It was a tie ballgame in extra innings on a warm July night. Fifty-seven thousand fans were on their feet at Yankee Stadium, ready for their Bronx Bombers to beat the rival Boston Red Sox. Up to bat came a five foot, 11 inch kid, just seven days into his major league career. Fans prayed that the “new guy” would simply get on base, which would give Yankee superstar Derek Jeter a chance to drive in the winning run. The rookie had another idea: to send the fans home knowing his name.
For one-time College of Charleston standout, Brett Gardner, that summer night in 2008 on national television was his big introduction to the major leagues. With a dramatic walk-off hit against the most hated team in Yankees country, he proved he could play on the biggest stage of all.
“It was pretty surreal. That is still one of my favorite moments in my career. Just to be able to come through like that for your teammates, especially the ones that have been there for ten, fifteen, or even more years, it’s hard for younger guys to come and fit in, so that was big for me,” Gardner said.
Gardner, however, was never on the fast track to the major leagues. In fact, he was far from it when he arrived at Charleston in the fall of 2001.
Gardner was not recruited out of Holly Hill, S.C., but he attended the Charleston baseball team’s open tryout- without a guaranteed spot on the team.
“I could always run. I was undersized, probably 150 or 160 pounds at the time. I didn’t have a strong throwing arm, and wasn’t going to turn heads in batting practice,” he said.
After his initial tryout, Charleston’s head coach at the time, John Pawlowski, did not think they had a spot on the team for Gardner.
There were, however, a few things about him that caught Pawlowski’s eye.
“Brett was kind of hidden over there in Holly Hill. We invited him to walk-on tryouts, and you have those tryouts not knowing what you’re going to see or who will show up. I remember we set up the 60-yard dash on our backfield. I remember Brett running it and I think he ran it in 6.5 [seconds]. That was a tool that really stood out. So we evaluated everything and eventually called him back out,” Pawlowski said.
Gardner acknowledged that, aside from the running aspect, the tryout did not go too well.
“I guess the tryout went okay. I think if you put me in the same tryout today, I still wouldn’t do that great. But I was fortunate the way things worked out. We had outfielders that got injured who were supposed to play big parts on the team. I went from basically not making the team, to barely making the team, to playing over 40 games my freshman season,” he said.
Gardner possessed a gritty, passionate personality that was attractive to the coaches, a similar type of intensity he employs today in the major leagues.
“He had to play with a bigger chip on his shoulder. It started when he stepped foot on the [Charleston] campus because nobody knew about him. He was flying about as well under the radar as you could. So when he got his opportunity, one of his best attributes was that he was going to walk off that field with his uniform dirty and play as hard as he could every single day to prove that not only did he belong, but this kid wanted to play at the next level too,” Pawlowski said.
Gardner attributed his hard-working attitude to his father, but also noted that he was always a self-motivator as a young player.
“I would say my dad pushed me. He always taught me to play hard and to play the game the right way. I feel like I have always been somebody who has been pretty self-motivated and didn’t need someone to remind me that I had to play hard. I have just always enjoyed playing the game of baseball. I’ll be the first to admit that there are guys out there that are more talented than me, but I found out one of the ways that I can bridge the gap is to try to play harder and smarter than them, and at the end of the day, don’t have any regrets,” he said.
Thankfully for everyone involved with Charleston baseball, Pawlowski and the coaches recognized that passion for the sport and gave Gardner a spot on the team.
During his time in a Cougars uniform, Gardner was named to two All-Southern Conference teams in 2004 and 2005 and earned a spot on All-American third team in 2005. In Charleston baseball history, Gardner ranks first in runs (214), steals (97), and sacrifices (53). He is second all-time in both hits (297) and triples (16), while sporting a .368 career batting average.
After leading the Cougars to the NCAA Regionals during his junior season, both Gardner and his coaches were surprised that he was not selected in the MLB Draft.
“After his junior year, it kind of surprised everyone that he wasn’t drafted. So I told him, ‘Alright you just got to come and keep working,’ and next thing you know, he got drafted [the following year] and the rest is history,” Pawlowski said.
Luckily, Gardner took Pawlowski’s advice and continued to work hard. He concluded his final collegiate season top in the nation in several categories. He finished tied first overall in hits (122), second in runs (85), third in batting average (.447), fourth in sacrifice hits (17), and seventh in stolen bases (38).
