I still remember how serious and how self-assured the outfielder with No. 91 on his back was on this quiet morning. There was about a week left in Spring Training in 2008, and the 24-year old who had a .260 average in his only 45 games at Triple-A was speaking ever so confidently about starting in center field for the Yankees. Soon.
“It’s not a knock against Melky Cabrera or Johnny Damon or whoever happens to be out there,” the man said. “Obviously, that’s their job now. But I know, if it were my job, someone else would would be wanting my job, too. Ever since I got drafted, that’s been my goal.”
When Brett Gardner and the Yankees finally reached an agreement on a one-year, $4 million deal Friday, which is pending a physical, my first inclination was to rewind to that conversation from 13 years ago. I was impressed with Gardner’s performance and determination on the field back then so I decided to interview him. And I instantly realized that he was determined off the field, too. Determined to be a Yankee.
I wrote about Gardner’s pursuit of the center field job in The New York Times the next day and an editor produced the perfect headline: “DiMaggio to Mantle to Williams to…Gardner?” One New York baseball writer approached me in the clubhouse and actually conceded, “I’d never heard of Brett Gardner until today.”
Eventually, Gardner erased the question mark from the headline and reinforced to the writer and everyone else that he was talented enough and tenacious enough to be a Yankee and, yes, to be the Yankees’ center fielder. Gardner debuted in the Major Leagues in 2008, played for the 2009 World Series Championship team, was playing center by 2010 and has been a stellar player ever since. It took longer for Gardner to get his contract as the Yankees maneuvered to stay under the $210 million luxury tax threshold, but he has returned and that’s a positive development.
At the age of 37, Gardner still adds value to the Yankees because he is a left-handed hitter with some pop in a lineup dominated by righty batters, because he can still play elite defense in center and left; because he knows how to work counts and extend at bats; because he still has above average speed; because he is durable and because he is a leader. For his career, Gardner’s slash line is .259/.343/.401 with 270 steals and 129 homers in 1,548 games.
Flash back to the 2020 postseason and Gardner was one of the most productive hitters on the Yankees. Obviously, it was a small sample size. But, besides Giancarlo Stanton, who bashed six homers in 21 plate appearances, Gardner was the next best hitter on the Yankees by going 7-for-19 (.368 average) with one homer and four walks.
Since manager Aaron Boone has rightfully said that Clint Frazier will start in left, Gardner will have a reserve role in 2021. But I would be shocked if Gardner doesn’t end up with 250 to 300 at-bats. First of all, the Yankees manage their player’s workloads so Stanton, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks and Frazier will need rest days. Also, it’s impossible to ignore the possibility of injuries. In the last three seasons, Gardner has played in 330 of the Yankees’ 384 games, or 86 percent. Stanton has played in 199 for 52 percent, Judge has appeared in 242 for 63 percent and Hicks had been on the field for 250 for 65 percent.
Stay tuned, Gardner will play.
Managers have expectations for every player. With Gerrit Cole, Boone expects him to produce seven or more innings, to compete in a feverish way and to get a lot of strikeouts. With Judge, Boone expects four disciplined at-bats and maybe at least one ball soaring over the fence. With Gardner, Boone said he expects a player who gives the lineup balance because he is a lefty hitter, a player who can provide some power and a player who is an excellent defender.
Boone also praised Gardner for making adjustments, which was a probably a reference to Gardner changing his approach to hit the ball in the air more. Gardner, who managed one measly homer during one 217-game span in the Minor Leagues, belted 28 homers in 2019.
“I got tired of hitting ground balls into the shift,” Gardner said. “I had to change something.”
As Gardner embarks on his 14th season with the Yankees, it has been quite a journey for a player who made the College of Charleston baseball team as a walk-on. When I spoke to Gardner in the spring of 2008, he was slotted behind Damon, an All-Star who would go on to accumulate 2,769 career hits, and Cabrera, who was a year younger than Gardner and who would later win a tainted batting title. In addition, Austin Jackson, a highly touted prospect, was lurking in the Minor Leagues.
But Gardner persevered, kept believing in himself and forced others to believe in him. Gardner is back for another year with the Yankees and he is even more serious and more self-assured than he was 13 years ago.
He’s determined again, too, determined to try and help the Yankees win another title.