Brett Gardner Isn't Ready to Hang Up His Pinstripes Yet
It's been a long time since Brett Gardner's first full season with the Yankees.
The outfielder won a title with New York in 2009, an experience that led Gardner to believe that he'd be back in the World Series every single year, satisfying expectations within an elite organization.
Over the next 12 years, however, Gardner has yet to return to the mountain top. Falling short at the conclusion of each passing campaign, the veteran has slowly gotten older while his teammates have stayed the same age.
So, when the club's longest-tenured player appeared on a Zoom call with reporters over an hour after New York's uninspiring loss to the Red Sox in the Wild Card Game, Gardner was still in his uniform. The brim of his Yankees cap sat low on his forehead, casting a shadow over his eyes as he looked down, trying his best to digest yet another early postseason exit.
"Each year that goes by that we don't make it, it's obviously a little tougher," Gardner said. "You just don't know how many more opportunities you're going to get."
Entering play in 2021, returning to the only franchise he's ever played for on a one-year deal, Gardner was expected to be New York's fourth outfielder, a veteran presence poised to provide some depth off the bench. Circumstances quickly placed the 38-year-old into an expanded role.
Clint Frazier didn't pan out as a starting outfielder as he eventually faded from the picture with a perplexing injury. Aaron Hicks was scratched from the equation after season-ending wrist surgery. Mike Tauchman was shipped off to San Francisco. Outfielders like Miguel Andújar, Estevan Florial, Tim Locastro and Greg Allen came and went.
Even the acquisition of Joey Gallo at the trade deadline, mixed with Giancarlo Stanton's defensive renaissance, didn't strip the veteran from consistent playing time.
When it was all said and done, Gardner played in more games (140) than every Yankee except Aaron Judge and DJ LeMahieu.
Sure, his numbers were down across the board. His .222 (86-for-387) average, 1.0 bWAR, .689 OPS and 47 runs scored were all the lowest numbers he's ever produced in a full season in his career. But the durability remained steady, as it always has been, while his presence in New York's clubhouse, throughout a tumultuous roller-coaster ride of a season, never wavered.
As much as the conversation on Tuesday night included a discussion of what went wrong this year, and if changes to this Yankees' roster need to be made this offseason, questions quickly transitioned to Gardner's future.
At 38, his career is rapidly coming to a close. But Gardner didn't sound like he was ready for retirement just yet.
"I hope that I'm back next season," he said. "I hope that I'm back in that room, and I hope that I'm in Tampa come February, but there's obviously a long time between now and then, a lot of things that need to get figured out. We'll see what happens."
Gardner said he'll take the next several weeks to ponder if he's ready to embark on another season in the big leagues, regardless of whether or not the Yankees elect to bring him back for one more year. Spending 14 years in the bigs takes a toll on a player on the field, but it's also been a long journey off of it, one that's featured sacrifices from those in Gardner's family.
As much as serious conversations with his wife, kids and parents await, Gardner made it clear that the focus right now is on licking wounds, spending time with his brothers and starting to move on.
Asked why he still had his uniform on considering how much time had passed since the final out, Gardner joked that he had taken his cleats off and that he would change when it was time to go home for the night. But his jersey was still buttoned to the very top, "New York" printed boldly across his chest.
In a way, the postgame moment, evoking some emotion, was similar to his Yankees career as he enters this winter. The end is near, and he'll move on by changing clothes soon, but Gardner isn't quite ready to officially hang up his jersey for good.
"You don't know how many chances you'll get to put the uniform on again and go out there and do what we do," he said. "It just feels good to still have it on."