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He’s 34 now, which is odd in itself, he said, the years having hurried by, the way they do when everything else seems in a hurry, too. He has a couple boys of his own who fish the same ponds and hunt the same woods he did at their ages, back in Lowcountry, South Carolina, where his dad raised two boys and still tends to a few hundred acres of corn and soy beans and cotton.
He’s spent a good number of years now in New York City, a long way from home in about every way imaginable, away from those moody small-mouth bass, away from the bedroom closet that might hold some treasures from his youth, away from the lady they call Miss Punky, his grandma, who still stays up late every night to watch him play baseball.
Sometimes, and for some reason more lately than ever, Brett Gardner thinks about how it all came to be, how his father — the former minor league outfielder — wrote that letter to the college baseball coach that got him a chance to play. How he tried out, made the team, made a friend on the team, and how that friend had a sister named Jessica. How Brett married her.
How the New York Yankees discovered him without really looking for him, an outfielder who could run some and hit some, who reached the end of his college career without ever before having been a serious prospect or even drafted. How, in the next couple weeks, he will arrive at the 10-year anniversary of his major league debut, an amazing achievement for a player in any organization in any town, a near freak of nature to have it come for the Yankees in New York, as he didn’t start hitting home runs until he was 30, wasn’t an All Star until he was 31, and was never the superstar in a clubhouse that sometimes seems to demand it.
How he was Brett, just Brett, and how that was almost always good enough, good enough for friends and family and Miss Punky, good enough for the Yankees when they were terrific and then in transition and now that they are terrific again. How he chased every line drive into every gap and down every line with all he had, and refused to surrender a single at-bat, and never asked out of a lineup, because maybe non-prospects wear that in their hearts and play today for a shot at tomorrow forever.
How he still does all that stuff, every day, without fail, and it doesn’t come with 460-foot home runs or MVP trophies or adoring crowds in local restaurants (not always), like some other Yankees, but it does come with a promise for precisely the same effort tomorrow.
So he remembers how it once seemed so far away – the big leagues, a career, 10 years a big-leaguer, all of them a Yankee – and how it sometimes feels like just yesterday.
“You know,” he said, “I was never the can’t-miss prospect. I was never the guy who was necessarily expected to probably do what I’ve done or have the career that I’ve had or still be where I’m at. I don’t want to say I didn’t have hopes and dreams and even expectations. But at the same time I wanted to be realistic about it and realize, even after a couple good years at school and getting drafted and getting to the minor leagues, still being realistic about the fact that the guys that are ahead of you and the guys in the big leagues are there because they’re better than you. They’re more consistent than you. There’s obviously still a lot of work to do to get to the big leagues at that point. Then, once you get there, you start hearing about, the hardest thing is not getting here, it’s staying here.”
In the weeks prior to the 2005 draft, Damon Oppenheimer’s phone rang, the soundtrack to a scouting director’s life. Particularly in the weeks prior to a draft. It was Brian Barber, a scout assigned to evaluate a pitcher at the College of Charleston.
“You need to come see this guy,” Barber told his boss.
Not the pitcher, though. Another guy. Kinda small. So scrappy. Had tools, if you looked hard enough.
“He’s an 80 runner. Hits line drives. Chases batting-practice fly balls like every one of them was in the World Series.”
“All right,” Oppenheimer told Barber. “I’m shooting down there.”
Brett Gardner, turned out, was a left-handed hitter who finished his swings with only his bottom hand on the bat handle, a center fielder who seemed to be everywhere at once, a player whose eyes narrowed and jaw knotted near its hinges when he got behind in the count. He also was a senior.
After a couple days, Oppenheimer recalled thinking, “I have no idea how this guy has never been drafted.” Oppenheimer left Charleston without ever having spoken to Gardner or his father, Jerry, who’d played a few minor-league seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1970s.
Clemson eliminated College of Charleston from the NCAA tournament on June 4. Gardner went home to Holly Hill, opened his bedroom closet door, dropped his equipment bag on the floor, closed the door, and waited for the draft, three days away. The Yankees called Gardner’s name in the third round, 109th overall, and Gardner reported to Staten Island that summer.
“It’s probably the best guy I’ve ever signed, when you look at what he’s done,” Oppenheimer said 13 years, 14 drafts, later. “When you factor in everything – makeup, performance, playing hard – he’s the best guy my department has ever signed. … He’s a special guy.”
