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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Clint Frazier reunited with mentor Brett Gardner, but in a different role

Clint Frazier #77 of the Yankees celebrates a

Clint Frazier #77 of the Yankees celebrates a home run against the Atlanta Braves with teammate Brett Gardner #11 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx on Aug. 12, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Stand Clint Frazier next to Brett Gardner, and the only thing the two have in common are the pinstriped uniform.

Frazier is 26, sports a robust red mane, favors super-trendy Nike high-top custom cleats and toggles often between social media accounts, where his cat has a starring role.

Gardner, who just signed a one-year, $4 million deal to return for a 14th season with the Yankees, is old enough that his manager didn’t even venture a guess about his actual age while speaking about him Saturday (he’s 37). And Gardner’s hair retired long before he will.

The generation gap has made these two outfielders the Yankees’ Odd Couple. But if you closed your eyes and listened to Frazier over the past couple of years, the words that tumbled out of him weren’t all that different from Gardner’s lexicon — minus the South Carolina accent.

That’s because Frazier has done plenty of maturing on Gardner’s watch, making the transformation from brash, occasionally abrasive prospect to a major-leaguer who allows his bat to make the most noise.

"It's been fun to see that relationship grow and I think the respect that exists between those two guys," Aaron Boone said Saturday. "I think they both appreciate one another and I believe that's a relationship that's evolved. And I do feel like, you know, they — in a way — probably pushed each other a little bit."

Before the Yankees finally welcomed back Gardner, the pushing appeared to be over. Boone anointed Frazier the Yankees’ starting leftfielder this past week, even with the team moving closer to wrapping up negotiations with Gardner.

Frazier had earned it. Playing through a once-in-a-century pandemic wouldn’t seem like the ideal time for a breakthrough season, but that’s what he put together with a .905 OPS to go with eight homers and 26 RBIs in 39 games. He also challenged Gardner for playing time during October and even took the Rays’ Blake Snell deep in Game 1 of the Division Series.

To the Yankees, Frazier had officially arrived, and Gardner — the last clubhouse link to the ’09 championship — was moving into more of a supporting role.

For years, Gardner refused to yield his position to the up-and-coming Frazier, who was severely delayed by a frightening concussion in 2018. The competition with Gardner surely helped strengthen Frazier and provided a valuable learning experience during what must have felt like a frustrating journey.

All this comes back into focus now with Gardner’s return to the roster. On the surface, the mentor-student dynamic still should work to Frazier’s advantage, and Boone reiterated Saturday that the leftfield job belongs to him despite the looming reunion with Gardner. The manager did attach a small asterisk, however.

"Look, I expect Clint to be our leftfielder and to be in that starting lineup [regardless of] whoever we bring in here," Boone said. "Obviously, a guy like Gardy is a guy that you know would play a lot, certainly, as a lot of our guys that will be quote-unquote bench players or whatever. But Clint is going to be a regular player for us going into this season."

The only caveat here is how much Frazier will look over his shoulder during the inevitable lean stretches at the plate. Gardner isn’t just any player, and this season is a chance for the immensely popular Yankee to get his victory lap in front of the fans — something that was sorely missed last summer.

If Frazier struggles, Gardner’s Bronx stature could bring more pressure to bear, and the leftfield situation would get fuzzier again.

You would expect Frazier to hold off Gardner this time around, but the benefit of having his mentor back in the building should pay additional dividends for the Yankees. Gardner’s impact goes beyond what he does between the lines, and that example has helped Frazier graduate into the leftfielder’s role. But Gardner is a difficult act to follow, a high bar in the Bronx for any youngster.

"One of the things I look at is toughness, the ability to post [every day], the ability to play through things," Boone said. "The premium he puts on being ready to go each and every day. There is a blue-collarness to the way he goes about his business, I think, that is infectious. He’s got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder that he plays with.

"I don’t even know how old he is now, but he’s got a young man’s body. He’s in great shape. He has aged very well. And I think you've seen him really adapt and apply information to continue to make himself in a lot of ways a better player, but certainly still a very relevant player."

The Yankees would love to see those Gardyesque attributes in Frazier, his one-time understudy. And now Frazier will have him sharing the same clubhouse again, two Yankees at opposite ends of their careers, linked by a patch of outfield grass.

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