There are two players left from the last Yankees team to win the World Series: CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner. CC is limping to the end of his Hall of Fame career now, with just five wins and an earned run average just a decimal point under five runs a
There are two players left from the last Yankees team to win the World Series: CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner. CC is limping to the end of his Hall of Fame career now, with just five wins and an earned run average just a decimal point under five runs a game. If he pitches at all in the postseason, it will be out of the bullpen. It is different with Brett Gardner, though. At the age of 36, Gardner has not just played more games in the outfield than anybody else on the Yankees and had arguably the best season of his career, he has turned out to be indispensable.
Coming into the season Gardner was supposed to be a fourth outfielder, at best. He has turned out to be so much more. Aaron Judge got hurt and Giancarlo Stanton kept getting hurt. Aaron Hicks, the center fielder, was lost to a right elbow injury in August and is not expected back for the postseason. And so, when the postseason begins, and in his 12th season with the Yankees, Gardner will be back where he played 99 games in ’09.
“When he was a kid,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said on Sunday, after Gardner had hit his 27th home run, “an old baseball guy was talking to Gene Michael [former Yankees general manager. and senior advisor] and said that Mickey Mantle would be rolling in his grave if he saw Gardner playing center field at Yankee Stadium. The guy was a friend of Gene’s, but Gene got really angry at him. Told the guy he was wrong, and to just wait, because Brett was going to be around here a long time.”
Still here. The last Yankee to have played on the same outfield grass at the old Stadium on which Mickey once played.
The Yankees had a $12.5 million option on Gardner for this season. They didn’t pick that up but brought him back for around $3 million less (factoring in the buyout of the option). But, according to Cashman, there was never any doubt after last season that Gardner would be on the team this season.
“Put it this way,” Cashman said. “There was never any interest in not bringing him back.”
Cashman laughed then.
“But did I think he’d have the kind of year he’s having?” he said. “I did not.”
Gardner has hit more home runs than he’s ever hit before. Has more RBIs than he’s ever had before. If he plays all the way through Sunday’s regular-season finale, he will get to 500 at-bats. In so many ways, and not just because of the offense and surprising power he has given them this season, Gardner really has become as important as he’s ever been at Yankee Stadium.
“We’ve always loved Brett’s ability, and his character,” Cashman said. “And we love his leadership more than ever. I think this team gets a lot of its feisty character from Aaron [Boone, the manager]. But they get it from Brett as well.”
It is well known that Gardner was ejected from games this season, particularly for his creative use of a bat, from the dugout, when he didn’t like ball-strike calls on a teammate. It happened against the Blue Jays and it happened against the Indians at the Stadium, and received plenty of attention at the time. But the general manager of the team never had any problem with it.
“There is a tone he helps set with our club that everything matters,” Cashman said. “Everything’s worth fighting for.”
He only hit .236 for the 2018 Yankees, in 140 games. He hit 12 home runs and had 45 RBIs. But Cashman says he and his analytics people looked at Gardner’s metrics and thought that he’d actually had an “above average” season. They brought him back, on the last day of October. Here is what Gardner said about that at the time at to our Bryan Hoch:
"I wasn't sure what to expect at the end of the season, but being able to come back and rejoin this special group of guys we have in place, continue my career in a Yankees uniform -- and hopefully finish it in a Yankees uniform -- it means a great deal to me.
“We have some unfinished business. It was tough to sit back and watch the rest of the postseason this year. It was a great learning experience for us. We have a young team and had a great season, but we came up short of our goal."
It is a young team, chasing something that Gardner has had once in his career, when he was a kid starting out: a World Series. The Yankees won the ’09 Series against the Phillies in six games. Gardner got into five of them. But he is still looking for his first World Series hit. So he has some unfinished October business himself.
All this time later, he is back in center for the Yankees. He has a chance to hit 30 home runs, something he’s never done before. Only DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres have played more games for the Yankees than he has this season. There have been plenty of unlikely heroes for the New York Yankees this season. One of them has been the guy who’s been around the longest. And matters as much as he ever has.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.