Brett Gardner’s baseball career could have been a lot shorter. A walk-on at the College of Charleston in his home state of South Carolina, Gardner didn’t stand out at first. As a freshman, he showed up at the Cougars’ facility without having secured a roster spot. Recognizing the diminutive hopeful’s fortitude -- and intrigued by a letter from Gardner’s father, Jerry, who was an outfielder in the Phillies’ minor league system during the mid-1970s -- head coach John Pawlowski allowed Gardner to practice with the other players. The determined frosh immediately made an impression -- and ultimately, the team. Improving every season as his collegiate career progressed, Gardner batted .447 as a senior and was selected by the Yankees in the third round of the 2005 Draft.
Gardner’s big league journey began in 2008 and has included a World Series title in 2009, an American League All-Star team selection in 2015, a Gold Glove Award in 2016 and longevity with one organization rarely seen in professional sports these days. Now in his 14th season in pinstripes, with a .257 career average and more than 130 home runs, Gardner is one of the most respected players in the game and a leader in the Bronx. Earlier this season, the veteran outfielder carved out some time for a phone call with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III.
Yankees Magazine: How exciting was it to open up this season in front of fans?
Brett Gardner: Well, last year was just so much different than any other time. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I’ve been lucky to have been with the Yankees for my entire career, and I’ve played in front of a lot of fans at home and on the road. I’ve kind of always taken that for granted, and then last year, we were playing in front of zero fans. It was something that every player had to learn to deal with and navigate. This year, stadiums are starting to open back up, and it’s so nice to be in front of fans again. It’s been awesome to see how much our fans have enjoyed being back in person. It’s even awesome to hear the boos from fans of other teams. I’m so happy that they are all back in the seats.
YM: There was some uncertainty this offseason about your future in baseball and with the Yankees. How much did you want to keep playing and return to the Bronx?
BG: I wanted to continue my career, and I wanted it to be here. I’m very thankful that things worked out and that I have another opportunity with the Yankees. It’s something that I do not take for granted. I’m just trying to enjoy every day I have here now. I was unsure what the season was going to look like this year, and things came down to the wire with me. It took a while to work things out, but I was really happy when I knew that I would be coming back. I’m looking forward to seeing where the rest of this season takes us, and I’m going to do everything I can to help this team win.
YM: As your two sons have gotten older, is it harder to be away from them, or does their maturity and ability to relate to what you’re doing on the field balance that out somewhat?
BG: The older my kids get, as a father, it’s more difficult to be away from them. But I’m thankful that my kids are old enough to remember most of this journey that we’ve been on together as a family. Hopefully the people that they’ve gotten to meet and the lessons they’ve learned from my teammates or families of my teammates will affect them in a positive way and will allow them to have a more well-rounded perspective on life. Also, in large part because of my career, they’ve gotten to experience different parts of the country or even the world -- like when we went to London in 2019 -- and I think those things are definitely important. They understand how special those experiences have been. They have a good sense that what I do is unique and that the people I work with are special.
YM: You’ve had a distinctive career by current standards, having played for only one team for 14 years. How important is it to you to finish your career with the same organization you started with?
BG: I’m so happy that I’ve not only gotten to play this long, but that I’ve gotten to do it in one place. When you think about how special this organization is, it makes it even sweeter. It’s something that I’m thankful for. I feel blessed to have been on some really great teams, and that will always stand out. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn from some really great managers and coaches, and I have played alongside some really good teammates who have not only helped me as a player but also as a man off the field. The time has flown by, but it’s also been a lot of fun.
YM: At what point in your career did you feel like guys began to look at you as a veteran leader?
BG: I wouldn’t really say that there was any one point. It just happened over time, gradually. There are some guys on the team who are still in their 20s, but who are great leaders and communicators. They are people who our teammates look to and follow. I went from being the youngest guy on the team to being around for a little while, and then, over the course of a couple years, I was one of the veteran guys in the clubhouse among several. Now I’m the guy who has been here the longest. It happened quickly, but I’ve always tried to embrace the role that I’ve been in. I feel like I’ve had some really good examples to follow from guys who I’ve been able to learn a lot from. I’ve not only learned what to do but also what not to do. I think it’s important to learn from the guys who do the right things and those who do the wrong things. I’ve tried to take it all in and attack the following day with that knowledge. I feel that setting a good example as a teammate extends from the field to the clubhouse to the way you live your life away from the game.
YM: Who were the teammates who set bad examples?
BG: Umm … [laughs].
YM: Just kidding -- this probably isn’t the right publication for that question. But who comes to mind in terms of former teammates who set good examples?
