braves, two stints with the Giants and then the last two seasons with the Mariners.
He went from playing every day for five-plus seasons to playing a total of 121 games the last three seasons.
“I had to learn how to fail in front of everybody,” Beckham said. “As opposed to a lot of these guys who got to do that in the minor leagues. It just wore on me. When I was in Chicago, I felt like I had to live up to everybody’s expectations all the time.
“It got to the point where mentally I just got crushed. It crushed me.”
If he had a good game, he’d be asked if he felt he was back to being himself. If he struggled, he’d have to answer the ‘What happened to you?’ questions. It was sucking the joy from the game, from his life. It was impacting his personality. It was making him something he detests — self-absorbed.
“I had a 2017 season that was not very good,” he said. “I needed to make some changes. So I made wholesale changes.”
Working with his father-in-law, Tigers roving hitting instructor Scott Fletcher, he completely revamped his swing mechanics. And the results were startling. He hit .302 with an .858 OPS and 10 home runs at Triple-A Tacoma last season.
For the first time in five years, Beckham truly felt at peace with himself and the game of baseball.
“Not only did I prove to myself I could still do it, it just reminded me — do I enjoy the game, do I still want to do it? I do,” he said. “It’s come full circle now. I had to grind my way back here, and I’m feeling like I’m playing great baseball.
“Last year was my best season in terms of statistics ever. Even though it was Triple-A, it gave me a lot of confidence.”
He’s carried it over to this spring, even though he signed a minor-league deal with the Tigers with nothing promised but an opportunity to compete for a spot.
“There’s a calmness in my game now that wasn’t around when I was back in Chicago,” Beckham said. “I was always trying so hard. Trying is what screws me up. I just kind of have to go out and play the game. Enjoy it. Enjoy every part of it.
“Because I realize now, tomorrow is not guaranteed. I still feel like that. I never took anything for granted, but I never truly understood the other side of it. Now I understand the alternative.”
'Show up and be a pro'
All character questions about Beckham — if there were any — were answered the day in late February when the Tigers signed Harrison. Prior to that, Beckham was in the hunt not only for a roster spot, but to perhaps win the starting second base job.
It was a gut-punch, for sure, but he took it without complaint. He said his job was the same. He came here to work hard and compete and that wouldn’t change.
“I’m just not stressing about it because I’m doing everything I can,” he said. “I show up and be a professional. That’s what my new thing is. No matter what. When they signed J-Hay, I said I’m going to show up and be a pro. That’s the only thing I can do.”
Beckham wore his emotions, his failures and successes, on his sleeve earlier in his career. He let his on-field production or lack of it, dictate his moods and his personality. He’s done doing that.
“I come and I play, and I act like I need to act every day,” Beckham said. “I try to be the same guy every day. I know who I am. I know I’m a good player. I’m not playing to live up to somebody else’s expectations. I’m playing to play the game. I’m playing to help the team win.”
He and Fletcher had this discussion over and over during those long hours in the batting cage: Their mutual dislike of selfish players.
“When guys in here, or me, get selfish and do it because we want to do well to advance themselves, then all of a sudden the winning the game part becomes secondary,” he said. “When that happens, you suck, in my opinion. It’s about doing something to help your team win.”
Case in point: Beckham drove two-plus hours to play in a spring game at Port Charlotte. And he had a miserable day at the plate – 0-for-3, two strikeouts, swung at three pitches and only one was in the strike zone.
It was the kind of day that might have left him morose and brooding in the past. His takeaway this time?
“I asked myself, ‘Well, did I do anything?’” he said. “And, yeah, I made some good plays in the field. It was a defensive day. I’m just trying to be less hard on myself, understanding that failure is part of the game.”
Paying it forward
There’s something else he’s discovered about himself, something that may keep in baseball once he hangs up his cleats.
“You know what, I have a lot of fun talking to these guys about the game,” he said. “I want to help them. That’s fun for me, too.”
He’s spent a lot of time particularly with JaCoby Jones and Mikie Mahtook — younger veterans who are still trying to gain a secure foothold in the big leagues.
“I’ve been through it all and it’s good perspective I have to give these guys who are maybe trying to find their way a little bit. I know I can help them because I’ve been through the ringer. I know what it’s like to be ‘the guy’ and to struggle.
“I know what it’s like to fail and to grind all the way back. I think that I developed some thick skin. It’s kind of come full circle a little bit.”
Sounds like a pretty valuable asset to have on the bench of a rebuilding Tigers team.
“I hope it’s enough to be part of this team,” Beckham said. “Hopefully I can help these young guys and help us be better than people think we’re going to be in the American League Central Division. It is the Central Division, so anything can happen.
“I know that very well.”