Last year, a speedy, soft-swinging outfielder, who has averaged a .259-10-41 line over his career, hit .223 in a pandemic-shortened season ahead of free agency.
That hardly reads like an iconic baseball career at any MLB outpost, much less the New York Yankees – but the player, Brett Gardner, bridged the gap between the glory and the gory and today more than anyone in the franchise.
If asked to name the last player left in pinstripes from the last World Series team to spring from the Bronx, would Gardner be the first name flipped from your tongue? CC Sabathia’s retirement, though, left Brett the Jet as the last man standing from 2009 come 2020.
Gardner was drafted in 2005, and joined the Yanks as a rookie in 2008, at 24 years old. He was always couched in words reserved for the guys who reach the majors with temerity more than talent. All the buzzwords applied to Gardner: modest, hungry, scrappy, useful; he was willing to play any outfield position, or bat anywhere in the lineup, or steal any base at any time, and even slipped a homer over the wall on occasion.
While it's easy to be spellbound by stars - the pinstriped mythology was built on the backs and bats of demigods, from Ruth to Reggie to Jeter - it's the guys like Gardner who impress us the most because they look, talk, and walk like us. They were blue collar in a white collar world, ran nose-down toward everything they got.
Gardner had no rap sheet, no posse, and no demands. As the sport lurched toward vulgar gestures at the plate (or toward the plate), Gardner just handled his business with his renowned hard-hat ethic. He ran out every ball he hit like it was his last. He talked in team-first terms. He always pursued victory over the vanity of personal stats.
At 37, Gardner is not ready to retire. Guys like him never are. They're armed with energy and wisdom and gratitude. But the Yanks want to keep their payroll below the $210 million luxury tax threshold, so they can't pay Gardner more than $3 million or so, a steep downgrade from the $10 million he made last year (and barely more than the $2.5 million he received when the team bought out his $2.5 million option for 2021).
While even aging utility players like Gardner take pride in their pay, he's made at least $10 million in five separate seasons, including $13.5 million in his prime (2016), which was also the only year he won a Gold Glove. Overall, Gardner has made about $84 million in salary - money fit for King Farouk, much less a player who survived on guile more than greatness.
Every team in every sport seems to need a guy like Gardner, who doesn't obsess over his stats or his status or his salary. He doubles as glue in a dugout, or clubhouse, or locker room. And though he's never morphed into a monster hitter, random power outbursts aside, no one questions his toughness or timing in clutch moments.
The Yankees don't need another nuclear bat, considering they hit over 300 homers two years ago, and are at the top of all salient offensive stats every year. A lineup with Stanton and Judge and LeMahieu and Torres and Sanchez doesn't need another bopper. They need a hybrid of handyman/coach/consigliere.
They need Brett Gardner.
Follow Jason Keidel on Twitter: @JasonKeidel