'I Wish Every Time It Happened ... I Could Save the Woman'
Domestic violence cost Dee Gordon's mother her life and changed his forever.IN WINDERMERE, FLA.February 20, 2019
Two days before his mother's boyfriend would shoot and kill her, Dee Gordon heard her cries from the kitchen as her boyfriend tried to choke her. Less than a month past his seventh birthday, Dee rushed from his bedroom armed with an eight-pound dumbbell.
He crashed the weight into her boyfriend's head. In an instant, blood began seeping from his bald skull. As it did, the man swung his arms, and little Dee was sent flying.
"He pushed my skinny ass across the room," Gordon says, memory vivid, eyes wide open, staring straight ahead.
At seven, the world is mostly a collection of impressions. Not everything makes sense or adds up. There is simply the moment in front of you, and then the next one, and the one after that. You soak in the good and shut your eyes tight until the bad fades.
Sometimes, however, the bad does not fade.
He and his mother had avoided death once before, in the delivery room. Dee was born two-and-a-half months premature to a girl who had yet to graduate from high school. When complications arose during childbirth at the medical facility in Avon Park, Florida, she was helicoptered to a Tampa hospital. Before doctors performed emergency surgery, the situation was dire enough that they asked Dee's grandmother whether she wanted them to save her daughter or the newborn.
He would learn this much later from his grandmother, Gwendolyn Caitt, whom he still calls Nana. Grandmothers can help fill in blanks, and Gwendolyn has filled in many for him, including her answer to the doctors' question at birth: If you cannot save both, she told them, then please save my daughter.
Gordon nods with understanding while telling this story. From his adult perspective, he says his answer would have been the same. Both mother and son survived the birth—though it didn't go perfectly. While baseball fans see a fleet baserunner who plays the game with joy and verve, what they don't see is the small scar on the back of Gordon's head from complications from a caesarean section that saved both his and his mama's lives.
He entered this world at just two-and-a-half pounds, his mother's only child, and the two were together every day for the first six years of his life. At her high school graduation, Dee was there in his Nana's arms.
"Oh my God," says Caitt, 64, his maternal grandmother. "Oh my God. That was her baby. She loved her baby. He was the main thing in her life. Him."
"Best six years of my life," Gordon says.
Two days before his mother's boyfriend would shoot and kill her, the boyfriend was bleeding in the kitchen. Dee had landed across the room, and his mother was screaming.
"Get the hell out of my house!" DeVona Strange ordered Lynford Schultz, according to Dee. "Get the hell out of my house!"
Lynford looked across the room at Dee.
"Do you want me to leave, little man?" he asked. "Do you?"
Lynford had just moved in within the past year. It was the first time someone lived with DeVona and Dee.
"It might have been our worst mistake," Dee says.
Among the items Lynford brought with him was a Super Nintendo. And now, as Dee considered the question hanging in the air, he thought of this beloved game.
No, he said. No, I don't want you to leave.
"That's why, for a long, long time, I felt it was my fault," Gordon says.
In so many ways, Gordon is a survivor. We are sitting on the back porch of the 10,000-square-foot home he purchased here this offseason. He is newly engaged. His baseball career is flourishing, even after an 80-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2016 and an on-base percentage that slipped from .341 in 2017 to .288 in 2018 while he tried to play much of the year on a fractured toe.
"She had this beautiful smile, man," Gordon says softly. "I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was so sweet.
"Now that I'm an adult, I know all she did for me."
Directly or indirectly, domestic violence affects a lot of us. One in four women and one in seven men experience a form of severe physical domestic violence, according to the CDC's national intimate partner and sexual violence survey. "It is incredibly pervasive," says Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. "If I was your colleague, and I told you that one in four glasses of water had lead in it, we'd all jump up and start screaming, 'Don't drink the water!'
"It is America's dirty little secret."
Ever so slowly, society is noticing. In the sports world, some leagues are moving to enact policies that include punishment as well as preventative education.
As for punishments, last summer, the Toronto Blue Jays suspended closer Roberto Osuna without pay for violating MLB's domestic abuse policy. (Osuna was then traded to the Houston Astros.) Last fall, the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs cut running back Kareem Hunt after a video surfaced that showed him shoving and kicking a woman. (Hunt has since been signed by the Browns.) This spring, Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell will continue a 40-game domestic-violence-related suspension that started last year.
Experts like Ray-Jones and others see that people frequently underestimate the complexities of this issue. More often than not, when domestic violence is reported, what is discussed publicly is the physical abuse. But the financial and emotional aspects of these relationships make it extremely difficult for a victim to leave an abusive partner, experts say, especially when children are involved.
"Domestic violence is rooted in power and control," Ray-Jones says.
As much as it sickens him each time another story spills into the nation's headlines, Gordon refuses to speak out about it because, he says: "That would just open the floodgates. We're all not perfect. And if I open up and talk about someone else's problems, then I'm no better than him.
