In a city such as New York, it's hard to find success of any sort, let alone on one of the biggest stages the city has to offer. And sustained success? Fuhgeddaboudit. There are always new shows hitting Broadway and "must-see" attractions cropping up. The "place to be" or the "it" socialite or celebrity will cause a stir one night and disappear from the zeitgeist the next.
Outsiders see these things and chase them. But true New Yorkers know what's up. They know that their favorite bodega around the corner will offer them a better sandwich than the chic new spot downtown with the line out the door. A real Manhattanite knows that the local hole-in-the-wall tavern is usually way more fun than "being seen" at the buzziest new club in the Meatpacking District.
Trends come and go in a New York minute, but what will always remain are the standards that have never failed.
The same holds true in the Bronx, where big names are always rolling through the Yankees' clubhouse, stirring up beat reporters and fans, and eating up the spotlight. There's nothing wrong with that. But just like New York City doesn't run only on what's hot, the Yankees don't win just with the biggest stars garnering all the back-page headlines.
For more than a decade, Brett Gardner has been the glue that has held the Yankees together. Since debuting in June of 2008 -- stepping into a clubhouse that included Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and others -- to winning the World Series in 2009, to watching the Core Four members make their exits, to welcoming in the Baby Bombers, Gardner has operated in the background, grinding out at-bats, playing hurt and setting the table.
He has laid low for the most part. But as Gardner goes, so go the Yankees. Even though he's not making waves, the Yankees still ebb and flow with him.
From his perch in the lineup --- usually right at the top -- and from his corner stall in the home clubhouse, a prime spot reserved for the most respected Yankees, Gardner, reliable and trustworthy as ever, guides the team in the right direction.
There is a lot of talk about intangibles in sports, particularly baseball. A player who possesses these hard-to-define traits is seen as an asset to the team. But what exactly does that player do?
Look no further than Brett Gardner, who may as well be listed in the dictionary next to the word "intangibles."
"He is just a total baseball player," says Zach Britton. "When you think of a baseball player, you think of him."
Gritty. A grinder. Always hustling. Plays hurt. Scrappy. A leader. These are the words teammates, coaches and even opponents use to describe Gardner. He is everything you can't quantify.
"First time I met him, I thought he was a good player and scrappy," says Carsten Sabathia, who has been a teammate of Gardner's since 2009. "He works hard, runs hard and is always going to give you everything he's got. It hasn't changed at all. He's always the same. He's a jokester on the team; he can get the energy going among the guys. But really, as far as his effort on the field, he never changes.
"I think the way he always plays hard on the field is a good example for guys to follow, and that naturally makes him a leader."
The veteran left-hander is right. There may be young players with more pure talent than Gardner, but they'd be foolish not to follow his lead when it comes to playing the game hard. And although Gardner will never toot his own horn, he recognizes how vital his experience is to leading the team.
"It's obviously a very important role and something that I don't take lightly," he says. "I don't want to say it was something that was thrust upon me or thrown at me because the longer you're here, eventually you kind of move into that role. Obviously, we've had a lot of turnover on our roster the last few years, and it doesn't really seem to me or feel to me that I've been here as long as I have, but when I sit down and think about it, I guess I have been here quite a little while.
"I've always just tried to play hard. And it sounds kind of simple, but I've always tried to do my best and take my job as seriously as possible. I think it can be a long season. And being mentally tough enough to be able to grind through it when times aren't good, being able to keep going and knowing that the best is yet to come and good things are around the corner, I think sometimes it can be easy to lose sight of that. I think it's about keeping things in perspective, compartmentalizing things … I feel like I've been able to do a pretty good job of that, and I think that's what's allowed me to still be here."
None of that is to say that his play on the field isn't superb. Between the white lines, Gardner's output speaks for itself. Although he is small in stature compared to many teammates, the 5-foot-11 Gardner has an enormous presence in the batter's box. His ability to make pitchers work not only puts pressure on the opposition, but it also puts everyone behind him in the lineup in a better position to succeed.
Through the beginning of August, Gardner was one of the best in the league at lengthening at-bats. His 4.18 pitches per plate appearance placed him among the top 25 batters in all of Major League Baseball. Leading off a game, long at-bats are especially important, giving his teammates ample opportunity to see what the pitcher is working with that day. And considering that the Yankees had scored 72 first-inning runs through the end of July -- only in the fifth frame had they scored more -- Gardner's efforts often made an immediate impact.
