Dad continues to serve as role model for Gardner
Jerry Gardner's life of hard work in fields inspires Yankees outfielder
For Brett Gardner, home is a farm of about 2,600 acres in Holly Hill, S.C., nestled in the heart of hunting and fishing country. Most days, the Yankees outfielder can be sure that at any given moment, Jerry Gardner is out in the fields taking care of what needs to be done.
Brett Gardner was raised around those crops of corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat, and he believes that watching his father tend to that fertile soil instilled the drive and motivation necessary to fuel an undersized college walk-on to beat the odds and get to the big leagues.
Brett Gardner learned the game of baseball at a young age from his father, who played as a Minor League outfielder in the Phillies' system in the mid-1970s, getting as far as Double-A before injuries sounded the alarm to go back to South Carolina for the next phase of life.
"Obviously, he's got somewhat of a baseball background and understands the game," Brett Gardner said. "Really, he just always taught me to play hard. I feel like that's something that I still try and do to this day, and will until I'm done playing. I obviously think that playing hard allowed me to play in the Major Leagues probably, and get the most about my abilities."
Growing up on the farm with his dad, his mother, Faye, and his older brother, Glen, Gardner said that he would lend a hand when his parents needed help, driving everything from lawn tractors to combines. Even now, Gardner's thoughts sometimes drift to his dad, who he knows has been grinding from sun-up to sun-down to prepare for harvest.
"He'll be 63 years old this year, and he still works as hard as ever outside on the farm," Brett Gardner said. "That's just what he loves doing. It's not easy work, but there's definitely an ethic that he instilled in me early on: just always work hard and try not to have any regrets. You don't want things to end and wonder, 'What if I had done things differently?'"
Brett Gardner graduated from the College of Charleston in South Carolina in 2005 as the highest-drafted player in school history, a long way from when he tried out for the Cougars as a non-scholarship freshman. He could always run, but the rest of his game was crude. At 5-foot-8 and a spindly 155 pounds, Gardner wasn't going to impress anyone on physique alone.
"There are only a handful of guys that are going to stand out in an environment like that," Gardner said. "You run the 60, you make some throws to third base from right field, and I didn't have that strong of an arm -- still don't, really, but then it wasn't as strong as it is now. You probably get 10, 20 swings in batting practice, and I obviously wasn't going to turn anybody's heads hitting singles over the third baseman's head."
Shortly after the tryout, Brett Gardner did not hear back from the coaching staff and brought his baseball gear home. Restless, Jerry Gardner wrote to Cougars head coach John Pawlowski, asking him to allow Gardner to attend practice with the team. Pawlowski agreed, and Gardner impressed the coaching staff by leaving the field with one of the dirtiest uniforms every afternoon.
"He wrote a letter to the coach, and maybe that influenced the coach's decision, maybe it didn't, but basically I got called back out to practice," Brett Gardner said. "I just kept showing up at practice, and had a few guys that I played with get hurt, some outfielders got hurt that fall of my freshman year.
"I went from barely making the team to pretty much being a sure bet to redshirt my freshman year to playing in  games my freshman year. It all kind of came together relatively quickly."
As Gardner has advanced, making it to the Majors in 2008 and signing a large multiyear contract with the Yankees this past offseason, he has done so with his father's words close to his mind and his heart. Jerry Gardner would never let anyone outwork him, and that has been a perfect example for his son to follow.
"We're definitely both hard-headed," Brett Gardner said. "I think just that work ethic and not taking no for an answer -- you try and get the most out of what God gave you, really. You try and make the most out of your abilities.
"I played with plenty of guys that were way more talented than I am, but guys that maybe just didn't want it quite as bad. I feel like that's something that not only has gotten me to where I am, but has helped me stay where I am."