Thurman Munson. Don Mattingly. Derek Jeter. Jorge Posada. Brett Gardner?
Gardner may not seem to fit in with those four legends that have had their numbers retired by the Yankees, but in early June he joined them as the fifth player in team history to be drafted by the Yankees and then collect 1,000 hits with the club.
Despite all the changes the Yankees have made over the years, Gardner has quietly entered his 10th season in the Bronx. He scored the last run at the original Yankee Stadium. He was the centerfielder in the clinching Game 6 of the 2009 World Series. He hit the 15,000th home run in team history. He was an All-Star in 2015 and a Gold Glove winner in 2016. He has the highest single season stolen base total for a Yankee not named Rickey Henderson over the last 70 years.
He has played in at least 145 games in each season this decade except 2012, when injuries limited him to 16 games.
Gardner was a little known guy wearing number 91 in spring training of 2008 but in the past few years as Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez have retired, Gardner is suddenly the longtime Yankee.
“It’s been a little different,” Gardner said about being the veteran on a younger team. “It seems like just yesterday that I was the young guy in the clubhouse, just trying to get my career started and time just flies, man. It’s gone by really fast.”
Gardner is the longest tenured Yankee but pointed out that some teammates that have had long careers as well. “We’ve got a lot of great veterans in this clubhouse,” Gardner said. “Matt Holliday, C.C. Sabathia’s been around for a long time. Even a guy like Starlin, he’s a younger guy, but he’s been in the game and accomplished a lot. Guys like Chase Headley and Jacoby, and I can keep on going down the list. There’s been a lot of turnover on our roster the last few years but for us guys that are a little bit older, it’s a lot of fun for us to get to see these young guys get their careers started.”
He came up on a Yankee team that still had Jason Giambi and Mike Mussina (the starting pitcher in Gardner’s debut), and now he’s watching the start of the Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez days.
Theres a mix between Gardner mentoring the younger players and also keeping his distance and letting them be on thief own. “A little bit of both,” Gardner said. “You try and do what you can and you also remember the way that the veteran guys treated you as a young guy, and you kind of want to return the favor. In a way, that’s your way of kind of giving back to the game, and trying to help these guys along, and get these guys off to a good start. So, you want to do what you can but you also don’t want to get in the way.
Everybody’s different. Everybody’s different in the way they go about their business and some guys are a little easier to talk to, some guys are a little more reserved but it’s a lot of fun for us, like I said, just to watch these guys play and the energy that they bring helps us on a daily basis.”
Gardner was batting .188 without an RBI through his first 18 games but hit 13 home runs over his next 35 games. He came into Sunday’s game hitting .262 and hit his 14th homer on Friday night to tie Texas in the ninth inning.
As teams seem to look for players that are bigger and bigger, the 5’11”, 195 pound Gardner is a throwback to some of the scrappy leadoff hitters of years past. Plus he has some pop. A list of Yankees leadoff hitters with 15 home runs and 15 stolen bases in one season includes Henderson, Jeter, Alfonso Soriano, Bobby Bonds, Johnny Damon and Chuck Knoblauch. And Gardner.
And he was a catalyst for the last playoff team in 2015. That Yankee team was 60-38 when he had a hit but 23-30 when Gardner was hitless.
For so long he’s been somewhat anonymous in the outfield. There was Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui in 2009. Curtis Granderson had a pair of 40-homer seasons. And now Aaron Judge is the toast of the town.
But you can still count on Gardner being in the outfield.