Brett the Jet

Brett the Jet

OK, why is a professional athlete in the fashion-themed issue? A couple of reasons. One: He has a 2009 World Series ring, and among baseball players, that’s always going to be fashionable. Two: Brett Gardner ’05 represents a shift in baseball culture, a departure from the recent Steroid Era, when drug-enhanced power ruled the day. He marks baseball’s return to players defined by their athleticism, speed and grit on the field.

Brett Gardner may be retro, but he’s also very much en vogue.

by Mark Berry
photography by Mike Ledford

It’s not like a jet engine’s deafening roar before blistering takeoff.

You might only glimpse a slight pulse in his jersey, where his heart is beating a little faster than usual. But you can’t hear the blood pumping or the fibers in his leg muscles twitching as they contract and relax. Maybe, if you really strain your ears, you might make out the slight rustle of his uniform, as he twists his torso side to side and then stretches to touch his toes. Or perhaps you might catch the slight click of his spikes as he heels small clumps of dirt onto first base.

Make no mistake, there’s a lot coming together in this moment. Nerves on the pitcher’s mound and around the infield are heightened. Everyone is on edge. They know that the laws of physics and physiology are about to be put to the test. This energy build-up at first base might be quiet, but it’s just as explosive and awe inspiring as a jet tearing into the sky.

When Brett Gardner breaks for second base, the eye doesn’t register the move immediately. It’s a blur. Then you remember that there used to be a person there – bent and poised for action.

His hands and arms slice through the air, as if moving in video fast forward. The crowd holds its collective breath, waiting for the head-first slide, waiting for the catcher to stand and throw a bullet nearly 128 feet to second base, waiting for the sound of a gloved hand slapping canvas, waiting for the tag, waiting for the umpire to screech “safe” or “out,” waiting … waiting.

Waiting … waiting.

That’s what Gardner feels like he has been doing since he got to the College in fall 2001.

Waiting for this open tryout on the baseball team. Waiting to show them all what he can do.

As a freshman coming from Holly Hill, S.C. – a town about the size of a postage stamp – Gardner wasn’t recruited out of high school, which was a little surprising to him. He was always the fast one. Ever since he was a little kid, he could run circles around pretty much anyone and everyone. And he did.

When he played quarterback and outside linebacker (at 5’9” and 155 pounds) on his high school’s eight-man football squad, he was the one tasked with keeping up with future All- American and NFL player Gaines Adams. Sure, Gardner – a multi-sport athlete – couldn’t match up size-wise with Adams, who was 6’4”, 240 pounds at age 17, but he could keep up and wrap his arms around his legs when Adams had the ball so that the rest of the team might help in making a tackle.

Gardner was confident that once the College’s coaching staff saw his ability on the baseball diamond, he would be on the team. But what he didn’t know was that open tryouts for the Cougars was not like showing up and making the team in high school.

At that time, Coach John Pawlowski and Assistant Coach Scott Foxhall ’04 were establishing a dynasty at the College. They were recruiting some of the top talent around the region, and walk-ons, who they considered fill-ins, didn’t necessarily fit into their overall blueprint for gameday success.

Brett Gardner

But Gardner didn’t know that and attacked the tryout with everything he had. And everything he had wasn’t initially good enough.

“First off, I saw that Brett had a tool you couldn’t teach,” Foxhall recalls. “Speed – it opened your eyes when he ran the 60-yard dash around 6.6 seconds. That’s very elite speed. But his other skills were behind, like hitting and arm strength. And we already had a pretty full outfield.”

So Foxhall sat down with the speedster and gave him the bad news.

“I remember telling him that I thought he was a good player, but that we didn’t have room here,” he says. “I told him that I was willing to call other schools on his behalf, but Brett said he wasn’t interested. Even then, he had such character and determination. He didn’t pout, didn’t tell me I was crazy or a fool. He was respectful and just reiterated the fact that he wanted to play for the College.”

Although he displayed little emotion in that conversation, Gardner was devastated by the rejection and, for the first time in his life, questioned his ability. His father, Jerry Gardner, wrote a note to the coaches asking them to reconsider.

“Jerry sent a nice note – not pushy at all,” Foxhall remembers. “He just asked us to consider Brett to be a part of the team, that we wouldn’t be disappointed and that his son would give everything he’s got if we could find a spot for him. It made us think one more time. And I’m thankful we did.”

Gardner made the team and began his rapid ascent. By the end of his first season, the walk-on, to the coaching staff’s surprise, had worked his way into the starting lineup.

“Brett outworked everyone,” Foxhall admits. “All of the sports clichés fit here – he was early to the field, stayed late. But it was more than that. The time that he was there, no one worked harder. He had a special drive, always went full speed. And his uniform was, without fail, dirty – practice or game. Brett was the guy doing laundry’s worst nightmare.”

As the College program flourished over the next three years with SoCon championships and repeat NCAA Tournament success, so too did Gardner. He could field. He could hit. His baseball instincts sharpened. He even improved his time running the 60-yard dash to about 6.42 (“world-class speed,” Foxhall points out). In his senior year, Gardner tied for the most hits in all of college baseball and had the third-best batting average in the country.

Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it any better. In May 2009, Brett Gardner ’05 was visiting NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, where he met Alyssa Esposito, a wheelchair- bound teenager who was waiting on a heart transplant.

She gave him a Project Sunshine bracelet, which she told him would help him hit a home run that night. Gardner smiled and accepted the bracelet, laughing to himself that she didn’t know that he wasn’t a power hitter, nor was he even in the starting lineup that night.

