Gardner shares optimism on life at Rutgers


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Photo by Jim O'Connor - NJ Sport Pics |

May 10, 2014; Piscataway, NJ, USA; NCAA Baseball: Rutgers vs USF. Mandatory Credit: Jim O'Connor-NJ Sport Pics


Glen Gardner struck out only two times in his life, and it was not on a baseball diamond.

But before the man who came to be known as "Beef" was selected  by the Atlanta Braves in the 1988 Major League Baseball Draft out of Rutgers, Gardner began his story with what felt as good as a standup triple.

The Immaculata High School (N.J.) product recorded a hit in nearly 70 percent of his high school at-bats — a .676 batting average — while also being named All-State team two times. Those accolades alone proved significant enough for Gardner to earn a full scholarship to Rutgers — one of three that former head coach Fred Hill was allotted at the time.

While at Rutgers, Beef cemented himself as one of the top hitters in school history. He ended his career cracking the top-10 in all hitting categories for the Scarlet Knights, and remains in more than half of those categories to this day.

Gardner played down his accomplishments at the collegiate level, despite it eventually leading to him being drafted in the 13th round of the MLB Draft.

From parking lot practices to a Fred Hill baseball facility breaking ground this spring, Gardner has been through every change in the Rutgers program and college baseball as a whole.

“Things have changed quite a bit since I came as a player back in ’85,” Gardner said. “Baseball was just taking off — it wasn’t big time like it is now. When I left here, I had almost every one of the top-10 lists. Not because I was this great player — I did fine — but because they didn’t play as much before me. We started playing the 60-game schedule and making the NCAA Regionals. People would pat me on the back, but there were just more opportunities under Coach Hill.”

***

After spending three years in the minor leagues, Glen Gardner struck out of the first time in his life. Gardner played on three different levels for the Braves, making it through the Rookie division and both Class-A teams.

Striking out at the plate was tough enough for Beef, but what happened next would be difficult for anyone to handle.

Taking the field at first base, after being an outfielder his whole life, Gardner endured his first true test of adversity. A batted ball that snuck up on him too quickly ended his professional baseball aspirations.

He didn’t play another game.

“I got three years with the Braves and I did well. I could hit,” Gardner said. “I played outfield, then they decided I wasn’t fast enough. So, I played third base, but they decided I could field well enough. Then I ended up at first base, and that’s where I took the ball to the eye. I can’t see out of it — my depth is bad — so I couldn’t hit anymore, so then I became a coach.”

***

With his baseball career permanently ending, Gardner said the next part of his life gave him the most satisfaction and purpose.

Gardner turned to the one man who gave him a chance when there were only three scholarships to give. This time, head coach Fred Hill welcomed Gardner on the one-man coaching staff soon after the injury.

It started out difficult for Gardner. He knew how to hit at the plate, but helping student-athletes learn to do it — that was more challenging. It only took him a year to adjust, he said. 

After that adjustment period, things took off and Gardner never had a bad day of work.

“I talk to people all the time, and I tell them injury was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” Gardner said. “People laugh and question me, ‘What could you possibly mean?’ But I would have never became a coach and I liked coaching more than I liked playing. I never had an 0-for-4 day as a coach, but it was challenging figuring out how to fix kid’s hitting problems — but when you did, it was like having a 4-for-4 day. That’s the stuff I get a kick out of. That was better than any home run I hit. I never expected to help people like that in my life.”

Gardner loved it so much he did it for 18 years. He said he enjoyed being the calming influence in the lives of his student-athletes.

Gardner developed into one of the most renowned hitting minds in baseball, evidenced by countless players drafted and several selected in the early rounds.

Head coach Joe Litterio said nothing has changed with Beef since the current skipper arrived at Rutgers in the early 1990s as an infielder. If Litterio ever needed anything, he asked Gardner who always obliged.

Gardner stills helps to this day, but in a more limited role.

“Beef is the epitome of the program,” Litterio said. “He’s been a part of this program his entire life and he hasn’t changed. Back in the day, he was the guy you go to when you were upset, and you jumped on his back. He was always a guy who would straight talk you, tell you how to get better and would work with you to get better. He was there for the players and still is today.”

While times have changed since Litterio last played for the Knights, Beef has always remained a constant in the dugout — the only thing that changed is his role.

Gardner now holds the title of Director of Baseball Operations, a job he is even more grateful to have.

However, things took a turn for the worse for Beef and then came the second time he struck out.

***

Still wearing his coach’s windbreaker and baseball pants, Gardner is in no rush these days and takes his spot at practice he’s had for the last seven years. He looks like a shell of his 6-foot-1 frame and weighs much lighter than his 205-pound playing weight.

Gardner doesn’t walk as well as he used to and he needs the help of a cane — a modified Louisville Slugger bat — to move around. He arrives at practice and everyone knows the hitting genius has arrived.

Sophomore starting shortstop Christian Campbell, like many other Knights, never misses an opportunity to talk to Beef. Although Gardner isn’t listed as a coach, he still guides the team.

“Beef is just a great guy all-around,” Campbell said. “Whenever he is around, he puts a smile on everyone’s face with his crazy, wacky stories he has. He’s a mentor and keeps our head into the games. He’s been through everything as a player and coach and knows a lot. You have open ears when you listen to Beef talk.”

***

Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a chronic autoimmune disorder that affects over two million people in the world.

Glen Gardner, age 48, is one of those people.

MS is characterized as an inflammatory disease that damages the nerves in one’s brain and spine, affecting the way those diagnosed with it live their everyday lives. For Gardner, it meant he physically couldn’t coach anymore.

With what seems like the second of two major obstacles in his life, Gardner feels no regret about how his journey ended up. Losing his chance at the MLB led him to become one of the most respected hitting coaches in the nation, and leaving coaching afforded him a second lease on life.

“That’s when I got sick — I got MS,” Gardner said. “It wasn’t a switch because I wanted to, I had to. I’m thankful because they could have just given me the boot. I can’t really do anything else and I was here for so long. So, if not for the second chance, I would be home collecting disability with nothing to do. I still get a kick out of watching these kids play, but people ask me if I’m sad about how I couldn’t play baseball or coach anymore. … I do know that there’s a lot of bad stuff that goes on in this world, but I’m doing okay.”

***

During pick-off drills at practice, Beef, in his normal spot, motions for a pitcher to come over after he goes to retrieve the baseball that flew over the third baseman’s head.

He doesn’t yell because the player did something wrong — that would be counterproductive, Gardner says. Coaches always yelled growing up and Gardner claims that’s the wrong way to coach.

With words of encouragement, he says, “You can do it. You will get it. Just remember, it’s better to miss low than high — these guys will scoop it.”

The player runs off with a smile and says, “Thanks for the help, Beef.”

He may not be swinging bats anymore, but Beef is still hitting it out of the park.

For updates on the Rutgers baseball team, follow @TylerKaralewich and @TargumSports on Twitter.


Tyler Karalewich

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