BY JED WEISBERGER
Back in 1979, I was just grasping what it was to be a baseball writer and how the clubhouses and chemistry actually worked.
I was privileged to be a journalistic part of that season’s Pittsburgh Pirates World Championship journey, in which Chuck Tanner’s Bucs rallied from a 3-1 deficit to defeat Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles.
The key member of that club, the veteran who kept the clubhouse in line for Tanner, was 39-year-old Willie Stargell, who, with his outfield days behind him, played first base.
The veteran Stargell earned National League Co-MVP honors (with St. Louis’ Keith Hernandez) by bashing 32 homers, driving in 82 runs and batting .281 (119-for-424) with an OPS of .904. Tanner often said he was the driving force behind his team’s championship season.
A genial man off the field, Stargell actually taught yours truly what wine to drink with what entrée, but that is another story quite unimportant compared to how he helped younger players, such as outfielder Dave Parker that season.
Brett Gardner, like Stargell almost 40 years ago, performs a similar function for the Yankees, and, based on what Tanner told me almost four decades ago, worth his playing weight in gold to a team.
“That key veteran is one of the most important guys in the clubhouse,’’ Tanner said then. “What he does for a team is immeasurable. If you think of letting such a veteran who can still play go, you will quickly miss him.’’
That’s exactly the situation many fans seem to not realize about Gardner, who will turn 35 next Aug. 24. He still can capably handle all three outfield positions, can still run and serves as a mentor in many ways to the Yankees’ young players. New manager Aaron Boone will certainly use him as a sounding board.
A veteran who has been through the wars is like a guide through a tropical jungle, making sure his teammates stay on the right path.
Gardner is coming off his best power season, having hit 21 homers and recorded 63 RBIs in 151 games last season. How many leadoff hitters pass 20 homers? Not many.
And who might the Yankees bring back for Gardner, who will be 35 before the end of the 2018 season and has a team option – either $12.5 million or a $2 million buyout – as far as 2019 is concerned? He is making $11.5 million in 2018.
Trading him would not clear that much under the salary threshold, and, given this could be his walk year, not much would be offered in return.
Gardner will no doubt continue his role as a leader and key outfield performer for the Yankees in 2018. His intangible value could realistically increase with Boone replacing Joe Girardi in the Bronx managerial chair.
There is no reason to be in a hurry to send Gardner away? Who will replace him? Aaron Hicks is the only other outfielder who is proven in center. Clint Frazier is a corner outfielder and hasn’t proved he’s an everyday player.
Gardner is as valuable to the 2018 Yankees as Stargell was to the 1979 Pirates in the whole scheme of things. The Yankees can easily decide their options with him for the 2019 season.