"And I have every right to talk about it. But it's not my place. It's not my lane.
"I wish every time it happened, I could hit a button and save the woman."
When he steps into the batter's box to face Osuna or Aroldis Chapman, who in 2016 was the first player disciplined under MLB's domestic violence policy, Gordon says what they may have done does not cross his mind.
"I'm playing baseball, man," he says. "I'm playing baseball."
"Can I say something that's going to sound really messed up? The world sucks so bad that a guy will be in trouble for a few days and then people forget about it and pull for him again.
"I already know that's going to happen and, let's be honest, that guy's probably going to do it again. Once a guy does it, it's who you are—if we're being honest. And everybody's still going to buy his jersey and make excuses for him."
Since instituting its policy for domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse in August 2015, MLB has investigated cases against 11 players. Nine have been suspended or placed on administrative leave.
Perhaps more importantly, the effort includes an educational program in which every major and minor league player is trained annually. Among the resources MLB offers is an anonymous hotline for players or victims to phone—neither the league nor the players' union is privy to the calls—so those in the game, from players and their families to club employees and theirs, can seek treatment if they feel they need help and wish it to remain confidential.
MLB also has its own investigative arm that moves when complaints are filed.
"Domestic violence investigations aren't easy," Dan Halem, deputy commissioner of baseball administration, says. "A lot of times you don't get cooperation. The victims are often reluctant or afraid to speak. Third parties oftentimes don't want to get involved in these cases because they don't see any benefit to them. The prosecutors, some are more cooperative than others. Their job is to prosecute a case, not necessarily help us. There are lawyers involved for players and third parties. There's a lot you have to navigate."
Two days after he crashed the dumbbell into his mother's boyfriend's head to stop the choking, Gordon was riding the school bus home when he and his friends looked out and saw a commotion at the front gate of his apartment complex.
This was not an unusual sight, given where they lived. "We were in the streets; let's put it that way," Gordon says.
Crime and drugs were a part of their everyday existence in that part of St. Petersburg, Florida. DeVona Strange worked for the American Automobile Association. Lynford Schultz? "I know he wasn't doing nothing good," Gordon says. "He was doing what he could, I guess."
According to Florida prison arrest records, to that point, Schultz had been in and out of custody multiple times for burglary, grand theft and cocaine possession.
Gordon spent his time playing sports—mostly basketball, his first love ("No 'hood kid wanted to play baseball")—and going to school.
His father, Tom Gordon, pitched for eight clubs during his 21-year major league career. He and DeVona grew up together in Avon Park and, after high school, Tom went off to chase his baseball career, and DeVona became a single mother.
On May 16, 1995, a coworker of DeVona's at the AAA office met Dee as he emerged from the school bus and told him that his mother had asked that she take him with her.
Gordon initially protested, explaining that his mom had specifically schooled him not to go with just anybody. He had his own key and was accustomed to letting himself into the apartment after school while his mother was working.
"I would do my homework and mess around until my mom came home," he says. "But on this day, the lady was like, 'No, no, no, you've gotta come with me.'"
There was a McDonald's around the corner and, stalling for time, the woman bought Dee an ice cream cone and small fries.
The next thing he knew, some cousins picked him up and took him to their house. He still wasn't sure what was happening, but he noticed a lot of red eyes. Then the phone rang, and he heard a cousin exclaim: "Not DeeDee! Not DeeDee!"
Someone took him aside and told him: "Your mama died this morning."
"I looked at her," Gordon recalls. "I didn't cry. I just looked at her. I don't remember anything else."
It was the next day when his Nana picked him up to take him back to Avon Park with her that Gordon remembers a yellow taxi pulling up with Lynford in the back seat. Except...
"It wasn't a taxi. It was a police car, and Lynford was in the back in handcuffs," Gwendolyn says. "I was talking to the policeman. Lynford had actually turned his life around when he met my daughter. He might have done [drugs and crime] before DeVona, but he had gotten a job. The policeman told me, 'He used to be in trouble all the time, but after he met your daughter, we ain't had any trouble anymore.'"
From the back seat of the squad car, Lynford told Gwendolyn: "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. It was an accident."
That was the first clue Gordon received about how his mother had died.
On the drive back to Avon Park from his old life to his new, Dee quietly sat in the back seat of his Nana's Lincoln Town Car with his dog, Polo, in his lap. His mother had just given the dog to him a few weeks earlier, on April 22, his seventh birthday.
It was a beautiful golden Labrador retriever. And in that moment, Dee had no way of knowing that four months later a neighbor would poison Polo, and he would lose his dog, too.
Polo simply went missing. There was a big lot between the houses with several trees, and one day Dee and some friends were playing basketball and someone kicked the ball in frustration.
