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Brett Gardner’s endearing Yankees career: ‘All I’ve ever known’

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Sometime late this summer, barring injury or some other unforeseen circumstance, Brett Gardner will play his 112th game of the season. Some of these will come at any of the three outfield positions, including right, a new addition to his defensive repertoire. Some will come pinch running or pinch hitting in National League ballparks.

Some, no doubt, will come during stretches when the men who would otherwise occupy those slots — Clint Frazier, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton — are unavailable, either because of injury or illness or the need to take a few days off. There will be any number of ways that Gardner will find his name in a box score.

And when he hits 112 games for the season, he’ll also hit 1,660 for his career.

And that will nudge him past Tony Lazzeri, “Ol Poosh-em-up” Tony, and that will put Gardner in 15th place on the Yankees’ all-time list. If he winds up playing for them in 2022 (and both player and team have an option for that) he could, quite easily, play in the 238 games required to slip past Don Mattingly into the Top 10, and then it would only take five more games to hop over Bill Dickey into ninth.

“I appreciate,” Gardner said Tuesday, an hour or so before the Yankee would beat the Philliies 4-2 in an exhibition game at Tampa’s George M. Steinbrenner Field, “that this relationship has lasted as long as it has. It’s definitely not something I take lightly.”

Appreciation is something that has only grudgingly come Gardner’s way, mostly because it has felt that every year since he showed up in 2008, there has been some other player either coveted by Yankees fans or imported by the Yankees to, first, minimize Gardner’s playing time and, ultimately, turn this lifetime Yankee into an ex-Yankee.

Yankees Brett Gardner
Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner.
Corey Sipkin

Except every spring, every summer, every fall, when you walk in the Yankees clubhouse, there Gardner is. When you look at the lineup card every spring, every summer, every fall, there he is, too: Since 2010, Gardner has failed to appear in at least 140 games only twice — last year, when 60 was everyone’s max (and Gardner played in all but 11); and in 2012, when he hurt his elbow diving for a ball in April and missed five months.

There is something endearing about Gardner’s enduring career as a Yankee. He has been a winning player for years, a reminder that you don’t need to stuff a team with All-Stars to succeed. The Yankees have crafted dynasties around the every-day likes of Scott Brosius and Bucky Dent, Clete Boyer and Joe Collins, Frankie Crosetti and Mark Koenig.

Brett Gardner compares favorably to all of them. And to date, every big league memory he has compiled has been in the sacred pinstriped vestments of the Yankees. It’s rare for someone to do that in baseball in 2021, rarer still for that to happen for a Yankee who is bound for neither Monument Park nor Cooperstown.

“I’ve been spoiled,” Gardner said. “I came up here and I don’t know anything different. I don’t know what it’s like on the other side. Lots of guys who come up in other organizations hear what a great experience it is to play for the Yankees but never know, at least until they come here.”

“This,” he said, “is all I’ve ever known.”

Most of the other Yankees on the list ahead of Gardner are one-name-only immortals: Jeter, Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle. Yogi. DiMaggio. Scooter. Bernie.

The one name that sticks out is seventh on the list: Roy White, who played every inning of his 15-year, 1,881-game career as a Yankee, who was a part of two titles (1977-’78) and more than a few lean years, a two-time All-Star who, like Gardner, always seemed to be on the verge of being replaced once George Steinbrenner started collecting stars like live-action baseball cards in the ’70s.

Except every spring, every summer, every fall, when you walked into the Yankees clubhouse … there White was. And here Gardner is. He’s a .259 lifetime hitter with a 101 OPS+ for his career … and yet here he is. Again. He is a one-time All-Star, a one-time Gold Glover who has never received even one MVP vote in his career. And yet …

“All he knows how to do,” Aaron Boone said of him last year, “is help you win baseball games. That seems pretty valuable to me.”

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