Sapakoff: Twice cut at College of Charleston, Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner gets alma mater honor

Brett Gardner was an All-Southern Conference selection while playing at the College of Charleston file/staff

College of Charleston fans will swap Brett Gardner stories Friday night when the New York Yankees outfielder is officially honored with a five-panel permanent display on the outfield wall at Patriots Point Field. The tales are peppered with persistence. They usually end in a blaze of speed and glory.

Gardner's father cherishes comical memories, too.

Like the one that starts with Gardner as a College of Charleston freshman getting a single at Charleston Southern off R.J. Swindle, who would go on to pitch in the majors for the Phillies and Brewers.

Gardner promptly stole second base.

"But when he got down to second, a Charleston Southern infielder - a fellow that knew Brett and had played against Brett in high school - came up to him and pulled a trick," Jerry Gardner recalled. "He said, 'Brett, tough break - foul ball.' So Brett goes jogging on back to first base."

College of Charleston coaches went nuts, screaming at Gardner to scurry back to second.

"But they weren't as loud I was," Jerry Gardner said. "I was hollering, 'Come on, Gardner! Get your head in the game!' Brett got in a rundown and made it back to first base. Then they had him steal again on the first pitch, but Charleston Southern pitched out and threw him out."

That was the only time Gardner was caught stealing in nine attempts as a freshman.

Jerry Gardner will be on hand for the Friday night ceremony prior to the Cougars' game against Bethune-Cookman in Mount Pleasant.

Brett Gardner has Yankees duty in The Bronx.

"I am honored to be recognized in such a special way," he said. "I share this occasion with my family, my teammates and my coaches, all of whom played a large part in molding me into the person and player I am today. My college years were filled with some of the greatest memories of my life and I am forever grateful for the opportunities C of C gave me to continue my baseball career and my education."

Now 30 and in his seventh season with the Yankees, Gardner was a third-round pick in the 2005 major league draft after batting .447 as a College of Charleston senior. He owns a 2009 World Series ring and is considered one of the fastest base runners and best defensive outfielders in baseball.

Quite a vault for a small kid from the small Orangeburg County town of Holly Hill who was cut twice as a College of Charleston walk-on.

Jerry Gardner and his wife Faye raised their sons - Brett and older brother Glen, a Mount Pleasant landscape architect - on a 2,600-acre farm full of corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton. The boys helped with chores, rode tractors and steered combines when they weren't busy with sports at Holly Hill Academy.

Jerry Gardner nudged Brett toward the College of Charleston, thinking a developing program was a good fit for a non-recruited player. But former head coach John Pawlowski was making rapid progress with the Cougars.

"Brett and 26 other fellows walked on at the College of Charleston and nobody made the team," Jerry Gardner said. "So Brett brought all his baseball stuff back to Holly Hill."

Gardner didn't give up, and Pawlowski gradually built a Southern Conference powerhouse around a fast little left-handed leadoff hitter. The Cougars made the first of three straight NCAA tournament appearances in 2004 when Gardner was a junior.

"People say, 'I can't believe Brett didn't get an offer out of high school,'" Jerry Gardner said. "And I've talked to (Citadel head coach) Fred Jordan and he mentions Brett as being a diamond in the rough that he can't believe was overlooked. But even me as a parent, I can understand why people didn't give him much of an offer. Heck, he was 5-8, 135 coming into college. He had some speed but he just wasn't ready to play Division I baseball. It's just a heck of a story how it worked out."

College of Charleston head coach Monte Lee makes a point of telling that Brett Gardner story to Cougar recruits as they walk past a poster-sized Gardner photo at TD Arena.

"For our program, honoring Brett is something we're really excited about," Lee said. "To have a guy that came to the school as a walk-on, and not only made the ballclub but wound up being an All-American player and a third-round draft pick by the most storied franchise in professional baseball, and then to work his way into what he's become, is just incredible."

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

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