“At some point in your childhood, you and your friends went outside to play together for the last time, and nobody knew it.”
This anonymous quote rings true for most of us in our lives, except for Danville Braves pitchers Alec Barger and Tanner Gordon. They’re still playing outside together, more than a decade after they met in their hometown of Champaign, Illinois.
“Middle school tryouts in the sixth grade,” Gordon said when recalling the first time he met Barger. “I went in not knowing anybody. There was Barger and two or three other kids from the same neighborhood. They knew each other right off the bat. I kind of fell in to that group.”
Going from elementary to middle school can be a big jump for any kid. Making new friends isn’t always easy, but for Gordon that wasn’t the case.
“Baseball kind of brought us together,” Barger said. “A lot of kids that I had played travel baseball with were going to my same middle school. He (Gordon) was a kid who didn’t play much travel ball. Once we were all on the same baseball team we became friends pretty quick.”
Neither Barger nor Gordon knew just how far the game of baseball would take them. The duo became best friends during their playing days at Franklin Middle School in Illinois. They stayed together and made the jump to Central High School, where Barger played varsity baseball for four seasons. Gordon joined him on the varsity team as a sophomore, and they became part of the winningest class in the school’s baseball history.
However, when it came time to choose colleges, they went their separate ways. Barger went to Northern Illinois and Gordon to John A. Logan, a junior college in Carterville, Illinois.
“Pretty much the whole friend group parted ways after high school,” Gordon said. “We talked about how cool it would be to go to the same college. I talked to NIU a little bit out of high school, but at the end of the day I decided to go to junior college. I wasn’t getting enough offers to go Division I.”
As it turned out, Barger would only stay at NIU for one year before transferring to Polk State Junior College in Florida for the 2018 season. While at Polk, he went 7-3 with a 3.56 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 17 appearances. The Milwaukee Brewers took Barger in the 16th round of the draft that year, but Barger elected to instead take an offer from N.C. State.
After two brilliant years on the mound at John A. Logan, Gordon finally got his Division I offer from Indiana University. Even though they were separated, Barger and Gordon stayed in constant contact throughout their collegiate journeys.
“During my freshman year he came up to visit at NIU,” Barger said. “We had some of the same colleges interested in us but I think we just ended up finding better fits for each other.”
Gordon made the most of his one year at Indiana, going 6-5 with a 3.39 ERA in 15 starts. That effort led the Atlanta Braves to select Gordon in the sixth round of the 2019 Major League Baseball Draft.
“It was pretty surreal. I actually wasn’t expecting to get a call that early,” Gordon said of his draft day. “I was at school, hanging out with some of my buddies at the pool when I got the call. I rushed back home to my apartment and started packing everything up. My phone started blowing up from there.”
Barger was one of the ones to call Gordon that day.
“I said, ‘T, that’s one of the team’s that’s really interested in me as well,’” Barger said. “Me and the Braves’ scout (Billy Best) have a really good relationship. I kind of knew there was a chance.”
The next day, chance became reality when the Braves took Barger in the 17th round. Two childhood friends, brought together by a game and separated by college were now set to reunite. Their different paths had led them back to one another.
“We really didn’t know what to say,” Gordon said. “The year before that on draft day, we were like, ‘What if we got drafted by the same team?’ We were kind of talking about what we would do and this year we were still kind of talking about it.”
Not only were they drafted by the same organization, soon they’d both learn they were going to be on the same team again when the Braves assigned Barger and Gordon to Rookie Level Danville. The two have been roommates all season, which has led to them spending more time together than even when they were kids.
“In the last couple of weeks or so, we’ve realized that we’re turning in to the same person,” Barger said. “Somebody will say something and we’ll have the exact same response at the same time and jinx each other. Even today, it was kind of the weirdest thing ever, I wound up getting a nose bleed before the game. I went back in to the training room and Tanner had just gotten a nose bleed. It’s weird stuff like that that kind of defines our friendship.”
Since arriving in Danville, their respective roles have changed from college. Gordon, due to his innings pitched at Indiana, has been limited to relief appearances with the Braves this season. Barger, primarily a reliever at N.C. State, has been thrust in to the starting rotation.
Living for months far from home in a city where neither of them had ever been before and experiencing those changes has been made a little easier by having each other’s friendship and guidance.
“Going through something like this with one of your best friends makes the journey a lot more fun,” Gordon said. “Being so close, we don’t really take it easy on each other. If we see something (in the other’s pitching mechanics) that’s kind of messed up or see something that needs to be changed, we let each other know. There’s really no filter.”
Barger echoed those sentiments saying that brutal honesty with one another has made them better on the mound.
“We know how to break each other’s bones,” Barger said. “We know just the right amount of buttons we can press. We keep things really loose. Maybe after a tough outing we’ll give each other a hard time and then we’ll laugh about it. It doesn’t seem too bad after that. I think that’s what helps the most here is knowing that you’ve got one of your good buddies here. It almost doesn’t feel like a job.”
Barger and Gordon only have a handful of games left as teammates this year. With the Braves not making the Appalachian League playoffs, Danville’s season ends on August 28 at Bristol. However, the possibility exists they could be teammates again next season for Single-A Rome.
“That would be the dream but at some point if we find ourselves on different teams, we’ll still stay in touch,” Barger said. “I’ll still be checking on his stats and he’ll be checking on mine.”
In the meantime, these childhood friends will enjoy the chance to keep playing outside together.