A few days before Opening Day, a veteran journalist asked Aaron Boone what a reasonable expectation for Brett Gardner could be in 2019. The Yankees manager paused for a second, and then -- in a tone both confident and defiant -- answered the question.
“A really good player,” Boone said. “A player who’s going to make important contributions to our team at the plate, in the field and in the clubhouse.”
Gardner, 35, has more than earned that vote of confidence. Sure, the outfielder’s numbers slipped in 2018, but after a decade-plus of consistent play and leadership, a tenure best defined by hard work and preparedness, he showed up in Spring Training this February focused on doing exactly what the skipper believes he is capable of.
Considering Gardner was a walk-on at the College of Charleston before being selected by the Yankees in the third round of the 2005 draft, the South Carolina native knows a thing or two about exceeding expectations.
Over the course of his career, Gardner has earned an American League All-Star selection in 2015, took home a Gold Glove Award in 2016, and, most importantly, helped the Yankees win the World Series in 2009. Last month, in a 5-3 win over Boston, he hit a grand slam for career homer
No. 100, joining Derek Jeter as the only players in Yankees history with 100 home runs and 250 steals.
On a humid morning in March, Gardner -- who signed a one-year deal with the team last fall -- sat down with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III in the home dugout at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida.
Yankees Magazine: You’re the longest-tenured player on this team. What does it mean to you to be in your 12th season with the Yankees?
Brett Gardner: It means a lot. To be able to call this home and to have the opportunity to play for the Yankees for as long as I have is something that I’m sure I’ll look back on and appreciate it a lot more than I do now. But, every day, I definitely try to take in the experience of being on the Yankees, and I’m very appreciative of that. I try to get the most out of every day I’m in pinstripes, and I try to always be a good teammate. I don’t know what it’s like to play for another organization, but I do know that playing for the Yankees is special.
Coming off a season in which you batted .236, there was no guarantee that the Yankees were going to bring you back to what is a talented and deep team. Going into the offseason, what were your thoughts on 2018 and on your future?
Last season was a grind. You always want to be better than you were, but I felt good about the fact that I left it all on the field every time I was out there. This offseason, I felt a little uncertainty about whether I was coming back to the Yankees. I wanted to continue my career, and I would have gone to another team if these guys didn’t want me back. But, I’m very excited to be back here. Hopefully, I never have to wear another jersey.
What is it about playing for only one team that makes an athlete’s career more special than if they wear a few different jerseys?
Well, in the world we live in today, it just doesn’t happen as often. Back in the day, guys made an effort to stay with one team, and teams wanted their players to start and finish in their uniform. Today, the game is such a business, and things don’t always end up how you want them to. You can’t always play where you want. For me, this is the only place I’ve ever known. I got drafted by the Yankees 14 years ago, and although I can’t believe it’s been that long, being in Tampa always reminds me of the beginning. I came down to the Minor League complex across the street from this ballpark to do my first physical and workout. It’s changed a little bit since then, and so have I. But it’s still the same place, and I’m still the same guy.
How would you describe the way the team has competed over the last two seasons?
I think we’ve made some really good strides the last few years. Our goal every year is to win the World Series. Obviously, that’s not always realistic, but anything short of that we consider to be a disappointment. Over the last decade -- since the championship we won in 2009 -- we’ve been itching to get back there, and we’ve been really close in each of the last two seasons. We’ve seen a lot of young guys come up and establish themselves. They haven’t just come up and proven that they can play in the big leagues; they’ve done much more than that. We’ve got MVP candidates and All-Stars who are in their mid-20s or younger. It’s a lot of fun to watch those guys play at this level. This has been a fun team to be part of.
Looking back, what were your goals when you first got down to Tampa after you were drafted?
Most people would sit here and say that their goal was to make it to the Major Leagues, but I can’t say that. My goal was just to get the most out of the ability that was given to me. I had goals and aspirations, but I felt that if I always played the game hard and did the right things on and off the field, I would be OK with how the chips fell. I was a kid from South Carolina, and I didn’t know what to expect when I came down here or when I got to [short-season Single-A] Staten Island a week later. Looking back, it’s been a whirlwind.
Are you more reflective going into this season?
Yeah, I think so. As you get a little older, it’s just a natural thing that happens. I certainly appreciate things that have happened more and spend a little more time reflecting on them. CC [Sabathia] and I were talking the other day about where we were at when we first started playing professional baseball and what our focus is now. When you’re a young player, you’re playing to get to the big leagues, then to cement yourself as an everyday player and to get some security for your family. Now, he and I are playing for one reason: to win a World Series. We both realize how much fun it was to win it 10 years ago, and we both have put in so much work since then. Getting as close as we did the last two years, that drives you to work that much harder. So not only do you reflect on the past, but you also think about the present a little more when you’ve been playing for as long as CC and I have.
