still feels blessed
to be in New York
By THOMAS GRANT JR., T&D Senior Sports Writer
There’s an old expression about “8 million stories in the naked city.”
After the New York Yankees clinched their 27th world championship last November, it provided a happy ending to Story Number 8,000,0001 about outfielder Brett Gardner. It’s a story which has helped garner Gardner as many fans in his young career as his play in 1-1/2 seasons in the pinstripes.
“I think people take a look at my story and where I came from and where I’m at now and realize that I’m just a normal guy,” he said in a telephone interview Friday. “Just a normal guy just fortunate to have a pretty cool job and being able to do something that I love to do. Obviously, a lot of things have fallen into place for me to be where I’m at.”
Those who have followed Gardner’s career know his story very well. An undersized but swift outfielder for Holly Hill Academy and St. George Post 105 (whose manager Marty Kinard once cut Gardner at Orangeburg Post 4), Gardner was initially rebuffed to play baseball at the College of Charleston.
It would take two letters from his father, Jerry, and a second look during team scrimmages before Gardner earned a roster spot with the Cougars. Not only did Gardner start three seasons and earn All-Southern Conference honors at the College of Charleston, but, in 2005, set a school record for runs scored (85), led the conference in steals (38) and tied for the nation’s lead in most hits (122).
That same year, Gardner was selected by the Yankees in the third round of the Major League Baseball draft. After three seasons of toiling in the minors, Gardner got the call to the big leagues to shag flyballs in centerfield like Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio once did for New York.
Gardner earned the full-time starting gig entering the 2009 season and, by the end, would be riding a float through the Canyon of Heroes as an unlikely member of a world champion.
“I’m an example of anything’s possible,” Gardner said. “All the time coming up, Little League, high school, Legion ball, college ball … I was never the best player on my team. I was always the little guy and always had a big heart and a big desire to play the game. I’ve always had a lot of fun playing the game and I still do and it’s something that I feel that those things, along with hard work, can really take you a long way.”
Having proven another New York catchprase (“If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”), Gardner faces a new challenge — staying there. After a slow start and thumb injury cost Gardner his starting job in center field to Melky Cabrera (now with the Atlanta Braves) last season, he’s now moved over to the familiar position of left field with the arrival of Curtis Granderson from Detroit.
“It’s something that I’m excited about,” Gardner said. “It’s a position that I’ve played a lot and it’s something I worked hard on in spring training and I’ve always taken pride in my defense and even though I’ll be playing a different position, obviously, I’m still going to go about it the same way and try to be as effective as I can.”
At the same time, the acquisition of several other outfielders may make New York less patient with Gardner’s batting. Coming off a .154 batting average in the postseason, Gardner worked constantly by himself in South Carolina and with hitting instructor Kevin Long on improving his bunting and becoming more aggressive at the plate.
“With the Yankees, obviously, I was probably the weakest bat in the lineup,” Gardner said. “The last thing guys are going to do is be careful around me and pitch around me and wanting to put me on base for (Derek) Jeter and Nick Johnson and those guys on the top of the order like Alex (Rodriguez) and Tex (Mark Teixeira). Those guys can drive in runs. The last thing they want to do is put me on base for those guys. So I’m going to get pitches to hit. It’s just a matter of being consistent with my swing, being consistent with my approach and going up there and having good at-bats.”
Gardner finished the spring batting .200 (11-55, 5 Ks, 7 BOB), including two bunt singles, but still maintains manager Joe Giraldi’s confidence.
“He’s a guy that we think has the ability to play every day, and we think he has to show it,” Girardi told MLB.com on March 18.
Gardner will get his chance when the Yankees open the season tonight at archrival and boyhood favorite team the Boston Red Sox. It’s the start of a six-game road trip to open the season for the Bronx Bombers and what Gardner hopes adds another chapter to his “New York Story.”
“Once you get to that position and you get a taste of what it’s like to win and being able to win in New York and win with all these guys in the clubhouse, it’s a really, really special feeling,” Gardner said. “I can’t think of any better feeling. Whether it’s a football team or basketball team or anything like that, I can’t think of any better place, any better team, any better franchise to win a world championship than with the Yankees. So I’m definitely very blessed to be in this position and really, really excited about the year and I think after this season, we’ll have another one.”
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