Photo courtesy of the New York Yankees

However, fate cannot be denied. After starter Johnny Damon was thrown out of the game for contesting strikes, Gardner took his place in the outfield and batting order.

And then it happened. Gardner laced a ball to left field, which bounced by outfielder Denard Span, and the race was on. Fourteen seconds later, Gardner slid headfirst into homeplate and became the first Yankee player to have an inside-the-park home run in the new Yankee Stadium.

And later that night, Esposito, who had been waiting on a heart transplant since January, received a new heart. By the next morning, she was off the ventilator, and she was home just two weeks later.

Gardner keeps the bracelet hanging in his locker, not for good luck, but as a reminder of that day and the courage and optimism of Alyssa Esposito.

But still, the essence of his game was speed.

Teammate and roommate Phil Coker ’06 remembers one play in particular.
It was a bright, sunny day at Western Carolina’s Hennon Stadium. A right-handed hitter launched a ball to Coker in right field.

“I didn’t see it at all,” Coker recalls. “I lost it in the sun, and Brett knew it. He had been sprinting since the ball made contact with the bat. He ran all the way from centerfield to the right field foul line and laid out and made a great diving catch – with me standing there just 20 feet from him. It was a phenomenal catch, not just for the dive but for the amount of ground he covered to make the play.”

“That diving grab sums up Brett,” Foxhall agrees. “His speed, his baseball instincts, his determination were all on display in that moment. Most players would have never even tried to go after that ball.”

But Gardner isn’t like most players. “Brett is a lesson to a lot of us coaches,” Foxhall adds. “We never take walk-on tryouts for granted now. We wonder, Is a Brett Gardner going to show up today?”

Fans call him simply Brett the Jet.

How else would you describe a guy who can run from home to first in 3.9 seconds and is considered the fastest player in the entire Yankees organization?

The name certainly fits. His quickness makes every one of his plays possible highlight material, whether it’s the impossible catch made possible by his speed, his stealing third base in a tight game or his legging out a triple when most players would have held up for a double, maybe even a single.

brett3“I know I’m here because of my legs,” Gardner says.

His legs helped him get drafted in the third round by the Yankees in 2005. And those legs, complemented by his constantly improving baseball skills, made sure that he advanced steadily through the minor leagues.

In the summer of 2008, Gardner received the call that he was leaving Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania coal country for the Big Apple. And soon, he was making a difference. His third big-league hit was a dramatic ninth-inning single (beating division rival the Red Sox), which he collected against Jonathan Papelbon, one of the dominant closers that year.

That same season, Gardner also made history when he scored the final run in Yankee Stadium, for which he received a signed game ball from the entire team. “Not a bad souvenir,” Gardner smiles.

To the fans, the Big Leagues seem like all glamour and accolades. But Gardner knows different. He has faced challenges, such as when he got sent back to the minors in 2008 before being called back up at the end of the season, or being benched after having been named the starting centerfielder in 2009, or breaking his thumb sliding into second base and missing six weeks of the season – just when he was hitting his stride and regaining his status as an everyday player.

No stranger to adversity, Gardner responded the only way he knew how to: work harder, stay confident in his ability and just believe that the rest will take care of itself.

“When I go to sleep at night,” Gardner says. “I know that I did everything I can to be ready for tomorrow.”

“Everything” means hours each day devoted to workouts, batting practice, fielding drills and time reviewing videos of pitchers, his swing mechanics and his footwork. “This is what you do to put yourself in a position to succeed,” Gardner says. “Baseball is a job – a really cool job, but still a job. In baseball, you can’t let yourself get too high or too low. You have to live in the present.”

And Gardner certainly lives in the present. Looking back, either at success or failure, doesn’t work for him. He focuses on the Now. The Now is all that matters. For example, after the World Series, Gardner rode in the lead float in the ticker-tape parade through New York City’s Canyon of Heroes. Bits of shredded paper fell like snow as hundreds of thousands of cheering fans crammed into the streets and hung out windows to glimpse their baseball heroes. It was a wonderful moment, and Gardner captured it with his video camera.

But this off-season, in the comfort of his home, has he sat back, propped his feet up and rolled back that footage to relive this iconic moment enjoyed by sports champions and returning astronauts?

“Nope, too busy with the family,” Gardner says. “Sure, I will look back at it later, but I need to worry about the Now – spring training and next season start soon.”

However, Gardner does cherish one memory from last season. And although he’s a stickler for his “live in the Now” philosophy, you can forgive him this one indulgence to nostalgia.

The Yankees are up 7-3 in Game Six of the World Series, and Gardner surveys the field. At the plate, Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino is facing a full count with two outs and a runner on second.

“I look at one side of the infield,” Gardner recalls, “with Mark Texiera and Robinson Cano, who are two possible Hall-of-Famers. Then I look at the other side, with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, two sure Hall-of-Famers. Jorge Posada, the guy behind the plate – Hall of Famer. There’s Mariano Rivera on the mound – the best pitcher ever. And there I am, standing in centerfield behind them, about to win a World Series. That, by far, has been my best professional moment.”

A weak grounder to second, a called third out and Gardner finds himself running ecstatically to the infield, hugging every pin- striped person within reach and dancing in a shifting huddle of players and coaches around the baseball diamond.

For Gardner, it’s the pinnacle of a young career. But he’s not through – not even close. It’s a peak that he plans to achieve again … and again, if he can do anything about it.

And, with that, Brett Gardner smiles, stretches his legs and prepares for his liftoff.