By Gene Sapakoff of The Charleston Post and Courier
There is a popular misconception out there about New York Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner.
As the story goes, the undersized kid from tiny Holly Hill Academy made the College of Charleston baseball team as a walk-on.
Actually, Gardner did not make the team. Not initially.
"Being the geniuses we are, we didn't keep him at first," former Cougars recruiting coordinator Scott Foxhall said Thursday, a day after Gardner and the Yankees won the World Series.
Foxhall, acting on a letter received from Gardner's father, Jerry, first saw Gardner play in an American Legion game in North Charleston following Gardner's senior year of high school. Foxhall noticed unusual speed but otherwise was not impressed. When the 5-10 Gardner showed up for a walk-on tryout as a College of Charleston freshman, he ran the standard 60-yard dash in a speedy 6.6 seconds. He was not asked back.
"But he came by our office, and his dad wrote us another letter," said Foxhall, who left Charleston for Auburn after the 2008 season with former Cougars head coach John Pawlowski. "We decided it wouldn't hurt to let him come out and play in a few of our fall scrimmage games. I guess you can say the rest is history. He never left our field without his uniform being filthy."
Everyone who saw Gardner play for four seasons at the College of Charleston enjoyed watching Wednesday night as No. 11 in pinstripes jumped into a Yankees victory pile with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mariano Rivera after New York defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6 at the new Yankee Stadium. It was extra special to his former Cougars teammates and coaches.
They were there when Gardner personified the ascent of a program transformed from little guy with potential to NCAA Regional participant. And there was their 26-year-old pal starting Games 5 and 6 for the most famous franchise in sports.
"It was unreal seeing him out there," former College of Charleston pitcher Ryan Johnson said. "And seeing Brett and his wife on the field after the game, I can't be happier for him."
The best catch
"I would be surprised if any of the guys he played with weren't watching," former Cougars second baseman Chris Campbell said.
Probably while texting each other. Gardner wasn't just the best player the Cougars ever had, but one of the friendliest.
"He hasn't changed one bit," said Campbell, a fitness consultant at Gold's Gym on James Island and also a youth baseball coach and instructor. "We all look up to him now, but he hasn't changed a bit. He's the same old Brett."
"Still a country boy," Johnson said. "Still likes getting out in the woods as much as he can."
Johnson, the director of baseball for the Mount Pleasant Recreation Department, visited Gardner at spring training in Tampa, Fla. Gardner and Johnson went out to eat at P.F. Chang's and wound up chatting with a couple of Gardner's teammates, Jeter and Jorge Posada.
Foxhall's 2-year-old twins Kade and Kenze mix "Let's go Yankees!" chants in with their nursery rhymes.
"I try not to bug Brett too much because I think people he barely knew in third grade are calling him," Foxhall said. "But even though he's going to parties with Kate Hudson and Alex Rodriguez, I love that he's also keeping up with (former Cougars) Reid Price and Brett Anderson and guys like that."
Gardner hit .241 as a freshman at Charleston in 2002 and .284 as a sophomore. His breakthrough season was 2004, when he hit .397 as a junior and the Cougars made the NCAA Tournament for the first time, winning twice at the Baton Rouge Regional.
But Gardner was not drafted.
"That clearly motivated him," Foxhall said.
Campbell saw it on a daily basis.
"When you first see him, he's not a big guy and he isn't a power hitter and he isn't a guy you expected would become a Yankee," Campbell said. "But then you see him run like a deer and when you see him work, it's a totally different ballgame."
The Babe and Brett
Gardner hit .447 as a senior, Charleston made the NCAA Tournament again and the Yankees selected him in the third round of the Major League Baseball draft.
Now his college friends get to watch him on ESPN's Top 10 Plays. Which reminds them of Gardner's greatest catch as a Cougar.
A bright, sunny day at Western Carolina. Two runners on. Fly ball down the right-field line.
Uh, oh. Right fielder Phil Coker lost the ball in the sun.
"And here comes Gardner from center field," Foxhall said. "He made the catch almost on the foul line. We determined in the dugout that only a handful of players in the country could have made that catch."
So no one was surprised when Gardner crashed into the fence making a sensational grab to rob the Phillies' Jayson Werth of a hit in Game 5.
Gardner made $414,000 this season. A-Rod made $33 million. Together, they join the storied list of Yankees champions.
"Do you know what it means?" veteran Cougars play-by-play voice Tony Ciuffo said. "He'll be in the parade. He is a member of a New York Yankees' World Series winner. Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson. And Brett Gardner."