Yankees Magazine: Steadying Force

The longest-tenured current Yankees player, Brett Gardner pauses to reflect on his impact on the team

Yankees Magazine: Steadying Force

In the massive Boston Red Sox team store on tiny Yawkey Way, located a few feet from Fenway Park, T-shirts and hats featuring the tagline "Best Rivalry in Sports" were on display on a hot and humid weekend in July. And they were selling like crazy -- for good reason.

For every player who has worn the pinstripes, there is an expectation that when the Yankees take on the Boston Red Sox -- especially in Fenway -- the game will be long. It will be hard fought. It will probably result in an exhilarating win for one team and a heartbreaking loss for another.

"This is one of my favorite places to play," Brett Gardner said from Fenway's third-base dugout last month. "The atmosphere, the fans and the Red Sox have always made it a challenge for us. As athletes and competitors, this is the kind of thing that we live for."

The rivalry between the two teams has been intense for more than a century, and on several occasions over the last 15 seasons, it has been as competitive as ever.

That was the case in the first two games of the July series in Boston. In the first game -- a Friday night contest that kicked off the second half of the season -- the Yankees suffered one of their toughest losses of 2017 when closer Aroldis Chapman allowed two runs and relinquished a ninth-inning lead. The next day, the Yankees took on All-Star pitcher Chris Sale, and despite a brilliant effort from fellow All-Star Luis Severino, found themselves trailing, 1-0, in the ninth against Boston closer Craig Kimbrel. But before the Red Sox could record the 27th out of the game, designated hitter Matt Holliday gave New York new life, crushing a 96 mph fastball over Fenway's fabled Green Monster.

Statcast: Holliday's 443-ft shot

What came next was seven more innings of baseball, until finally, the Yankees scored three in the 16th and held Boston at bay in the bottom of the frame. With eight plate appearances in the affair that began at 4:05 p.m. and lasted 5 hours and 50 minutes, the 33-year-old Gardner was feeling it the next day.

"When you wake up this morning, you can tell that yesterday was a long day and now your body is a little more sore," Gardner said. "That's the kind of win that completely wears out both teams, but it was a huge win for us. It probably looked like we weren't trying too hard because we didn't score many runs or get many hits, but good pitching beats good hitting. Yesterday was a classic pitchers' matchup. A lot of guys stepped up, giving us a chance to break through and score some runs there in the 16th."

His performance in battles such as these has endeared Gardner to Yankees fans over the last decade. In this particular contest, Gardner walked twice and singled. He nearly got another base hit in the third inning when he pulled a ground ball to first that forced the pitcher to cover the bag. As Sale sprinted to first, Gardner dashed down the line and ultimately dove headfirst into the base, not worrying about his body as he tried desperately to get something going for his team. Gardner was called out, but such plays set an example for younger teammates.

"Diving into first base is something that a lot of people frown upon," Gardner said. "But sometimes your instincts take over, and you are just trying to get to the bag as quickly as possible. I try not to do it too often, but if I think it might be my only chance to make it, I'm willing to give it a shot. In that case, it helped me avoid a collision with the pitcher, which would have probably slowed me down."

In the eighth inning, with the Yankees again trying to find a way to score, Gardner made the task of facing home run leader Aaron Judge even more challenging for Kimbrel. Standing on first with Judge at the plate, Gardner took off for second base six times during the at-bat. Each time Gardner ran, Judge fouled a pitch off, continually sending the veteran outfielder back to first. While Judge ended up flying out to right, having an experienced base runner with the confidence and speed to run on pitch after pitch is no doubt impactful. Whether Judge's at-bat would have ended sooner if Kimbrel could have focused exclusively on the hitter will never be known. And we'll never know if Gardner would have scored from first had Judge singled.

What we do know is that over the last 10 years, Gardner has consistently made the types of contributions that don't show up in box scores -- but that have helped his team win quite a few games.

"Well, I think the No. 1 thing for me is getting on base and giving the big guys behind me RBI opportunities," Gardner said. "Scoring runs is the name of the game. So for me, on-base percentage and runs scored are the most important statistics. But from the standpoint that's a little more difficult to measure, setting the tone from the get-go and bringing energy to the top of the lineup are just as important."

By no means are Gardner's contributions to his team's successes limited to these often-unheralded efforts, especially this season. At the All-Star break, the leadoff man had already amassed 15 home runs -- two shy of his career high, which he set in 2014.

"I've tried to incorporate my legs a little more in my swing," Gardner said. "I'm trying to make sure I'm ready to hit if I get a good pitch. I've also been a little bit more aggressive at the plate this season. I've got a good enough eye to take pitches that are out of the zone for the most part, especially early in the count. But when the ball is in the zone, I'm staying within myself and taking my 'A' swing consistently this season."

None of Gardner's home runs this season was more dramatic than the three-run shot he hit on May 5 at Wrigley Field. With the Yankees trailing, 2-0, and down to their last out against the reigning world champion Cubs, Gardner came to the plate to face Hector Rondon. The reliever quickly got two strikes on Gardner, putting the pressure to keep the game going squarely on the veteran Yankees outfielder.

