By Pete Caldera of NorthJersey.com
TAMPA, Fla. — Even at the College of Charleston, Brett Gardner wasn't expected to make such an impact.
"He just wore us down," said Scott Foxhall, the school's former recruiting coordinator, who recalled how Gardner made the baseball team as a walk-on. Gardner's 6.5-second 60-yard dash stunned the staff, but "we still weren't sold on him.
"We were feeling pretty good about our outfield. But he was persistent," said Foxhall, now an assistant at Auburn. "Once he got on the team, he just ran with it."
Four years after batting .447 in his senior season, Gardner is off and running toward his next opportunity — center field at the new Yankee Stadium. It's been a path filled with converted critics.
"Bumps in the road don't bother him much," said Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations.
Like every other club, the Yankees were late to the table with Gardner, who went undrafted as a junior. At 5 feet 10, and lighter than his current, solid 180-pounds, Gardner didn't draw attention until he tied for the NCAA lead with 122 hits as a senior.
But when the scouts did come by, Gardner would respond selectively to their questionnaires. "He'd say, 'I don't want to play for that team,' " said Foxhall, who tried to convince Gardner not to rule anyone out.
This was just Gardner exhibiting the same critical judgment that made him so disciplined at the plate, so aware in the field – all of it fueled by an unrelenting drive.
"Squirrel," as they called him in Charleston, "never came off a field without his uniform dirty," said Tony Ciuffo, the College of Charleston associate director of athletics.
Foxhall remembered the bright afternoon at Western Carolina, when the Charleston right fielder lost a fly ball in the sun. As the ball sliced toward the line, Gardner sprinted from center field, ran past the right fielder, and made a diving catch.
After games, Gardner's father, Jerry, would personally thank the few fans that showed up. Now, "he's a New York Yankee from Holly Hill, and everyone wants to talk to him," said Ciuffo, referring to the same South Carolina town where Willie Randolph was born.
Gardner had worked himself into a third-round pick, but his greatest development came between his sophomore and junior season, during a wood bat summer league.
Foxhall said Gardner had "light tower power" with an aluminum bat, but the summer league taught him how to use the entire field, and maximize his speed. He went from .280 as a sophomore to .397, and it stung not to be drafted.
"But I'm glad it worked out that way," said Gardner, who threw himself into his senior year after a summer off. "I've always been a little guy, and I've always tried to get stronger, so [instead of playing] I worked out a lot that summer, and hit a lot. I took some summer classes, and it seemed to be better for me."
Instead of playing winter ball this year, Gardner worked out and welcomed his first child, a son born in November, with his wife, Jessica. With his mind and body in a good frame, Gardner was more prepared to battle Melky Cabrera for the center field job.
"You'd like to put your lineup together as soon as you can [but] they're both playing at a high level," said manager Joe Girardi, who expects to have one starter, not a platoon.
But Gardner's continued improvement has helped his cause. He batted .153 in his first 59 at-bats as a Yankee, and hit .294 in 68 at-bats after being recalled. On his first swing this spring, he homered.
Of course, it wasn't easy. Late last season, Gardner completely changed from a stride to a no-stride stance, and got himself noticed again.
"He's made some really significant improvements in his swing, one of the better hitting development jobs we've done," Newman said. "And he's intent on getting better."