TAMPA, Fla. — When Alex Rodriguez was released last summer, Brett Gardner became the longest-tenured Yankee. Gardner made his big-league debut on June 30, 2008.
“Crazy, man,” Gardner said. “Crazy to think that.”
Gardner began his career on a team with A-Rod and Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano and Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera and Mike Mussina. They are all gone, all retired except for Cano. Gardner still is wearing pinstripes and will open the season as the Yankees’ leftfielder.
“It’s one of the things probably that whenever I’m done playing, I’ll look back on and appreciate a little more than I do now,” Gardner said. “To be here longer than anybody . . . got drafted in 2005 and it’s hard to believe it’s been that long. It’s definitely flown by.”
Gardner, 33, is one of the veterans on a team that is bursting with young outfield prospects, many of whom are looking to take Gardner’s job. If one of two pan out from a group that includes Aaron Judge, Clint Frazier, Blake Rutherford, Dustin Fowler and Billy McKinney, the Yankees eventually will say goodbye to Gardner, who is signed through the end of next season with an option for 2019 but does not have a no-trade clause.
Until then, though, Gardner is willing to pass along what he learned from his first big-league spring training in 2007.
“I was pretty overwhelmed, man,” Gardner said. “There was a lot of big names in the room. I was number 91. My locker was between Alex and Robbie Cano. So basically I didn’t have a locker. There was no sitting in my locker because the media was always there. It was a good experience, though. It give you a taste of what you’re working towards and what your goal is. When you get to come to big-league spring training, even if you haven’t played above ‘A’ ball, I think you get a little taste of what the big leagues are like. It maybe even lights a fire inside of you. It makes you realize you don’t want to go back to the minor leagues.
“All the veteran guys were great to me as a young guy. They all treated me great. All made me feel welcome, feel like part of the team. Especially my second big-league camp. My first big-league camp, I was more hiding in the corner, trying to keep my mouth shut and my eyes open. Not even have anybody realize I was there and just try to get my work in.”
Gardner is part of the fabric of the Yankees’ clubhouse and is a favorite of general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi for his gritty, hard-nosed play. He may not earn a plaque in Monument Park, but he won a World Series ring in 2009, earned his first All-Star Game nod in 2015 and won his first Gold Glove in 2016.
“He’s changed a lot,” Girardi said. “He came up as a centerfielder and turned himself into a Gold Glove leftfielder. The way he plays is still the same: really, really hard. That part has not changed, but he’s grown as a guy that speaks up now. When you come up as a rookie, you’re not going to speak up much. That’s just kind of the way it works in the baseball clubhouse. He’s a leader now. Those are the things that I’ve seen.”
Gardner tried to pay it forward this spring to the new generation of Baby Bombers. No rah-rah speeches, just some good advice from the longest-tenured Yankee.
“You try to get to know guys, first of all,” Gardner said. “The first time I meet Clint Frazier, I can’t talk to him for 30 minutes about what he needs to not do and what he needs to do. I think you’ve got to get to know somebody, not just on the field but off the field. We’ve got a lot of guys all over that have a lot of talent. I think as one of the veteran guys in the room, it’s up to us to help guide those guys along, help them feel comfortable, because ultimately that’s going to help us win more ballgames this year.”