For most big leaguers, the road to the big time is clear. Top prospect in high school makes the rounds, gets drafted and then decides between the minor leagues or a scholarship to a big-time college program. Accept a big signing bonus and then start blazing a trail to the show.
In this respect, the game is rigged. The field is tilted in favor of those layers that earn big bonuses. Teams have more invested in their success and it buys them more time, space, and leeway in the development process.
For Brett Gardner, it was different. He didn’t have a big-time college scholarship, in fact he was a walk-on at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Truthfully, he wasn’t even a walk-on.
After a less than inspiring tryout, Gardner didn’t make the team. When the coach put in a call a few weeks later, Gardner returned to the practice field in full uniform, eventually earning a partial scholarship.
From those inauspicious beginnings, Gardner played well enough to garner all conference honors his first season. The Yankees selected Gardner in the third round of the 2005 draft with a $210, 000 signing bonus to go along with an avenue into pro ball.
The path to the big leagues was less than smooth as well. Never a power hitter, Gardner excelled by slapping singles and drawing walks. His strong arm, great defense and base stealing made him a valuable commodity but hardly the prototypical Yankees outfielder.
Gardner made his big league debut in 2008, serving mostly as a defensive specialist but also swiping 13 bags in just 42 games. 2009 was hampered by a thumb injury, but Gardner showcased his on base skills and defense for the World Series champions.
2010 was the breakout year for Gardner. He won the starting center fielder job and posted the best season of his career, playing in 150 games and hitting .277/.383/.379 with 47 stolen bases. His excellent defense made him one of the most valuable players in the league that season with 6 WAR (Wins Above Replacement.)
He followed that up with another strong year in the field though his offensive numbers fell off slightly. 2012 was mostly lost to injury, as the speedy outfielder missed all but a handful of games with an elbow issue. What began as a minor elbow injury caused on a diving catch attempt nearly cost him the entire season.
When Gardner went down in early April, it didn’t appear he’d miss any time. After three setbacks, innumerable MRIs & scans of his elbow, and one arthroscopic surgery later, Gardner was back on the field for the Yankees aborted playoff run.
Ahead of the 2013 season and after signing a massive four-year, $52 million contract extension in New York, Gardner decided to make a change. His approach at the plate grew too passive and his numbers didn’t reflect the kind of hitter he knew he could be. Gardner made changes to his swing and began driving the ball with more regularity.
The result is a more complete player, one who pairs his defense and speed with a more dangerous and dynamic bat in the Yankees lineup.
Over the past season-and-a-half, Gardner hit 17 home runs, more than his career total coming into 2013. He owns a .275/.348/.419 line with 39 steals to go with that new-found power. He is the Yankees best and most consistent player this year, as they challenge for yet another AL East crown.
Few players overcame the steep obstacles to reach Gardner’s level of career achievement and earnings - bonus babies and first round draft picks included.