"It's always a challenge," Britton says of facing Gardner, which he did 14 times to mixed results as a member of the Orioles. "He's going to make you throw a lot of pitches, he's going to make you throw strikes, and then there's the chance that he puts the ball in play -- and he's fast. … And then when he's on base, he's a threat to steal. So, he's the total package. He's definitely a guy that, when I was on the opposing team, he was a guy you know you always had to keep your eye on."
For Gardner, grinding out at-bats is definitely part of his strategy, one that helps his teammates out in a way no scouting report can.
"I think everybody kind of knows what kind of stuff a pitcher has coming into the game and knows what to expect," Gardner says. "But it's nice to see him and what he has because not every day and not every start does a pitcher have all of his pitches. Maybe their slider is not working that great that day, and they're going to lean more on their curveball or their change-up or the cutter. So, I think that the more pitches you get a guy to throw and the more you get to look at them, the more of an advantage we have as an offense."
"He works the count like nobody else," says Didi Gregorius, who usually occupies the third or fourth spot in the lineup. "We'll see all [the opposing pitcher's] pitches because he'll probably have to go to his secondary or third pitch in the first at-bat. That's so big when you're leading off a game."
More than anything, though, it's about getting on base, which Gardner does in myriad ways. His .342 on-base percentage, 88 hits and 64 runs scored through Aug. 1 were all on par with the big guys in the Yankees' lineup, and his 49 walks were third only to Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks, who had 68 and 51, respectively. And, as Britton mentioned, once Gardner gets on base, he can create even more opportunities with his speed. Gardner had stolen 10 bases as of Aug. 1 this year, and the 251 he had racked up in his career put him in a tie with Willie Randolph for third on the Yankees' all-time leaderboard. Plus, Gardner's 29.1 feet-per-second sprint speed is the best on the roster and tied for the 13th-fastest time in the bigs.
"For me, the main goal is to get on base and be on base for those main guys in the lineup; it's that simple," Gardner says. "But I do like to see my fair share of pitches and make the pitcher work and let him know that it's going to be a long day for him, hopefully."
Some of Gardner's most epic at-bats have seen him outlast pitchers that he forced to throw 10 and 12 pitches. With the Yankees on the brink of elimination in Game 5 of the 2017 American League Division Series in Cleveland, the left-handed Gardner had two 12-pitch at-bats, one against southpaw Andrew Miller and another against righty Cody Allen. Although Gardner struck out against Miller, facing Allen in the top of the ninth and the Yankees clinging to a one-run lead, the outfielder laced a two-run single to right field to give his team the breathing room it needed to win the game and the series.
"Every team in baseball could use a Brett Gardner," Allen said after the loss.
The 2017 postseason was thrilling for everyone in the Yankees' clubhouse, young and old. It marked a return to October for Gardner, who, other than an 0-for-4 night in the 2015 AL Wild Card Game, hadn't tasted a playoff run since 2012. The left fielder was lucky enough to reach the mountaintop in 2009 -- his first full year with the Yankees. But the dry spell since then helped put things into perspective for the South Carolina native, who turned 35 last month.
"That first year, I don't want to say you take it for granted, and I don't want to say you assume, but maybe you just figure and hope that this is what's going to come around every year," Gardner says. "But the longer you play, you realize how hard it is to get to that point and how much work goes in to get to that point just to have a chance to play for that championship. Last year, we got so close."
Gardner says winning now would mean even more than that first year because of all he's been through in his career, and he relishes the chance to anoint a new group of would-be champions who are champing at the bit for success and glory.
"We've got a pretty young team, especially for the Yankees," he says. "It's been a lot of fun to watch them continue to grow and watch them come into their own at the big-league level.
"As a young guy, you're wanting to get your career started and wanting to make a little bit of money and wanting to maybe get a contract," he continues with a smile. "But I think the longer that you play, the more a championship is what you're playing for. I know that's something CC and I have talked about a little bit. That's why we're here. We want to win, and we want to win badly. We've got a great team this year, and we've obviously still got a lot of work to do, but I really like our team and like our chances."
Should the Yankees summit the mountain, leading the ascent will be Gardner. He has been there before. He has seen it all. The bright October lights don't distract him any more than the ones in Times Square distract the Midtown local hustling to work with her head down.
New York hardens you. Only the strongest make it, and never without scars. The city leaves its mark. The special ones leave a mark right back. Gardner is still plowing through in the Bronx, leading the charge the only way he knows how -- hustling and with his head down day after day.
"When we come to the field and get to work, we're trying to get a win -- that's the only thing that's going to get us to where we want to be," he says. "Every day is a new day, but every day the goal is to win a game, get some rest and then do it again tomorrow."