Brett Gardner

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Murti: Gardner Achieves Rare Feat -- 10 Consecutive Years In Pinstripes

Outfielder Made His Big League Debut June 30, 2008

Sweeny Murti
June 28, 2018 - 8:42 am
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On Saturday, Brett Gardner will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of his major league debut -- June 30, 2008.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long,” Gardner told me when I reminded him last week that the date was soon approaching. “It’s hard to believe. It’s flown by.”

Ten years in New York with the Yankees? Color Aaron Judge impressed. 

“That’s hard to do,” Judge told me. “You don’t see too many people who stick around and wear pinstripes for that many years. Tells you he must be doing something right.”

To better understand how significant an achievement this is, let’s take a look at the list of players in the free agency era (since 1976) who made their major league debuts with the Yankees and spent the next 10 consecutive years in pinstripes:
• Derek Jeter
• Jorge Posada
• Mariano Rivera
• Bernie Williams
• Don Mattingly

That’s it. Monument Park Yankees, all of them. And to hear the way teammates talk about him, Gardner is revered in a similar manner.

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Coming up with the Yankees and staying there is hard. Ask Dave Righetti, who could technically be on that list above, but is left off because he spent an entire season in the minors after his debut. Or ask David Robertson, who also made his debut 10 years ago -- one day before Gardner -- but spent 2 1/2 seasons with the White Sox before returning last year.

“It’s impressive. It really is,” Robertson said. “He’s always been that guy who’s just a grinder -- a tough out the whole time, plays exceptional defense. He gives you everything he’s got, and he’s been doing it for 10 years now. It’s crazy.

“If you don’t appreciate what Brett Gardner does for the Yankees, you’re not a Yankees fan,” Robertson flatly states.

Gardner hasn’t racked up mighty offensive numbers. The only Yankees career top-20 list he ranks on is stolen bases. He sits right now at 248 steals, and with four more he will trail only Derek Jeter and Rickey Henderson. But Gardner’s career seems to be so much greater than the sum of its parts. 

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Drafted in the third round in 2005 after his senior year at the College of Charleston, where he first made the team as a walk-on, Gardner was a player Yankees scouts knew could run and field at a high level, but after that they weren’t quite sure.

“We thought we were going to get a defense-first guy who could hit at the top of the lineup, steal bases and not hit for any power,” said Damon Oppenheimer, then in his first year as the team’s scouting director. “We thought he could be like the old-school, prototypical leadoff hitter back in the day. I don’t think any of us thought we were getting a huge impact player.”

But their view of him changed. Former head of player development Mark Newman predicted Gardner would be an All-Star. Oppenheimer said that potential became more apparent when they got a chance to see him every day.

“Once we had him in the system and watched him perform, we thought this guy could be an All-Star,” Oppenheimer said.

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Gardner not only made the All-Star team in 2015, but he also won a Gold Glove Award in 2016, and, of course, a World Series ring in 2009. That’s quite a triple crown. 

“Who wouldn’t want to sign up for that?” Judge asked.

And doing it all in pinstripes certainly ratchets up the degree of difficulty and the respect for Gardner.

“Playing here is hard,” Robertson said. “A lot’s expected of you here in New York.”

Robertson and Gardner learned together walking into a veteran clubhouse with the Core Four -- Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte -- leading the way.  Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Hideki Matsui were also part of that star-powered clubhouse. 

“I was just trying to hide and not be seen, and I think me and Brett were kind of on the same page there,” Robertson said. “It was different. This place was full of big names, and we had just come up, both young kids from the South into the big city, into the Big Apple.”

Said Gardner: “It’s definitely a different animal playing here in New York vs. other places. I’ve obviously never experienced other places, so this has -- I don’t want to say come easily to me, but it’s always felt like home for me.”

Gardner and Roberson survived and thrived. Robertson left as a free agent after the 2014 season before returning last year in a trade. And there were times Gardner thought he might be headed elsewhere, too.

Gardner’s name has come up in trade rumors over the years, and while he tried not to pay much attention, it was hard to ignore the move the Yankees made after the 2013 season when they signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract and made him their leadoff hitter and center fielder.

“I wasn’t sure at the time what that meant for my future here in New York, being a similar type player as him and him coming in with that kind of commitment. I ended up signing my extension within a couple months of him signing his deal,” said Gardner, referring to the four-year, $52 million contract extension he inked in the spring of 2014. Gardner is now in the final year of that deal, although there is a team option for next season.

The last two years -- with the rise of the Baby Bombers -- Gardner has taken on the role of the veteran leader.

“I like to describe him as the glue of this team,” Judge said. “He kind of keeps this team together. His baseball IQ, on and off the field, how to handle certain situations ... he just keeps all of us together.”

There are bigger stars on this team, like Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. And there are players who are perhaps more popular with fans, such as Didi Gregorius and Gleyber Torres.  But Gardner is the one who sets the tone just like he did after the Yankees were swept last weekend by the Rays and found themselves in their first real losing streak.

“After the three games we just lost in Tampa, he came in here and said, ‘Get back to work!’ That’s all it is,” Judge said.

Former Yankees coach and current Phillies bench coach Rob Thomson has known Gardner for nearly his entire Yankees career. He’s not surprised that Gardner has become a team leader.

“One, he’s talented. Two, he’s durable,” Thomson said this week when the Yankees were in Philadelphia. “He’s tough, he adapts, he works hard, prepares, competes. He’s just a great player and a great role model for other guys that are coming up now. You can’t be a leader unless you play hard every day. That’s the first thing you’ve got to be able to do.  And he does that.

“I know that he was hurt many, many days that he went out there and played. We’d be coming down the stretch, and we needed him. And he shouldn’t have really maybe been on the field, but he didn’t say anything and just went out and played and competed. I think everybody in there understands who Brett Gardner is and what he stands for."

Added Oppenheimer: “He’s the kind of leader that you would want guys to look up to. Everything that he does, even if he’s in a slump, he’s still leading. And I think that’s really important for all of our guys to see. 

“He never takes anything for granted,” Judge said. “He always wants to be in the lineup, always wants to be out there with his team. On days that he doesn’t feel good or when things aren’t going well, he doesn’t care. He wants to be out on that field with his teammates. Just seeing that as a young player, you respect that.”

What does he remember most about his big league debut on June 30, 2008?

“Probably just putting on those pinstripes for the first time,” Gardner said. “Going out to stretch before the game, seeing a bunch of family and friends in the stands before the game. It was a pretty cool moment.”

Gardner speaks with reverence when he talks about his debut coming at the old Yankee Stadium, just months before it closed to make way for the new one. 

“I was very fortunate to get to play those last few games in Yankee Stadium,” said Gardner, who reminded me that he was the last one to cross the plate that last September night against the Orioles.

“I think that’s one thing I really appreciate looking back is getting to play there. I could have easily gotten called up in 2009 and just barely missed it. Getting to experience the old stadium, even if it was just for a minute and even if it was during a nonplayoff year, that last game at the stadium was pretty cool. I scored the last run. Being on the field and Derek talking to the fans after the game, (it was) a really cool experience that, especially as a rookie, as a young kid, was fun to be a part of.

And now Gardner, who turns 35 in August and is in perhaps his final year in pinstripes, is trying to lead this Yankees team back to the World Series. 

“It’s definitely been a fun ride, and it’s hard to believe for me that it’s been 10 years,” Gardner said. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Hopefully, I’ll be here a few more years.”

Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN