TAMPA, Fla. -- Against the back wall of the clubhouse, along the same row of lockers that houses Alex Rodriguez, sat the member of the New York Yankees who has made the biggest stand against drugs. Brett Gardner agreed to serve on the advisory board of big leaguers set up by the anti-doping advocate, Don Hooton, who fired A-Rod as his advisory board of one when Rodriguez was suspended for staging a long series of chemically-aided magic shows.
Gardner signed a pledge that included the following statements:
• I believe that using anabolic steroids and other Appearance and Performance Enhancing Drugs is illegal, dangerous to my body, and to use them as an athlete is cheating.
• I believe that the only good sport is fair sport, sport that is clean, and I therefore agree ... to abide by any and all anti-doping rules that relate to me and to baseball.
• Outside of competition, I am willing to take a stand, and to show my commitment to doping-free sport by ... thinking about fairness and ethical issues with all choices I make.
"I'm not sure Alex understands how much damage he's done to our cause. We helped make him a role model on this subject, and Alex was on the wrong side of the street on this one." Don Hooton, anti-doping advocate
"To be honest," Gardner said Wednesday at his locker, "I'm not really passionate about a whole lot of stuff, but I am passionate about trying to play the game the right way, and this comes along with it. So it's something I've enjoyed taking part in."
Hooton's foundation is named after his son, Taylor, who committed suicide in 2003 after using anabolic steroids, and it became a lifeline for a drowning Rodriguez in 2009, after the slugger confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs. Hooton recalled by phone that he traveled with A-Rod "up and down the East Coast talking to kids about the dangers of PED use at the same time that Alex was still using them."
As of Wednesday afternoon, Hooton said he had yet to receive a call or email from Rodriguez apologizing for the fraud he perpetrated on those impressionable kids.
"I'm not sure Alex understands how much damage he's done to our cause," Hooton told ESPNNewYork.com. "We helped make him a role model on this subject, and Alex was on the wrong side of the street on this one. ... He attached himself to us for good reason, and we attached ourselves to him, and it ended up doing more harm than good."
Back when Biogenesis was only a household name in Anthony Bosch's household, Rodriguez pledged $150,000 over a three-year period to Hooton's mission of keeping teenagers away from the drugs he believed contributed to his son's death. The Taylor Hooton Foundation accepted the first $50,000 donation, but ended its association with Rodriguez and returned the next $50,000 check uncashed after A-Rod was nailed in the Biogenesis bust.
Hooton needed a new spokesman, badly, and he said his foundation's publicist, former Yankees PR man Rick Cerrone, advised him against recruiting another troubled athlete trying to rehab his image. "We wanted to reach out and find some real role-model types," Hooton said.
Major League Baseball supported the idea of a players board replacing A-Rod, and Cerrone sent out letters to club officials seeking qualified candidates. Jason Zillo, the Yankees' director of media relations, approached Gardner about representing the team. On many levels, the light-hitting outfielder was the antithesis of Rodriguez, the former high school phenom and No. 1 overall draft pick who stands among the greatest hitters (statistically, anyway) of all time.
Gardner was a former Division 1 walk-on initially cut from the College of Charleston team. "Brett wasn't a blue-chip anything," Zillo said. "He's worked for everything he's ever gotten, and he's definitely someone kids should look up to."
Funny how things work out. Gardner always was supposed to be a role player, not a role model, and yet he made himself into a good enough player to command a four-year, $52 million contract.
"I didn't even know who he was when I walked in here my first year," said Mark Teixeira, who arrived in 2009. "I didn't. I never really heard of the guy. ... And now he's a guy that people look at. 'Hey, this guy's won with the New York Yankees. He's been in New York a long time. I'm going to listen to him. I'm going to listen to what this guy has to say.'"
Not that Gardner has ever been one to broadcast his opinions above the noise created by A-Rod and the rest. Despite his standing as a starting outfielder for the world's most famous ballclub, and despite the fact he's one of only four Yankees left from the 2009 championship team, Gardner prefers to keep things quiet. He still carries himself like that walk-on who needed his old man to persuade the Charleston coach to give him a second shot.
But whether Gardner intended to or not, he made a loud statement here. He said he was open to speaking to young students, to participating in public-service announcements and to doing whatever Hooton might need. His message to teens?
"Just do what's right, work hard, play hard, and hopefully at the end of the day good things will happen," Gardner said. "I think it's important that everybody starts on a level playing field, and I feel like with the program Major League Baseball has now, 99 percent of the people are."
A-Rod was the ultimate one-percenter, of course, and Thursday morning he will join Gardner and the rest of the position players in their first official workout. Gardner said that he hasn't spoken with Rodriguez about his role with Hooton's foundation, and that he hopes the fallen star can make a smooth transition to the team after his season-long ban.
"I know the biggest part of it for Alex is not going to be on the field," Gardner said. "It's going to be off the field, dealing with media and fans, and who knows how that's all going to go over. But I'm happy to have him back. He's obviously served a very lengthy suspension, and financially he's been hit pretty hard, and it possibly could effect him as far as getting into the Hall of Fame one day. But obviously if he's healthy -- and he seems to be healthy -- he can really help us."
When Rodriguez and Gardner run into each other Thursday, one awkward moment will be avoided. Gardner won't be wearing the "All Me PED Free" T-shirts given to the 20 major leaguers who have committed to Hooton's advisory board, T-shirts they're expected to wear for upcoming photo ops. "I have it in my locker in New York," the outfielder said.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez might get his chance to speak to Hooton for the first time since 2013 and to apologize to him in person on March 12, when the anti-doping advocate is scheduled to throw out the first pitch -- hopefully to Gardner, Hooton said -- before the Yankees' spring training game against the Braves.
"I'm not going to go look for Alex," Hooton said. "If he comes over to shake hands, I'll receive him graciously, but I'll also ask him to sit down and talk.
"He needs to hear it from me the negative impact he's had on this cause."