LAKELAND, Fla. -- Before Sunday's game against the Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium, a man handed Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon two fresh char-grilled hot dogs. An unremarkable moment. Or so it seemed.
In reality, that simple gesture reflected a lifelong friendship, the importance of early influences and that it really is a small world after all.
The man is Eddie Roper. Growing up in Avon Park, Fla., he was best friends with Tom Gordon. Gordon would go on to become an All-Star closer who fathered two sons who eventually signed professional contracts: Dee and shortstop Nick, the Twins' first-round pick in 2014 Draft.
The elder Gordon, of course, spent half his summers on the road. That's where Roper came in. Wherever Flash Gordon's career took him -- Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia -- Roper was there. When the team went on the road, he stayed behind with the family. He made sure the kids didn't get in trouble. He played sports with them. He filled an intangible but crucial role, especially since Dee's mother was murdered when he was 6. He was, the Marlins star said, like an uncle to him.
"He took us around and made sure we were safe and good at the ballpark," Dee said. "When my dad would go do his stuff, we would go with him until my step-mom came. He always made sure we were straight. He's a pretty cool dude."
These days, Roper works for the Tigers at Marchant Stadium.
"Whatever they need me to do, that's what I do," Roper said as he manned the grill on Sunday. "I cook for the team. I cook for the suites. Burgers and hot dogs. Sometimes chicken."
Avon Park is still a small town in the central part of the state.
"So you knew everybody," Roper said. "Everybody's friends. Tom was real athletic. He played football, baseball, basketball. I liked sports and played a little bit, so that's how it all came together."
Roper even lived with the Gordons in the offseason. The men would fish together, visit friends and go to the races. It was a full-time position, although not precisely a job.
"Tom took care of me," Roper said. "It wasn't like he paid me, but he took care of me. Sometimes we traveled with the team. The kid's mom, traveling with the kids was rough. So me being there helped a lot, and that's what I did."
Everybody agrees that Dee is a gentleman. Not to mention a pretty good ballplayer, who led the National League in hitting and stolen bases last season. Roper will modestly accept some credit for both.
"Dee turned out to be a pretty decent kid," Roper said proudly. "I helped raise him a little bit. I had a lot to do with it. I didn't let him get in trouble, because I'd tell his dad, and he knew what Tom would do to him if he caused me any trouble. His grandmother who raised him kept him in church. You go to church when you're young and it helps you in the long run. He ain't going to change.
"But one thing about Dee: He's a competitor. He doesn't like anybody to outdo him. That's the whole thing about him. He always wanted to be on top, and I guess that carried over to what he's doing now."
In fact, the one time Dee got in trouble was for dunking over Nick in a basketball game, knocking him down and skinning his face.
Roper also played a part by throwing batting practice to the boys and playing catch. Dee said that wherever they moved, their dad always made sure a baseball field and a gym were nearby.
"We thought Nick was going to be a pitcher, but Dee always liked me to pitch to him so he could hit," Roper said. "I've got a little part in [his baseball success]. Daddy's got the biggest part, but I did a lot with him."
So when Dee went into the final day of last season separated from Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper by .0001 in the batting race, Roper was monitoring the game in Philadelphia. When Dee got hits in his first three at-bats, including a homer, he couldn't have been prouder if it had been his own son.
"I knew he wasn't going to let me down," Roper said. "I was really excited for him. I knew it was in him. It was just a point of getting it out of him. I guess the Marlins got it out of him."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.