From Virginia to Vegas, He Works for Chance in ‘The Show’


At times, Las Vegas looks a lot like Norfolk, Va., to Jeff Gardner.

Granted, it’s tough to confuse The Strip with Norfolk’s naval bases and shipyards, but these cities do have something in common: triple-A baseball.

Las Vegas and Norfolk are nearly 2,500 miles apart, but from Gardner’s viewpoint, both places are the same distance from the major leagues.

“Triple A is still triple A,” said Gardner, a former Estancia High and Orange Coast College standout. “It doesn’t matter where you’re playing, triple A is still one step out of the majors.”


After three seasons with Norfolk’s Tidewater Mets, the top farm club of the New York Mets, Gardner, 28, is now playing for the Las Vegas Stars, the triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres.

Despite a .280 career average at the triple-A level and a reputation as a top defensive second baseman, Gardner’s experience in “The Show” has been brief. Last September, the Mets brought him up when teams were allowed to expand their rosters.

That month-long taste of life in the National League convinced Gardner that everything he’d heard about The Show was true.

“It really is as good as they say,” Gardner said. “You get the chartered planes, your bags are waiting for you in your room when you get to the hotel and the per diem is a lot better.

“Getting to play up there kind of made it all worth it. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get there.”

Now, Gardner wants to get there again and stay there. That possibility seemed to improve in December, when the Mets traded him to the Padres for pitcher Steve Rosenberg.


The Padres told Gardner he’d get a legitimate shot at making the team, an opportunity that faded quickly in the Mets organization.

“The Mets never put me on the 40-man roster and they always had a lot of infielders,” Gardner said. “I have no bitter feelings toward the Mets, but I was happy with the trade because it was time to move on.”

San Diego assigned Gardner to spring training with the Padres in Yuma, Ariz. But a few days before the start of camp, Gardner’s chances of making the opening-day roster diminished when the Padres signed free-agent second baseman Kurt Stillwell, formerly of the Kansas City Royals.

“I was getting ready to report to Yuma and then I heard on the radio that they’d signed Stillwell,” Gardner said. “I knew it was a possibility, but it still caught me a little off-guard.”

If Gardner was distracted by the Padres’ move with Stillwell, his performance in spring training certainly didn’t reflect it. Gardner hit .360 in Yuma and fielded well, but it wasn’t enough. At the end of spring training, Gardner earned a spot on the Padres’ 40-man roster but was assigned to Las Vegas.

“I could see it coming, but it was still disappointing,” Gardner said. “It was kind of funny in a way, because I’d never been sent down (to the minor leagues) before because I’d never been up with the big club during spring training before.”


In Las Vegas, through Thursday’s game, Gardner, who bats left-handed, is hitting .296 with 15 RBIs and 11 doubles. He also has a 22-game errorless streak.

At Estancia and Orange Coast, Gardner was known for his glove work. After being named the Sea View League most valuable player in his senior year at Estancia in 1982, Gardner went to Orange Coast, where Coach Mike Mayne converted him from a shortstop to a second baseman.

He was named the South Coast Conference’s MVP in 1984 and planned on attending Arizona on a baseball scholarship before the Mets signed him. After two years in Class-A ball and two years in double-A, Gardner moved up to Tidewater in 1989.

In 1987, Gardner married and he and his wife, Lori, now have two daughters, Bailey, 4, and Blake, 11 months. At times, concerns for his family have caused Gardner to reflect on his pursuit of a major league career.

“I love to play baseball, but I also have to consider what all the moving around does to my family,” he said. “The last three years, it was Tidewater for six months, then back to California, then back to Tidewater and so on.

“I like being in Las Vegas because it’s a lot closer to home and the transition from the season to the off-season will be a lot easier, but it’d obviously be nice to get to San Diego and be settled for a while.”


Still, Gardner hasn’t set a make-it-or-retire timetable for his career. Next year’s addition of the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins will open up jobs in the major leagues for a number of new players.

“With the expansion coming up, it would be foolish to say, ‘If I don’t make it this year, I’m going to quit’,” Gardner said. “Right now, it’s frustrating waiting to see if somebody gets hurt so I might get called up, but what keeps me going is knowing you can’t beat coming to the ballpark to go to work.”