A Buddy Comedy in Left Field

TAMPA, Fla. — If the current version of Clint Frazier, more polished on and off the field, could communicate with himself from two or three years ago, he would have many lessons to impart.

“I would say, ‘I think you need to be yourself, but you need to tone it down and just relax, shut up and just swing the bat,’” Frazier said recently in a video call with reporters. “‘Oh, and catch the fly balls.’”

That basic feat of fielding was once a challenge for Frazier, 26. As was being accountable for his miscues and toeing the line between his brash individuality and the Yankees’ buttoned-up way.

Those matters, though, and the shaky fielding — exacerbated by postconcussive syndrome — disappeared last year. So much so that Frazier was a finalist for a Gold Glove Award and, before position players even reported to spring training a few weeks ago, Yankees Manager Aaron Boone anointed Frazier the team’s starting left fielder.

In doing so, Frazier unseated Brett Gardner, the man who helped him reach this point. Gardner had frequently pulled Frazier aside to offer guidance. He had played left field more than any other Yankee since 2010 and is the longest-tenured player on the team. And as a leader of the team in the sunset of his career, Gardner was happy to see a player he helped nurture succeed.

“It has been fun to see their relationship kind of develop and emerge over the years to where there really is a cool competitive back-and-forth and banter that goes on between those guys,” Boone said. “But I think they’ve grown to really respect and like one another.”

But Frazier contends that there is more to the story. And that Gardner, for all of his veteran leadership, is more immature despite being 11 years older.

Case in point: Since last season, Frazier and Gardner have been playfully fighting over a mock turtleneck to wear under their uniform, with each claiming ownership. So after being named the starting left fielder, Frazier said that he hoped he could keep the turtleneck and that Gardner should find his own “because I think now I deserve it.”

It’s that warmth and playfulness between them that helped build a bridge from a mainstay left fielder to what the Yankees hope is another one.

Gardner’s first major-league camp was way back in 2007. Early in his career, he battled more experienced outfielders like Melky Cabrera, Johnny Damon, Nick Swisher and Bobby Abreu for playing time.

“Now the tables have turned,” Gardner, 37, said recently.

Thanks to a talented and deep roster, the Yankees enter this season, again, as a World Series contender. But they have not claimed a World Series title since 2009 — a shortcoming that weighs on Gardner, the last remaining player from that championship team. Should the Yankees finally end that drought, they may do so with Frazier in a more prominent role than Gardner, who largely sputtered at the plate during the pandemic-shortened 60-game 2020 season.

But Gardner isn’t done by any means.

“There’s a reason that people keep wanting him back,” Frazier said.

Although it took months of waiting, Gardner re-signed with the only major-league organization he has known, days before position players were scheduled to report in Tampa for spring training. He acknowledged that the contract, which includes player and team options for 2022, could be his last.

And in an outfield that already includes Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Frazier, who is under team control through the 2024 season, playing time will be at a premium.

But Gardner, who hit a career-high 28 home runs in 2019, has continually found a way to keep himself in the lineup. The team has needed him in recent years, regardless of its depth, because of injuries to Hicks, Judge and Stanton.

“Whatever the team needs me to do to help out on a daily basis, I’ll be ready,” Gardner said. “And whatever my role is, I’ll accept it. We’ve got some young players and especially a guy like Clint Frazier, I look forward to continue to help him and see his career really take off this year.”

Acquired in the Andrew Miller trade with the Cleveland Indians in 2016, Frazier was a highly touted prospect who struggled with consistency in his first taste of the majors in 2017. A concussion wiped out nearly all of 2018. And while Frazier’s bat helped the Yankees withstand a rash of injuries in 2019, his fielding misadventures led to a two-and-a-half-month stint in the minor leagues.

Over the years, Frazier ruffled feathers inside and outside the organization with what he did, wore, said and didn’t say. His name surfaced in trade rumors. His ability to stick in the majors was in doubt because of his glove.

But Gardner, a defensive stalwart, was one of the people who Frazier said offered a lot of advice on improving his defense. Despite being vocal in previous seasons about wanting to beat out Gardner for the left-field job, Frazier said he admired the way Gardner treated him, like a little brother.

“There was times when he pulled me over into his room just to put his arm around me and just talk to me because he knew that I was going through some tough times with some distractions that I had caused,” said Frazier, who hit .267 with eight home runs and a .905 on-base-plus-slugging percentage last season.

When Frazier first came to the Yankees as the centerpiece of a high-profile trade, Gardner said Frazier was inexperienced (a 21-year-old drafted in the first round out of high school only three years before) and had a lot of expectations — “some unfair” — thrust on him. Gardner said he now sees a more mature and comfortable Frazier.

“He’s willing to learn, he’s willing to listen and he’s willing to put in the time,” Gardner said, adding later, “It’s been a lot of fun for me to watch him grow, not just as a player but as a person.”

Reflecting recently on his journey, Frazier said he wasn’t ashamed of what he said or did in the past because they were relatively trivial and those moments shaped him. He said he felt that he had grown up — also with help from people like his girlfriend or the Yankees outfield coach Reggie Willits — and that he was truly part of the team.

Although Frazier said he toned down his personality because he grew tired of being the topic of conversation for reasons unrelated to his performance, he said he still kept some flair. “A little bit more of a mild version rather than like a Tabasco hot sauce,” he said.

Should he need more help going forward, Frazier said he was thankful to still have Gardner nearby. “I’d selfishly like to have this guy around until he’s like 50 just so I can finish my career with him,” he said.

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