A couple of years ago, when Brett Gardner first started looking like a threat to make the Yankees' big-league team, one of the headline writers in New York took a look at 5-foot-9, 183-pounder, took a look at the position he aspired to play -- center field, the most hallowed spot in New York baseball once upon a time -- and then wrote a headline that perfectly captured the impolite question in everyone's mind:
"DiMaggio to Mantle to ... Gardner?"
On the surface, Gardner doesn't fit the profile of the Yankees' typical outfielder in a lot of ways. He wasn't a big-ticket free agent. He isn't a power hitter, or even one of those left-handers brought in to take advantage of the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium. His game is built around speed. Yet, for an idea of just how well he's doing so far this season as a hitter -- and hitting was really the only question the Yankees had about Gardner as an everyday player -- consider what Gardner said once he got back to the dugout Sunday after White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle busted him with a few inside pitches Gardner wasn't expecting.
"If he comes in on me again, I'm going to hurt him," Gardner told teammates.
"And sure enough, he did it -- he hit a home run off Buehrle," Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes said Wednesday, still smiling at the memory.
The idea of Gardner, who rarely hits more than two or three homers a year, actually kinda, sorta calling a shot is only slightly more preposterous than the idea that a guy like him, a former walk-on at the College of Charleston, beginning Wednesday ranked sixth in the American League with a .346 batting average. Gardner began Wednesday second in the AL in stolen bases (with 12) and fourth in on-base percentage (.427).
But Gardner will tell you he always believed this could happen. When he first arrived in New York, Gardner didn't care that Melky Cabrera eventually had a two-year head start on him in the big leagues or that Johnny Damon and Austin Jackson, another top-rated Yankees prospect, were still around fighting for outfield spots, too.
Gardner won the center-field job last season coming out of spring training, then lost it, but was back on the field again by the time the Yankees closed out the World Series. Though it's not put this way enough, it was also Gardner's improvement that made the Yankees' two biggest offseason deals -- the swap of Cabrera to Atlanta as part of the Javy Vazquez trade, and the packaging of Jackson to Detroit for Curtis Granderson -- seem palatable.
Jackson, a rookie, is currently second in the AL in hitting, at .376 -- four spots higher than Gardner. We'll see if the torrid pace lasts for either player.
But if Gardner hits .270 this year, the Yankees would be thrilled because of the speed and defense he brings to the team. If you ask Gardner to describe his plate approach, he doesn't say, "Get a hit." He says, "Get on base."
"A walk, a hit, beating out a ground ball -- it's all the same to me."
The distinction is important. It means Gardner not only knows his game, he knows how he's going to stick here. Gardner provides the sort of base-stealing and run-scoring threat the Yankees haven't had since the days of Rickey Henderson. And he was probably lucky, too, to arrive just as the Yankees hired a manager, Joe Girardi, who valued what he can do, and gave general manager Brian Cashman more power to shape the organization as he wanted.
It's hard to imagine Girardi's predecessor, Joe Torre, trusting a no-name player like Gardner this much over a veteran, let alone using him creatively. How many times in the Torre years did we see the Yankees insist they were happy to come out of spring training with a young player like Bubba Crosby or Andy Phillips, then trade for some bold-face name to take their place within weeks?
"As a young guy, you're aware of it," Gardner says, "and I don't want to say young guys got overlooked here before. But there are so many superstars and great players here all the time, young guys have often stayed under the radar here in the past."
What Torre did worked. But the way Girardi manages a game works better for Gardner, who usually bats anywhere from seventh to ninth.
"Our lineup is strong, and our lineup is long" was the way Girardi put it Wednesday.
Gardner is so fast, there was a debate going in the Yankees' clubhouse before Wednesday's game about who is the fastest man in baseball: Is it him or Ichiro or Carl Crawford in Tampa Bay? Is the Mets Jose Reyes still in the conversation? Philadelphia's Shane Victorino has to be, right?
Gardner said he thinks the quickest he's been timed to first base after an at-bat is about 3.9 seconds. Hughes, who shook his head, said it isn't just Gardner's sheer speed that's bothersome to a pitcher -- "It's like he stands over there saying, 'I don't care if you know I'm going, because I'm going anyway'" -- it's that Gardner works hard on all the subtleties such as studying what a pitcher's move is, how quickly he's been timed to home plate, how he holds his hands when he comes set, the catcher who's playing. The works.
Just the other day, as Hughes was preparing for his most recent start, Gardner came into the video room and said he wanted to study the pickoff move of some new reliever the White Sox have.
Laughing, Hughes said, "A couple of us just looked at him and said, 'Dude? Just go. They're not going to throw you out.'"
Gardner did go. And the White Sox didn't.
"It's been a good start," Gardner allowed Wednesday. But only that. He knows the Yankees don't give out monuments for good Aprils.