It was left fielder Brett Gardner's speed that caught the eye of his college coach, and if he wasn't impressive with a bat in his hands, he was fast enough to beat the odds and make it into Yankees' pinstripes.
08/02/2011 5:47 PM ET
Gardner runs with opportunity
From college walk-on to Yankees' starting left fielder
By Bruce Lowitt / MLBPLAYERS.com
"I think he's made big strides since we first got him [on the roster in 2008]," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "What we've told him is, 'Be aggressive. Great basestealers get thrown out, get picked off. Don't worry about it. You'll never hear me get on you about it.'"
In 2010, he tied Carl Crawford for fourth in Major Leagues with 47 stolen bases and is among the leaders this year.
Gardner was a walk-on at the College of Charleston in 2001, invited to try out for coach John Pawlowski. He didn't get the ball out of the infield in batting practice. His throws from right field lacked zip. He wasn't invited back for a second look.
"I knew deep down he was good enough to contribute," said his father, Jerry, who had gotten as high as Double-A as an outfielder in the Phillies' system.
"Brett wasn't a star athlete. He was 5-foot-8, probably 135 pounds, not the proper size for a Division I school. Charleston rated him an under-average hitter with an under-average arm and average speed."
Average speed? That got to Jerry. He wrote a letter to Pawlowski, telling him his son could get to the ball as fast anyone in the outfield and imploring the coach to give him a second look. The coach did.
"I'll never forget this," Pawlowski recalled. "We were on a little practice field, and he ran one of the fastest 60 times I had ever seen, and I said, 'Man, he's fast. I wonder if he can play?' We bring him back again, and he starts making plays."
Gardner made the team.
"At the time, I didn't know what to expect," he said. "Some guys ended up getting hurt, and I went from I-shouldn't-have-played-my-freshman-year to starting some games."
He batted .284 as a sophomore starter and blossomed as a junior, making All-Southern Conference with a third-best .397 batting average -- and went undrafted.
"I told him, 'Ya'know, sometimes things just have a way of working out. Come on back. Keep working,'" Pawlowski said.
As a senior, he was third in the nation in batting (.447), was a third-team All-American and the Yankees' 2005 third-round Draft choice. He signed within days.
"I didn't have any options," he said. "I just wanted to get started, get my feet wet."
In 2006, he was in Double-A. In 2007, Triple-A. On June 30, 2008, he made his debut as the Yankees' starting left fielder.
"The number of walk-ons who make the team [in college and are on the roster for more than a year] is very low, maybe five percent," Pawlowski said. "The number who make it onto a Major League roster is almost unheard of. He'd have a better chance of winning the lottery."
Gardner was batting .153 after 17 games when the Yankees sent him back to Triple-A just after getting Xavier Nady from the Pirates.
He was disappointed, but unfazed. "The veterans, the guys who have been around a long time, back in the day, they got sent down. It's part of the game," he said.
He returned to the New York lineup Aug. 15 and finished 2008 at .228. Since then Gardner has batted in the .270s. And he pretty much owns left field.
"The best thing about Brett is that he loves to play the game of baseball," Pawlowski said. "He's not caught up in stats. He's the ultimate team guy, doing what it takes to play and to win and to be successful."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.