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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Brett Gardner wears his blue-collar Yankees pinstripes proudly

Yankees' Bret Gardner during batting practice spring training

Yankees' Bret Gardner during batting practice spring training in Tampa, FL Tuesday Feb. 18, 2020 Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

 TAMPA, Fla.

Brett Gardner never expected to be penciled in as the Opening Day centerfielder for the Yankees at age 36.

Actually, let’s rephrase that. Never dreamed it would happen.

Entering his 13th season, the Yankees’ longest-tenured player was asked if his rookie self, upon first entering that Bronx clubhouse in 2008, could have imagined getting to this point in his career. He didn’t need much time to ponder the question.

“I’ll be honest — no,” Gardner said last week at Steinbrenner Field. “I’ve always been, and I feel like I still am, a little more of a short-term outlet kind of guy. Just worry about today and then see where you stand tomorrow. But yeah, I’m obviously happy to be back here and part of this.

“I feel like we’ve got some unfinished business from the last couple of years and I love the group of guys we have in place. I feel great about our chances.”

Gardner should know. He’s the only Yankee left from the 2009 World Series team. CC Sabathia retired after last season, and Gardner is the singular remaining championship link for a franchise that prides itself on passing that glory on to every subsequent generation.

As Gardner mentioned, who could have predicted that? But it’s also not a coincidence. His longevity did not happen by accident.

Gardner is one of only five Yankees to be drafted by the club and collect 1,000 hits in pinstripes, along with Thurman Munson, Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada.

And if everything goes according to plan, Gardner will become the sixth outfielder in franchise history to play in at least part of 13 seasons with the Yankees, a select group that includes Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Bernie Williams and Roy White.

Gardner’s name pops up plenty on more of these lists, which read like Monument Park rosters and give you an idea of the special places that he’s reached.

But Gardner, even at 36, doesn’t play like someone on the back nine. He’s full-tilt, full-time and an example for a loaded Yankees team that has just about everything — including a fired-up old guy to show the youngsters how it’s done on occasion, provide the proverbial kick in the pants that means more coming from a teammate with legit Bronx cred.

“Toughness, edge, kind of just a blue-collar way about him that I think helps kind of set the tone,” manager Aaron Boone said. “I think when your leaders and your best guys are kind of the drivers of the culture, guys fall in with that. And I’d like to think that we have a toughness and an edge to us in part because of the way Gardy goes about his business.”

People around baseball don’t really use the word captain anymore, not the way they used to. The job has been vacant since Jeter walked away in 2014, but Gardner is as close to being a captain as the Yankees have right now.

Maybe you don’t think his reverse-jackhammering of dugout ceilings was very captain-like (he’s not proud of that), but sometimes his competitive surge causes a fuse to pop.

Better to care too much, and there’s no disputing that Gardner’s every ounce is devoted to winning. That’s the message he strives to convey.

“I’ve had to transition into more of a leadership role, and that’s definitely something that is important to me,” Gardner said. “But I don’t know that there’ll ever be another captain here.

“I mean, we all know who the captain of the Yankees is. He’s a guy that I was fortunate enough to play with for several years and get to learn from and to watch. So I think as you get older, you take bits and pieces of things you learn from different people at different times and put it all together, and that helps mold you into who you are.”

That leaves Gardner to help mold this next generation of Yankees, just as Jeter and others did before him, and for the first time, he’ll try to do it without Sabathia riding shotgun. Gardner emphasized how much he’ll miss having him around, describing him as an irreplaceable Yankee.

Gardner has seen a bunch of those teammates move on. He’s been the only constant, and now he is back for at least another season after signing a one-year deal (with an option) that’s worth a guaranteed $12.5 million. But after all this time, that one World Series ring is a reminder not to take anything for granted.

“If you had told me that I would be here for another decade and not make it back to the World Series, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Gardner said. “It’s been too long. Not just for us but for the fans and for the city of New York.”

Gardner, all these years later, is in a good position to help personally deliver one again.

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