The Yankees drafted him in the third round after the 2005 collegiate baseball season and he left Charleston for the minor leagues.
“I was fortunate to play for some great coaches and play with great teammates. Prior to my time, the College of Charleston baseball program wasn’t on the map and then the program completely turned around. We played hard and we were able to make it to [NCAA] Regionals in 2004 for the first time, which I remember quite well. I wish I could go back and relive that time because it was a lot of fun,” he said.
In 2006, Gardner became an all-star in Class-A for the Tampa Yankees during his first full season in the minors, leading the Florida State League in batting average (.323). He was promoted to the Double-A Trenton Thunder in 2007, where he batted .300 and stole 18 bases before being called up to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Gardner impressed scouts with his speed and ability to get on base in the minor leagues. He was eventually called up to majors in June 2008- in almost the exact way he joined Charleston – as the Yankees were battling a plethora of injuries to outfielders.
In Gardner’s first full season, the Yankees won the 2009 World Series, something he could never have even dreamed about.
“I could have never ever anticipated [winning the World Series]. I always dreamed of it, but things don’t usually end up the way you dream about it. I was very fortunate and blessed to have been put in the position I am in. But if everything ended today, I can say that I am very happy with the way my career has gone and the way I have progressed. Not a lot of guys can say they were drafted by the Yankees and then been called up to play for the Yankees. I just hope I still have a long time left here in New York,” he said.
It seems as if Gardner will have plenty of time left with the Yankees. After posting career highs in hits, home runs, RBIs, and slugging percentage in 2013, he signed a four year extension in February to continue to roam the Yankee Stadium outfield until at least 2018.
Journey in Perspective
As many could imagine, Gardner has a tough time describing his incredible journey in just a few words. “I would just have to say that it has gone by really fast. It has been a rollercoaster, a lot of ups and a lot of downs. I am very proud of what I have accomplished, but it definitely does not feel like it has been as long as it has been since I was at Charleston. It has been almost nine years since I was drafted. It has flown by, but like they say, time does fly when you are having fun,” he said.
Gardner is an anomaly at the College. Although the school has made its way onto the national stage since the early 2000s, Charleston has not had many students go on to play professional sports in a major league, especially with the level of success that Gardner has achieved. The College has had over 45 players selected in the MLB draft, but Gardner remains the highest draft pick of all time.
“I mean, we saw the speed and the ability, it just wasn’t polished yet. With four years in Charleston and obviously the development he had in the Yankees’ system, now he’s a bonafide major league outfielder, playing centerfield for the New York Yankees. That’s a pretty special journey,” Pawlowski said.
So what type of advice does Gardner have for Charleston athletes looking to one day break into the pros in any sport?
“I am a few classes shy of getting my degree. I don’t want to say it is a regret, but the fact that I haven’t finished [school] yet, although I certainly plan on doing so as I am playing or right when I finish playing. I would tell them to focus on academics as well. I have been fortunate that baseball has worked out pretty well for me, but if baseball hadn’t worked out, I’m not sure what my back up plan would have been. So I would get your degree, and then hopefully if you get some breaks, it will work out professionally in your sport,” he said.
Gardner has not cut Charleston out of his life, either. Although he is playing in New York, he tries to return to Charleston as much as possible and had high praise for the College and the city.
“It is a great city. We are surrounded by a lot of great culture and great history, not just with the College of Charleston, but also within the city of Charleston. Students enjoy their time in the city. It is a beautiful city, a great place for baseball, and I always love going back there in the offseason,” he said.
Gardner is plenty thankful for his big break to play in the major leagues. He has had the benefit of playing with and against some of the greatest athletes in the world, including Yankees legends in Jeter and Mariano Rivera, which is something he attributes to his success.
“As a younger guy coming up with the Yankees, I’ve been around guys like Derek [Jeter] and Mariano [Rivera]. Those guys have been around for so long that they know how to help the young kids fit in. I think that they led to some of the success I had early on and gave me the ability to stick around. Being able to talk to and be around those guys and see how they conduct their business not only on the field, but also off the field, it has been really great,” he said.
A storied College of Charleston athlete. The New York Yankees starting left fielder. A World Series champion. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?