Lee Gardner toiled long and hard in the minor leagues and earned his time in the spotlight – though it lasted only one season.
Never drafted, he was signed by the Devil Rays as a free agent in 1998 and began the slog through their system. He had an impressive debut his first professional campaign, striking out 57 batters to just five walks in 39 2/3 innings – but that’s what happens when you’re a year older than the average player in your league.
By 2000, he was in Triple A, and by 2002 he was in the major leagues. In 12 appearances, the 27-year-old went 1-1 with a 4.05 ERA. Certainly not a bad cup of coffee, but one not unlike hundreds and hundreds before him.
Back at Triple A in 2003 and 2004, the pitcher saw only middling success, averaging more than a hit allowed per inning, while losing 10 games and surrendering 17 home runs in just 133 1/3 frames.
He returned to the Devil Rays briefly in 2005 and had another ho-hum line of five appearances and a 4.91 ERA. His June 11 appearance was particularly notable. In a blowout against the Pirates that saw Pittsburgh win 18-2, Gardner tossed the last two frames and surrendered only one earned run. On its face a decent appearance, but looks can be deceiving.
In a disastrous bottom of the 8th inning, he allowed a single to catcher Humberto Cota, before batter Tike Redman reached on an error. That set into motion the follow series of events: Groundout, single, single, triple, single, walk, all in a row. Five runs scored, but none were earned, giving him the unsavory line of two innings pitched, seven hits, one walk and six runs allowed.
Suffice it to say, to that point, nothing suggested major league success was in the offing.
After moving to the Tigers system in 2006, he had a solid season at Triple A (30 saves, 2.92 ERA), but that wasn’t enough for Detroit to keep him around. And, for Gardner, at least, that was the best decision a big league club ever made.
Latching on with the Marlins for 2007, he spent only nine games on the farm – and 62 with the big club. Over the final three months of the season, he had a 0.79 ERA and batters managed a meager .216 mark against him; he posted a 1.94 mark for the year.
While the pitching staff crumbled around him – former star hurler Dontrelle Willis was 10-15 with a 5.17 ERA, Scott Olsen lost 15 games with a 5.81 mark, five pitchers had ERAs over 10 – Gardner was steady and reliable from beginning to end. And the end, overall, was unfortunately very near. After just 10 appearances and a 10.80 ERA with Florida in 2008, his professional career was over. He retired after the 2008 campaign.
Fun facts: Gardner was inducted into the International League Hall of Fame in 2017, alongside longtime Indianapolis Indians general manager Max Schumacher. He had 107 saves over part or all of six seasons in the league. He is also the only major leaguer born in Hartland, Michigan.