Brett Gardner is a more than worthy All-Star and Yankee
Brett Gardner never fit the Yankees “big, hairy monsters” approach. A slap hitter without much power, Gardner was not recruited out of high school and didn’t even make the cut as a walk-on for the College of Charleston. Yet at 31 years old, the Holly Hill, South Carolina native is currently the longest-tenured homegrown Yankee, and a Major League All-Star in what is now his eighth season roaming the outfield in the Bronx.
Gardner, who was a third-round draft pick in 2005 and reached the majors in 2008, never had more than 34 extra-base hits in any professional season before 2013. He totaled 101 extra-base hits in 2013 and ’14, and already has 35 this season, three more than a rejuvenated Alex Rodriguez and two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera. He is also among the league leaders in runs, doubles and stolen bases.
Gardner is just the fifth Yankee to hit at least 10 homers, 20 doubles and steal 15 bases before the All-Star break. The other four are Johnny Damon (2006), Raul Mondesi (2003), Alfonso Soriano (2002) and Rickey Henderson (1986). Gardner also leads all Yankees position players with 3.5 WAR, and only four other AL outfielders— Mike Trout (6.0), Lorenzo Cain (4.6), Mookie Betts (4.2) and Kevin Kiermaier (3.7) —are higher.
However, Gardner was originally left off the American League roster and placed on a ballot with four other players for the final All-Star spot, with voting by fans. Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas had led that balloting and Gardner’s prospects of being selected seemed vague. Instead, Gardner was chosen because Royals outfielder Alex Gordon strained his left groin muscle on Wednesday, opening a slot on the A.L. roster which Gardner will fill.
The nature of his selection does not diminish the achievement for Gardner, who is having a career season. He is hitting .302, has driven in 42 runs and stolen 15 bases. He also has 22 doubles, 63 runs scored and a career-high .861 on-base plus slugging percentage. In fact, until now only one active position player has compiled more WAR than Gardner (27.1) without making a single All-Star team: Veteran outfielder Coco Crisp (29.1).
“I’ll be 32 years old next month,” said Gardner, who has attributed his hard-working attitude to his father, Jerry, who reached Double-A with the Phillies back in the 1970s. “This will be my first All-Star Game. I don’t know how many more chances I’ll get at it.”
Prior to Gardner getting the nod there had been only four position players drafted by the Yankees to be named All-Stars representing the franchise: Thurman Munson, Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. Gardner joining that special group is somewhat surprising considering how much he has elevated his game since he broke into the league and was compared to the likes of Juan Pierre and Jason Tyner.
“I remember [Minor League coach] Gary Denbo telling me that this guy will play center field for the New York Yankees someday. And people in the industry didn’t see it,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told the Wall Street Journal last summer. “I remember one person said Mickey Mantle will roll over in his grave if Gardy plays center field.”
That person was awfully wrong and Gardner has quietly become the Yankees’ best position player. He is a hard-nosed, speedy, gold-glove caliber outfielder who has added some pop to his game to complete the package. He has done so with a lunchpail mentality and by leveraging a 5-foot-10, 185-pound body that he was always told was too small.
John Pawlowski, who was the head coach at the College of Charleston thought he was too small and Gardner went on to get drafted higher than anyone in university history. In Charleston baseball history, Gardner ranks first in runs (214) and steals (97). He had a career .368 batting average and is second all-time in both hits (297) and triples (16). It is not uncommon for a walk-on to grow into a stellar player in college, but it is unusual for a walk-on to make it all the way to the majors. The list of former walk-ons includes some household names, but not many.
Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith walked on at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo in 1974. Ryan Howard, who was the National League’s most valuable player in 2006, was an invited walk-on at Southwest Missouri State, now Missouri State. Former shortstop David Eckstein walked on at Florida, John Valentin walked on at Seton Hall and the recently diseased Darryl Hamilton walked-on at Nicholls State.
Gardner’s story is rare and heartwarming, a tale that countless Little Leaguers and high school kids believe can be their path to the Majors someday. He was a thin, speedy outfielder with no power and expectations. But his heart, grit and determination separated him from the others.
“He’s a coach’s dream. No one’s gonna outwork Brett Gardner, period – that’s the bottom line,” said Bill Masse, who managed Gardner with Double-A Trenton and is now the Mariners’ eastern scouting supervisor. “He made himself into an above average Major Leaguer. He’s a great example for a lot of kids to follow.”
Despite playing in the majors’ largest media market, Gardner has always taken a back seat to Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia and others in terms of visibility. But following Jeter’s retirement, Gardner is the most accomplished everyday Yankee who came through the farm system and he is the second-longest tenured Yankee behind Rodriguez.
Gardner signed a four-year, $52 million extension last year and his contract runs through 2018, with a one-year option. It may have taken an injury to get him onto the All-Star roster, but he’s one of the true star outfielders in the game and the Yankees are lucky to have him.
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