BG: As a young player, I was a teammate of Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, and I took a lot from being around them. Of course, I got to play alongside Derek [Jeter], Alex [Rodriguez] and Jorge [Posada], guys who had a whole lot of accolades and championships and home run crowns. More than just being talented players, there are other things that made those guys great. Being able to learn what made them click, watching them go through their routines and their business every day, was invaluable for a young player like me. I even think about guys like Robinson Canó, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira. I tried to take a little bit from each of those guys -- and a long list of other players -- and tried to learn from it.
YM: You’ve often said that your father has had a huge impact on your career, including when he wrote a letter to the head coach at the College of Charleston asking if you could practice with the team as a freshman. How did he help you grow into the baseball player you have become?
BG: More than anything, emulating his work ethic and mindset helped me to get the most out of the ability that God gave me. I know it sounds simple, but the work I put in and the way I have prepared behind the scenes have paved the way for my career with the Yankees more than anything else. Even right now, I may not be at my best at the plate, but I feel like not taking those struggles into the field and being mindful that I can still impact the game in a positive way from the defensive side is important. He instilled those things in me, along with how you always have to find ways to improve.
YM: When you think back on the 2009 season, what stands out about how that eventual World Series championship-winning team stacked up when you first took the field in April?
BG: We were a really good team right from the start. That was my first full season in the Majors, and I was lucky to be on that team and to experience that type of success so early in my career. Thinking back on Opening Day, I remember just feeling like we had a chance to do something special, but we knew that we would need to stay focused on one game at a time. We lost the first game to the Orioles, then lost again in the second game. But we were a resilient group all season, and that attitude took shape after those first two games. We won the last game of that opening series and basically kept winning after that.
Winning the 2009 World Series is something that still drives me to put the work in now, to try to get back to that point. I remember the feeling I had when we won the World Series; I remember the sense of accomplishment being so unique to anything else. And then I remember the celebration that came along with that. I want to bring that back to New York City and to this group of guys. I want them to experience what our 2009 team did.
YM: CC Sabathia played a key role on that team, and the two of you eventually became elder statesmen on the team. What was it like to share such an important leadership role with him?
BG: It was great. We were always on the same page in terms of what was crucial to our team’s success and how important it was to do things the right way. CC instantly had our respect. He and I hit it off from the start. In a way, we were two completely different people from opposite parts of the country, but we were close right from the start of his time with the team. I’m thankful just to have been able to play alongside him for as long as I did and to have watched him put so much work in behind the scenes. Watching him compete on the mound was always fun, and it was inspiring. He’s a very special person, and he was just as special as a competitor. He set a great example for all of us. Hopefully, we can see him a little more often now, but going through the pandemic last year, we really didn’t have much of a chance to get together. He’s a guy who you can’t replace. You show up on day one, and you instantly realize that he’s not there, and there’s a big void as a result of that. We miss him on a daily basis, but just like when Derek retired, the show goes on.
YM: It’s hard to believe that Derek has been off the field long enough to have already been elected to the Hall of Fame -- more than a year ago, in fact. What are the most lasting impressions that he had on you as a ballplayer?
BG: Man, that’s a good question. The consistency of his mindset. He showed up to the field every day with the same mindset. It didn’t matter if we were home or on the road. It didn’t matter what day of the week it was or what his batting average was. It didn’t matter if he had four hits the day before or no hits for three straight days. He was the same guy every day, and over the course of a long season and an even longer career, that allowed him to be so successful. His ability to process things that happened and learn from those things but not let them tear him up -- which can easily happen in baseball -- was something I really admired. He looked at every day as a new opportunity, and he forgot about the past right away. He was always facing forward, and he’s the best I’ve ever seen at that. I have tried to be like Derek in that respect, but I can’t do that nearly as consistently as he did.
YM: What are your thoughts on what your team can accomplish this season?
BG: We have a talented group of guys. We haven’t played up to the expectations we have for ourselves to this point, and we’re not happy about that. We will be getting a few guys back from injuries soon, and that will be good. But we’ve dealt with injuries before, and that’s not an excuse. We are a good team, and we have to trust that the work we put in will take us to greener pastures. We have to trust the process because it’s a long season. In the game of baseball, you have a new opportunity every day to turn things around. I’m confident that we can do that.
YM: Speaking of greener pastures -- and specifically your family’s farm in South Carolina -- how much have you thought about life after baseball?
BG: I haven’t thought about it a whole lot. I can’t say that it hasn’t crossed my mind because I’ll be 38 years old this year, and I’m fully aware that I won’t be able to do this forever. Obviously, I plan to be a much more present husband and father, and also spend more time with my parents, my brother and other family and friends who I haven’t been around much for the last 15 years. Between that and spending time on our farm and coaching youth baseball, I’m sure I will keep myself busy. Right now, I’m completely focused on this season and taking things one game at a time.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the July 2021 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at www.yankees.com/publications.