"I told her the next time I come back, I want it to be because I'm playing," Gardner recalled. "She said, 'OK.'"
Three years later, he and the girlfriend -- now his wife -- are back. His contract was purchased from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to start in left field and lead off in the Yankees' lineup against the Rangers on Monday. Outfielder Justin Christian was optioned back to Triple-A.
"All the hard work you put in, all the travel and bus trips, weightlifting and hitting and early work and all that -- the dream becomes a reality," the 24-year-old Gardner said.
Gardner's known for his speed and plate discipline, notching 34 stolen bases and a team-high .412 on-base percentage at Scranton. The left-handed hitter, a third-round pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft from the College of Charleston (South Carolina), usually played center field in the Minors but can play all outfield positions.
"My coaches have always told me the last few years, 'Use your speed, because that's your biggest asset,'" Gardner said.
It seems like Yankees manager Joe Girardi won't be shy in using him on the basepaths.
"I want him to be aggressive," Girardi said. "You want the guys that are able to change the defense, change the pitcher's mind-set, to do that, where they have to worry about him. "You don't want him just to be station-to-station -- we have catchers to do that."
Girardi said the club will face only a few left-handers in the next two weeks, so he wanted to call up a left-handed hitter instead of a righty. Johnny Damon, usually the left fielder, didn't start Monday but "physically, he's OK," Girardi said. Catcher Chris Stewart was designated for assignment to make room for Gardner on the 40-man roster.
As for how frequently Gardner will play, Girardi said: "With us being able to rotate the [designated hitter] a little bit, you can do a lot of different things. He's going to get some playing time."
Gardner said it didn't hit him until he was driving to Yankee Stadium on Monday morning, catching glimpses of the Empire State Building until the city came into full view.
"I come over the hill, and sure enough, there was the city," Gardner said.
He and his wife, who planned to be at the game, were back.
Willie Bans is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.