What was the 2009 postseason like for you?
I wish I could remember it a little better, but it was crazy. Being involved in a run like that for the first time, I felt fortunate to be on a veteran team. I didn’t have eight close friends that I came up through the Minor Leagues with like a lot of the guys on that team, but it was helpful to be around so many players who had won a bunch of championships before that season. They really steered me in the right direction and gave me an idea of what to expect as we advanced from one round to the next.
Besides that championship, what have been the most enjoyable experiences you’ve had with the Yankees?
I’ve been lucky to have been on the field for so many cool moments. Playing alongside the Core Four and being around to see their last games was incredible. Those guys are literally legends. Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit and his last game at Yankee Stadium are at the top of my list. Those games stand out, but just getting to see how hard Derek worked, how he went about his business and what made him so successful, was great. I was able to learn from the best, and there aren’t too many guys who can say that.
As a father to two young boys, what has it been like to have them with you in Spring Training, and to know that they’ve seen you play so many times?
As a family, that’s all we’ve ever known. Someone asked me the other day if I thought this might be my last year playing, and I said that if I have a good year and if I feel good physically and mentally, I would like to keep playing a little while longer. But more importantly, my wife and our kids want me to keep playing. They enjoy the ride we’ve been on. As the kids get a little older, they can grasp how special this experience is. There are some days when I’m home and they want to talk about baseball, and that’s the last thing I want to talk about. There are other days when they want to get away from it, too, because the season can really be consuming for our whole family. But overall, they’ve had a lot of fun. They love the game, and the game has been very good for us. It has allowed us to travel to all sorts of cool places and to meet a lot of great people. I feel blessed to have been able to have them around and have them experience what goes on behind the scenes.
You’ve been a player who has consistently been known for playing hard and working hard to hone your craft. As a result, you’ve garnered great respect from the Yankees’ fan base. When did you first notice that Yankees fans were pulling for you?
A while ago. As an athlete or entertainer, you have good days and bad days. There are days when the fans love you, and there are other days when they might not love you as much. I’ve been lucky in that the fans have always been supportive. Growing up in a small town in South Carolina and then going to New York City to play for the Yankees was quite a change, so having that support has been nice. Through it all, the fans have always been great to me. The best compliment I feel a player can get is when fans say that they enjoy the way you’re playing the game. I have heard that pretty often, and it makes me feel like I’m doing something right. If I didn’t play the game the right way, I would have never made it to the big leagues. I would have never stayed here for as long as I have. So, I’m not going to change the way I play now.
What is the “right way” to play?
For each individual player, that might mean different things. For me, it’s about being prepared. You have to prepare your body and your mind. Some guys are good enough to just roll out of bed and hit .300, but that doesn’t last long. Pitchers figure you out, and you have to put the time in to make the necessary adjustments. The great thing about the group of young players we have on this team is that they all have a great head on their shoulders. They all want to be great. But for any of us, you have to show up at the ballpark prepared, and you have to really be focused for all nine innings of every game.
What is the most important piece of advice you’ve imparted to the young players on the team?
You only have one chance at this. If you mess this up, you might get a second chance in some other city, but there’s only one New York Yankees. This is your opportunity.
What are your thoughts on this year’s team?
I like what I see so far. I think we have a better team than we’ve had the last two years, and those teams were really good. We have to put the work in, stay relatively healthy and play hard for 162 games. But we have a lot of depth at every position, and that is probably the most important thing you can have on a roster. We also have possibly the best bullpen of all time, and getting James Paxton will make our rotation stronger than it was last year. I really love the group of guys we have.
Lastly, I’m going to mention a few of your teammates. Tell me the first thing that comes to your mind when I say their names. I’ll start with Aaron Judge.
You can’t say that for everyone!
OK. Gleyber is very talented on both sides of the ball. There’s a reason he was the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball, and he obviously hasn’t disappointed. What he was able to do last year after not even getting to the big leagues until a few weeks into the season was unlike anything I could have imagined. It just showed how hard he had worked and how well prepared he was.
He loves to hit, and he wants to be great. Just like Gleyber, he showed how driven he was last season.
He’s a great competitor. He always wants the ball and wants to be on the mound. When it’s his day to pitch, he’s coming after you.
He’s been a wonderful example for everyone. The way he treats people is exceptional. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what race or ethnicity you are or how important your job is. He treats everyone with respect, and I think that’s a great example for everyone in our clubhouse. He’s also been a leader to all of the young players on the team, not just the pitchers. He’s always willing to let them pick his brain. He and I are two completely different guys; he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame someday, and I’m going to be back in South Carolina, fishing and riding a tractor, but he’ll always be a great friend.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.