Across a decade, he is a .264 hitter with a .347 on-base percentage. He was an All Star in 2015, a Gold Glove winner in 2016. After hitting 23 home runs in his first 620 games through 2013, he hit 33 in his next two seasons and 21 in 2017 alone. He is under contract through 2019 (the Yankees hold an option for ’19.) At his current rate, through this season and next, Gardner would be a top 25 Yankee by Wins Above Replacement. All time. They have, all his life, called him an overachiever. What’s it called when that happens?
He sat recently in a dugout and stared across the infield, into left field. There’d be another game. Soon enough, another. He’s thicker through his chest and shoulders than you’d maybe think. Some thoughts make him squint and curl the edges of a mouth, not quite a smile, but not like he’s dodging one either. That equipment bag he threw into a closet in his old room, it’s still in there, as his mother, Faye, reminded him just this winter, still zipped up, still holding remnants of a life before this one, the life he made into this one. Yeah, he said, he’s gotta get on that bag one of these winters. But, you know, it all moves so fast, and one day you wake up and a good portion of a career is behind you, and so many choices and fortunate turns lead to so many more of the same, when you’re lucky. Things are different maybe than you expected. Things are better, maybe, than you expected.
“Yeah, I think about that sometimes,” he said, “if that hadn’t all come to fruition, me getting that opportunity. How would things have ended up differently? I guess over the course of a life you get to a lot of intersections. You can make a left or right or keep going straight. For me, I’ve made some wrong turns. Plenty. We all have. But I’ve managed to get back on the right track and continued to keep looking forward.”
Friday morning, a couple days before Father’s Day, Jerry and Faye Gardner sat at a gate at Charleston International Airport, waiting on a JetBlue flight to take them to New York. Jerry is 67. The corn and cotton already were in the ground back in Holly Hill, and he was waiting on some rain to put the soy beans in, so the weekend had opened up.
Going on 17 years ago, Jerry had sent Brett, the younger of his two sons, to college. Brett would be a business major, maybe become a farmer himself, he hadn’t decided. And, what the heck, he was going to walk on to the baseball team, or try anyway. Jerry himself had been a minor-league outfielder for four seasons, so baseball ran deep with the Gardners, even if Jerry was done at 24. (“You’ve got to face reality sometimes,” Jerry said. “I probably went as far as I deserved to go. The slider ended up making a farmer out of me.”)
Brett called home one night, a Saturday as Jerry recalled, and said he wouldn’t be playing any more baseball. Nearly 30 hopeful players had shown up to try out. Nobody had made it. According to the college coaches, Brett possessed a below average arm, a below average bat, and just average speed. So, well, that was that.
“When he said ‘average speed,’ ” Jerry recalled, “that got the coals burning.”
The letter he wrote to the college coaching staff was finished at 3:30 the next morning. It was four pages long. When the sun came up, Faye edited the letter to two pages.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Jerry said. “I knew he could play college ball.”
He sent the letter, care of the baseball office.
“As a parent,” Jerry said, “all you want is for him to be given a fair shot. An opportunity.”
A week later, Brett was invited to his first college baseball practice. Sometimes, when the only apparent options are to turn left or right, somebody else has to point out the straight.
“I assure you,” Jerry said, “I had nothing to do with the rest of his story.”
The years have hurried by for Jerry, like they can do, going from seed to harvest and back to seed. He can lose track of the holidays, the special days, that way, so it was a wonderful coincidence that this Friday happened to come those couple days before Father’s Day, that he was a few minutes from boarding that flight that would get him to the Bronx in time for the first pitch.
“It is just surreal,” he said. “It really is. Knowing where he came from, not making that team, how it’s materialized. In a slight sense …”
He paused, considered it all, including what he knows now about that kid with the below average arm and swing, the just average foot speed.
“… maybe it’s not surprising.”
He knew it would be a fine time, Faye and him watching their boy play ball again, spending time with their grandchildren, and already he was thinking of saying goodbye again. Those are the tough parts.
“I’ll get sentimental,” he said, laughing. “Just the way I am.”
How Brett called him that first year in the minor leagues, from Staten Island, convinced he wasn’t good enough. How that little boy from the edge of the pond, from the edge of baseball more than once, had stayed at it. And stayed at it.
“Brett, my son,” Jerry told him more than once, “you’ll figure it out.”
Given enough time, he would. Given those years.
Brett, still on that bench, still staring off into nothing, into everything, allowed himself a glance over his shoulder. At dad. At mom. At Jessica. At grandma. At those boys. At everything.
“Man, I think it’s, first of all I think we’ve been blessed in a lot of ways,” he said. “I never could have dreamed being here for this long, much less with the Yankees this long. It’s been so much fun. It’s given me a chance to travel around, see the world. Otherwise, I would probably have hardly left South Carolina, to be honest with you.”
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