"I wouldn't say I was nervous," Gardner said. "I like to be as focused as possible. I was excited to come up in that situation. You're not excited once you get two strikes called on you, but you have to put those pitches out of your mind because you still have at least one more pitch to work with. I feel pretty comfortable hitting with two strikes. At that moment, I tried to have laser focus."

After falling behind 1-2, Gardner fouled off two pitches and took a ball before depositing Rondon's seventh offering of the at-bat over the right-field wall, giving the Yankees a one-run lead that Chapman would preserve.

Gardner's three-run shot in 9th

"It was one of those games where we were just dragging along, and it almost didn't feel like we were going to win," Gardner said. "We weren't expecting to lose, but we weren't able to get a whole lot going until the ninth.

"Having guys on base helped because the last thing the pitcher wanted to do is put a ball in the dirt and let the runners move up," Gardner continued. "He left a slider up, and I put a good swing on it. To be able to come through in a big spot like that and lift the team up really fired me up. It was an exciting game."

Amid his power surge this season, which included nine longballs in May, Gardner reached a career milestone, collecting his 1,000th hit on June 1. While reluctant to talk about any individual accomplishment, Gardner recognized the significance of this achievement, especially because all 1,000 hits came in a Yankees uniform.

"Yeah, maybe I'm a little proud of it," Gardner said through a laugh. "Starlin Castro got to 1,000 hits when he was like 25 years old, and here I am creeping up on my 34th birthday. It definitely makes me appreciate how special playing with guys like Derek Jeter or Ichiro Suzuki -- who both amassed more than 3,000 hits -- was for me. But it also makes me step back and appreciate the things that have happened over the course of my career."

Gardner has also stolen 233 bases in his career, including 47 in 2010 and a league-leading 49 in 2011. With 15 steals this season, Gardner remains a threat on the basepaths, but admits that his approach has changed.

"I don't run as much as I used to," he said. "I have to be smart about it and be aware of how my body's feeling. I have some big guys behind me in the lineup that are capable of doing some serious damage. When I go, I want to make sure that I'm going to be safe. In my mind, I'm already in scoring position when I'm on first base because those guys are capable of driving the ball into the gap at any time. It's important to be aware of the situation but still be as aggressive as possible and put as much pressure on the opposing pitcher as I can."

Except for the 2012 season, when Gardner played in just 16 games, he has been healthy during his entire major league career. Being a consistent presence for his team is what Gardner is most proud of.

"Being on the field day in and day out means that you are always there to help your team," Gardner said. "You can't get to 1,000 hits if you are always on the DL, and you can't help your team win if you are always hurt."

From his first hit in 2008 through today, Gardner has seen the makeup and direction of the team change several times. He is the only player on the roster who has witnessed the full evolution. From the arrival of high-profile free-agent acquisitions Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett and Sabathia in 2009; to winning that season's World Series; to the retirements of Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez; to the recent influx of young talent, Gardner has seen it all.

"You think that those guys are going to play forever," Gardner said. "You don't think Derek Jeter is ever going to retire. You think he'll be here until he's 60, and then there comes a time when you show up to spring training and he's not there. But just being able to see guys like Derek, Ichiro, Alex, Jorge, Mariano and Andy going about their business every day was really special. Watching what they did to make themselves successful was something I will never forget. They taught me as much about how to carry yourself off the field and what people expect from you as a Yankee as they did about hitting or fielding.

"I was blessed to have had so many great guys to learn from. Johnny Damon took me under his wing and really looked out for me, and he made sure that I was doing the right things off the field. That was really awesome for me in the first few years of my career."

These days, Gardner, the longest-tenured Yankees player, finds himself in a leadership role, especially with so many young players on the roster.

"I'm excited about playing alongside guys and watching them grow and do their thing out on the field," Gardner said. "It's been a little different this year, but I'm embracing the role of trying to help the younger players as much as I can. I remember how I was treated as a young player, and I want to return the favor. I want to help them in any way they need."

Gardner's experience has also taught him that there is value in making young players feel comfortable when they first step into a big league clubhouse.

"If players feel good about being here, they will play as well as they can," Gardner said. "I think it's important to get to know guys. It's important to establish friendships and bonds early on in spring training so that you know a guy like Clint Frazier, who didn't start the regular season in the big leagues but is here now. It was important to get to know him and establish a relationship with him during spring training. I'm sure that was valuable to him and helped him to get to where he is now."

When asked to reflect on his entire experience in pinstripes, Gardner stood up from his seat at the end of the visitors' dugout and looked out past the Fenway Park infield toward the Green Monster.

"Being with the Yankees my whole career and getting to witness so many things makes me feel blessed," he said. "Coming from a town of 2,000 people in the middle of nowhere in South Carolina and getting to play on a team with such a rich history and tradition has been pretty special. When it's all said and done -- hopefully several years from now -- I will be able to appreciate it for more than a few seconds, but right now, I'm living in the moment and taking things one day at a time."

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.