"I went into the bushes to get it, and there was my dog," Gordon says. "I was like, what the hell? My mom bought me that dog."
There are more blank spaces between that drive with Polo and DeVona's wake. His next memory is that his mother's casket was on a stand and, as Gordon stood in front of it, her body was at eye level.
"I guess I messed up and broke everybody's heart," he says. "I went up to the casket on tippy toes and kissed her on the cheek, not knowing it would be the last time I would see her.
"I remember my lips feeling cold against her. Because I remember before that laying on her chest, and I could hear her heartbeat. She wasn't warm like she used to be."
He remembers thinking back to that moment with Lynford: Do you want me to leave, little man? The guilt came rolling back in waves.
The principal from his old school in St. Petersburg drove down for the funeral, along with some of Dee's friends.
"I cried so much I fell asleep on the principal's lap in church," he says. "I woke up at the gravesite at the burial."
Under the doorbell at the front door of his new home, a small placard reads "Strange Gordon." His legal name remains Strange-Gordon. Through the years, he has held tight to both his mother's name and memory.
Dee Gordon, in effect, is simply his stage name. To those close to him, he is known as "Varis," a shortened version of Devaris. It wasn't until rookie ball in 2008 that he became Dee Gordon, after some public address announcer in Missoula, Montana, mangled his given name, introducing him as "Devarnious Stran-jay Gor-DON"—or some such French pronunciation. It made his ears hurt enough that afterward he asked, "Can you just call me Dee?"
St. Petersburg is a lifetime ago. The apartment complex in which he and his mother lived has been torn down. He didn't start playing baseball seriously until he was a teenager and had left the area, after his father and uncles—Tom has three brothers—re-entered his life in Avon Park.
He is still listed only as 5'11" and 170 pounds, but the two-time All-Star whom former Tigers manager Jim Leyland once memorably described as being "no bigger than half a minute," has done an admirable job of making room for himself in his father's game.
And now, on the eve of another spring training, Gordon assesses the miles covered and the distance still to go. His brother, Nick, an infielder in Minnesota's system, lives eight minutes away. So, too, does a sister. And his father's place is just a 10-minute drive.
Framed jerseys and photos sit on the floor, still waiting to be hung. In a silver frame on a dresser in his bedroom is a picture of him and his mama at her graduation, both of them resplendent in white. He looks around, still hardly believing his surroundings. Where Gordon comes from, there was no travel ball or backyard batting cage. His mother, he says, never even saw him catch a baseball.
"Do you see my house?" says Gordon, who signed a five-year, $50 million deal with Miami in 2016 before the Marlins traded him to Seattle in December 2017. "When I was born, I was two-and-a-half pounds. My mom died when I was [seven]. Look at me. I'm not the biggest guy in the world. I live here. I play in the big leagues.
"Hell, no. This is not normal. Most parents groomed their kids to be like this. I was not groomed."
He often thinks back to that horrible day…but not every day.
"When I get pissed off at people, then it's like, Damn, I wish she was here so I could talk to her, Gordon says.
Since the six happiest years of his life, he's leaned on family and friends to fill the void. His "village," he calls them. He's taken under-the-radar missionary trips in each of the past four winters—the latest to Africa in December. He talks to kids who have "been victims or have lost a parent due to domestic violence" through the Flash of Hope program he established a few years ago. Quietly, he brings the kids to games for a private chat with him, providing tickets, food vouchers and a children's book written to help understand and ease the pain.
He tells them, "Just because you are a statistic, it doesn't mean you have to be a statistic."
He imparts the same lesson he so fiercely learned himself. He's seen Lynford just once since his mother's death—in a gym when his high school basketball team was playing in Tampa, sometime after Lynford's release after he served five years in prison for manslaughter.
It didn't end well. As soon as he happened to spot Lynford in the stands, Gordon asked one of his uncles to "get him out of here." He hasn't heard from him since and has no idea where he is.
But each January 8, on her birthday, he visits his mother's grave. He makes the drive there several other times a year as well, and Gwendolyn's voice is as bright as DeVona's smile in the pictures when she talks about her grandson.
"I miss my daughter, but she left me something worthwhile," Caitt says. "She left me a part of her, and I'm so grateful for that."
The cemetery isn't maintained as well as Gordon would prefer. He has his agent working on it "so it can be a little more clean. The people there don't cut the grass. It sucks.
"I wish I was then who I am now. She'd be better taken care of."
But who he is now, in so many ways, is who he was then. He is DeVona Strange's son, and the raggedy old, small, metal plaque that once marked her grave never did sit right with him. At 14 and barely 100 pounds, he promised his Nana he was going to make it to the NBA and that she should not allow anyone to upgrade that grave marker because he had plans.
The NBA may be no place for those who are no bigger than half a minute, but when Devaris Strange-Gordon was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008, he kept his word.
"The first big purchase I made," he says, "was that tombstone."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.