Why We Watch: Brett Gardner, True Yankee

There are a great many things about the Yankees that aren't all that admirable. Brett Gardner embodies none of those.
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Over the immutable course of time and circumstance, the baseball team you root for experiences a gradual but complete roster turnover, is purchased by a new owner, moves to a different stadium, and changes logos and uniforms. After all that, do you still root for the same baseball team?

You may recognize this question. It’s an ancient puzzle known as The Ship of Theseus or Theseus’ Paradox, dating back to the First Century. It mostly falls within a discipline of philosophy called epistemology, which is a fine reason for young people to do lots of drugs to try and find answers to questions such as these. The main idea is this: if an object has all of its parts gradually replaced, is it still that object? Philosophers and brilliant minds, which are not entirely overlapping groups, have pondered this conundrum and destroyed a lot of brain cells with the aforementioned drugs in the process. It’s not the worst pursuit, as pursuits go, but it’s no longer strictly necessary. Brett Gardner has solved Theseus’ Paradox.

***

Since I became a fan at four years old in 1994, the New York Yankees haven’t quite done all the things mentioned in the first paragraph, but they’ve come close. They do have a new owner who is nothing like their old owner, despite spelling and pronouncing their last names identically. They moved to a very different stadium, which explicitly and subtly diminishes the experience of the dedicated fans for the wealthy ones, insofar as they’re different individuals. As one would expect with virtually any team over a 19-year period, their roster has completely turned over. (If you wish to engage in a debate regarding whether Andy Pettitte counts, even though he played on a different team and retired on different occasions between 1994 and 2013, email me at pointlessacademicarguments@forestforthetrees.net) Their uniform and name have not changed—and likely never will—but to turn the immortal words of Jerry Seinfeld against him, I most emphatically do not “root for laundry.” I tried cheering on my dryer once. It told me to take life less seriously.

This is to say, the Yankees have changed a lot. This isn’t to distinguish them from other teams; quite the contrary. Every team does this, and so many of us have had occasion to ask ourselves, “Who are these strangers and why am I rooting for them?” And then we either find a reason or we don’t, and we either move on with our lives or spin ever more tightly in fandom’s orbit. It can go either way. Sometimes, the difference between it going one way and another is just a matter of a player coming along at the right time.

***

The hope that New Yankee Stadium might be better for everyone than its iconic predecessor was lost the moment fans saw The Moat, the concrete corridor which separates the Legends Seats—those $800-$1,200 seats from dugout to dugout that are half-empty every game—from the mere upper-middle-class commoners. The Moat—not an official name, of course, but one too perfect not to use—physically represents the idea of New Yankee Stadium and the new Steinbrenner ethos. Here, tacky and undeniable and patrolled by grumpy ushers, is a literal manifestation of the disdain with which ownership views the fans who occupy the majority of the stadium, and a middle finger-ish message to those on the wrong side of it. There was also the fiasco with the “obstructed view” bleacher seats, which in Yankee-Speak means that people sitting in those seats are unable to see a third of the outfield. The Yankees had to be publicly shamed into dropping the price of those seats to $5; ironically, the price at which all bleacher seats used to sell for select games in the old stadium. I could go on. But I won’t, because this is just a lifelong fan seeing in his team what everyone else saw in the Yankees all along.

Section 39 of the old Yankee Stadium was a great place to figure things out. Important things: was I the type of person who yells racist things at Hideki Matsui? Do I give the home run ball to the child next to me who will cherish it for the rest of his life, or throw it back and try to hit then-Mariners rookie Adam Jones in the temple? When I went to my second game at New Yankee Stadium, I lost a lot of what I had found. The last plank of Theseus’s ship had been nailed into place. I did not know this place, or who I was there. Who, and what, was I rooting for?

And then Brett Gardner took ball four, and trotted to first base.

***

Aristotle tried to answer Theseus’s paradox, because that was just the type of thing Aristotle did. He thought that, even if the parts change over time, the thing itself remains the same provided that it maintains the same final purpose. The purpose is all that matters. The components, the context, the look and the feel: these things shift. The direction defines, and if the direction does not change then the definition need not, either.

Tino Martinez never won a Gold Glove, and maybe he never deserved one. All big league first basemen can dive to their left and snag a ball that seemed destined for the outfield corner. The guys who were already moving to the line before the ball was hit and didn’t have to dive are the ones we often miss because their uniforms aren’t dirty and the announcers don’t gush over their effort, desire, or hustle. Tino was that kind of player, and I was astonished by his little wonders.

Since 1994, the Yankees had only one player steal at least 40 bases in one season: Alfonso Soriano did it twice, in 2001 and 2002. In his time with the Yankees, Soriano was known for two things: swinging a heavy bat despite being a gangly Modigliani of a human being—not suspicious at all in that particular era of baseball—and chasing a 40/40 season. His power meant pitchers never feared his speed as much as his bat; put him on first, and it at least meant he wasn’t on second, or back in the dugout high-fiving his teammates after sending a souvenir into the $5 seats. The Yankees managed to go my entire life without a true base-stealer.

During this time, the Yankees were infamously victimized by a base-stealer in the 2004 ALCS: Dave Fucking Roberts. The steal sign was a wink from manager Terry Francona, and that night, Dave Roberts bent time. He was on first, but he was also on second. We all knew he would be there shortly, just as surely as he was on first at that moment. The Yankees had always been the victim of this type of fear, never the possessors. Brett Gardner, on his way to solving Theseus’ paradox, solved that, too.

Jonah Keri’s recent piece at Grantland does better than I could ever hope to do in detailing the art of stealing bases, and how complex and beautiful that aspect of the game can be. It’s more than cat-and-mouse; it’s much more fraught and contingent and strange, more cat-and-mouse-while-the-cat-fends-off-a-human-wielding-a-club. I was used to seeing pitchers get nervous when batters would step to the plate, but seeing them perspire and nervously glance over to first base, unable to stop the man dancing off first from doing what we all knew he would do, was power redefined. For all the firepower up and down the lineup, it was Brett Gardner who brought this power to the Yankees.  

In many ways, Gardner doesn’t fit in with the New Yankees. I had to seek out video of him speaking to hear his voice. He has a gentle, South Carolinian drawl. There really isn’t much else to say about him as a person, because I don’t know much else and because no one has cared to ask him any such questions, or at least to write about the answers. If there’s usually more to know about professional athletes than we know, Gardner demands we take it on faith.

Which is fine. I want to keep it that way. I want Brett Gardner to be the Yankee who isn’t a Yankee. I don’t want him be in the tabloids, date some testy starlet, fuck something up at a nightclub. I want there to continue to be no evidence that he has ever so much as spoken to A-Rod. I just want him to keep getting on first, keep making pitchers nervous, keep stealing bases even though everybody knows he is going to do it. I have more invested than I would’ve expected in him being unstoppable, strictly because he is Brett Gardner and because he reminded me what baseball is for.

Tino, in his sublime understatement and unshowy anticipation, showed me what kind of first baseman I wanted to be. Those dreams are a weekend thing, now, softball stuff, but no less valuable for that. Brett Gardner, in the years since, has shown me what kind of baseball fan I want to be. The Yankees’ Ship gets replaced, plank by plank; new planks can serve new purposes. I don’t root for the same team anymore, and I know this; I go to a different place to root for them, one that’s infinitely more craven and cavernous and false. But I root for the New Yankees, for better and for worse; I’m still working on all this. Brett Gardner is a new plank in the Yankees’ Ship, but I hope he never becomes a Yankee in the way other people understand it. I hope he never says a word.


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