There is a reason the Yankees keep bending and twisting their roster year to year to keep Brett Gardner on the team, even if he’s only 85 percent the player he used to be. From the start, he has been a teammate’s teammate, a pro’s pro, a guy other players look to for guidance and leadership.
And, damn, he plays the game hard.
It is why you must take him at his word when he tells you that however it may look to the outside, his recently acquired habit of banging dugout ceilings with his bat is not intended to show up umpires, to call umpires out, to embarrass them, to infuriate them.
“On a daily basis,” Gardner said, “I do things to get our guys fired up.”
This was half an hour after the Yankees’ latest statement victory, a 6-5 squeaker over the Indians, a second straight one-run win over a team they may well see again come October. In the sixth inning, the baseball had been replaced by a bizarre burlesque show, into which Gardner became — unwittingly, he swears — one of the featured acts.
Home-plate umpire Ben May — a minor league call-up — called Cameron Maybin out on strikes on a pitch that looked a little wide of the strike zone. May heard some grumblings from the Yankees dugout. Aaron Boone sprinted out for a word, soon he was ejected — and he got his money’s worth — and the crowd of 47,347 ate it up because one thing never changes about baseball: fans love to see managers lose their minds screaming at umpires.
That should’ve been it.
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That wasn’t it. After Boone retreated, the umpires descended on the Yankees’ dugout. CC Sabathia, who won’t even come off the injured list until Sunday, got tossed. And so did Gardner. And first-base umpire Phil Cuzzi offered a hint why by pantomiming a man holding a bat and jamming it upward.
Which has become something of Gardner’s calling card lately.
Later, talking to a pool reporter, crew chief Tom Hallion was asked if Cuzzi had seen Gardner doing that (TV cameras had already captured that image).
“That’s probably a pretty accurate statement,” Hallion admitted.
OK. This is where we should probably point out that no matter how long you scour and study the baseball rulebook, you won’t find anything prohibiting the ramming of a bat to the dugout ceiling.
Now, there are some common-sense problems with this: Do that enough times, a piece comes off and lands on a teammate, you’ll have some explaining to do (Paul O’Neill’s teammates tolerated his regular sparring sessions with water coolers, but more than once he was warned in no uncertain terms that the end result had better never damage either him or them). It’s not exactly the most professional look, either; in truth, it looks downright petulant and childish (and runs exactly counter to the way Gardner has carried himself from the moment he showed up in 2008).
So there’s that.
But there’s also this: The first time Gardner gained notoriety for this was during the infamous “savages” game last month. It became an issue last week when he was wrongly ejected in Toronto for slander a teammate was screaming, but umpire Dan Iassogna made clear that he’d seen Gardner’s bat-banging and didn’t like it. This week, Joe Torre said that while Gardner had been ejected for the wrong offense, “Watching enough video, Gardner earned being thrown out.”
Gardner said that referred to his explosion after his ejection, and he may well believe that. But common sense also screams that the umps have grown weary with the bat-to-the-ceiling bit. They think Gardner shows them up doing that, even if he insists otherwise.
(A word here about umps: they make mistakes, and they seem to make more now than they ever did, and they aren’t perfect calling balls and strikes, and never have been. Some of them are downright terrible. But they can be awful AND the bat-banging can be childish at the same time. They aren’t mutually exclusive.)
So Gardner got tossed again, and got his money’s worth again, and he suggested later that maybe he needs to find another way to fire his teammates up and make noise, maybe use his helmet against the helmet rack, maybe something else. It might also be helpful for Torre to issue a directive, immediately, that sets the guideline in black-and-white: either it’s within the rules or it’s outside them.
“I feel like I had a target on my back,” Gardner said.
He did. He also handed Cuzzi a couple of darts and asked him to take aim. If that wasn’t his intention?
Hey, umpires are human. They see things. They act. They react. In a season in which the Yankees have done so many things right, this seems a small adjustment to make. Keep the bat in the bat-rack. Find another way.