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Yankees Magazine: One Love, One Goal

Driven by his passion for baseball, Didi Gregorius is a man on a mission
Yankees Magazine

It began in the unlikeliest of places -- on Facebook. Derek Jeter, who guarded his privacy like a Rottweiler and was the last person in the Yankees clubhouse you might expect to reveal something on social media, took to the platform in February 2014 to announce that the upcoming season would be his last. While fans quivered at the thought of the Captain sailing off into the sunset, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and his baseball operations staff were faced with an entirely different conundrum.

Who's going to replace him?

It began in the unlikeliest of places -- on Facebook. Derek Jeter, who guarded his privacy like a Rottweiler and was the last person in the Yankees clubhouse you might expect to reveal something on social media, took to the platform in February 2014 to announce that the upcoming season would be his last. While fans quivered at the thought of the Captain sailing off into the sunset, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and his baseball operations staff were faced with an entirely different conundrum.

Who's going to replace him?

It was one of the biggest questions they had ever faced. And when they took a look at the shortstop options within the organization, they didn't like what they saw. This was going to require some deft maneuvering. If it didn't work out, things could really go sour in the Bronx.

And so, Cashman gave the order to his army of talented pro scouts: Go out and find a player who can handle the pressure of replacing a legend, who will excel at one of the most important positions on the ballfield, who can be a cornerstone of a championship team, and who can be obtained without having to mortgage our future.

Simple, right?

***

Every baseball player wants to get better. Even those who have accomplished great things in their careers and are regarded highly still see room for improvement. For Didi Gregorius, getting better is a daily pursuit.

The 28-year-old Curaçaoan arrived in Spring Training this season coming off the best season of his life. His batting average rose for a third straight year, to .287, in 2017. He smacked 25 home runs -- surpassing Jeter's single-season record for a Yankees shortstop -- had a career-best 17-game hitting streak and set career highs in RBI (87), runs (73) and OPS (.796). In the postseason, Gregorius clubbed three crucial home runs in elimination games, including two in Cleveland off eventual Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber during Game 5 of the American League Division Series.

But yesterdays don't mean a thing to Gregorius. "You can get four hits, but if you can get four, I mean, you could have got five," he says. "It's 'never satisfied,' let's put it that way. 'Never satisfied' is the way I play the game because there's always room for improvement and trying to get better."

That mindset is just one part of a total package that the Yankees identified in 2014, when they began scouring the Big Leagues for their next shortstop.

Tim Naehring, the former Red Sox infielder, joined the Yankees' scouting department in the fall of 2007. Based out of his hometown of Cincinnati, Naehring spent most of every baseball season on the road, evaluating Major Leaguers and reporting his findings to his superiors.

In 2014, he was among the many Yankees scouts tasked with finding Mr. November's heir apparent. "Obviously, it was a very difficult job to take over with Jeter being one of the best we've ever seen," Naehring says.

As an American League crosschecker, Naehring took a close look at shortstops such as J.J. Hardy and Elvis Andrus, but his main focus was on the National League, and he found himself watching Arizona quite a bit. He liked what he saw in Gregorius immediately.

Not only did the young shortstop show raw power, but he had quick hands and an ability to manipulate the bat barrel through the zone. Naehring saw "untapped potential" at the plate and, with Gregorius's arm strength and innate capabilities in the field, a very good defender.

But what sticks out in Naehring's mind four years later is the same thing that fans in the Bronx have come to appreciate. "The one thing that I always admired about Didi is that he doesn't have a lot of flash to his game," Naehring says, "but he has a lot of actions that tell me that he actually loves playing baseball, which stood out to me right away."

***

Gregorius can't single out any one reason why; he just knows that he adores the game of baseball. It suits his personality well. While he probably has enough natural athletic ability to excel in a solo sport like tennis or golf, the team aspect of baseball appeals to his attention-deflecting sensibilities.

"Everybody has to work together and play the game the right way because everyone wants to play to win," he says. "I think that's the thing for me. It's basically just everybody coming together and being a good team."

Case in point: His emoji-laden post- victory tweets in which he never mentions his own accomplishments, incredible as they may be. Through the first few weeks of this season, Gregorius was one of the hottest hitters in all of baseball. His eight RBI in the April 3 home opener set a franchise record for a Yankees shortstop. Aside from the aforementioned ALDS clincher against the Indians, Gregorius had posted just one multi-home run game in his career; he had two in the first 15 games of this season. Through April 17, he led the AL in extra-base hits and led the Majors with an .804 slugging percentage.

Gregorius has had hot streaks before, but his season-opening tear somehow seemed different. His whopping .464 on-base percentage was more than 150 points above his career average. With just four strikeouts through his first 16 games, his 12.8 at-bats per strikeout ranked third in the Majors behind Andrus (26.0) and Cleveland third baseman Jose Ramirez (13.8). And with 14 walks on the young season, he was well on his way to eclipsing his career high of 37, set in 2013 with Arizona.

"He's a guy that has just a smooth left-handed swing, he's very aggressive, and if you make a mistake or he gets a pitch in a spot he's looking for, he rarely misses it," says Yankees infielder Neil Walker, who first took notice of Gregorius when both played in the NL. "You knew that he was going to develop offensively, you just didn't know to what degree. … He has basically gone from a one, two guy or a six, seven, eight guy in an American League lineup to a mainstay in the middle of the order, which is not an easy thing to do -- in the American League East especially. I think his days of flying under the radar are probably behind him."

***

Before Naehring was willing to stick his neck out and stake his career on a .250 hitter who had yet to play a full season in the Bigs and who had already been traded once (from the Reds to the Diamondbacks as part of a three-team trade in 2012), he needed to do some more reconnaissance on Gregorius.

Naehring was far from the only scout in the Yankees organization who examined Gregorius closely and came away sold on his raw skills and potential for development. But there are a lot of boxes that a scout needs to check, especially when it's a player who is switching leagues and will be asked to take the place of an all-time great. There's a mental makeup aspect that, in this particular case, was extremely important. How would the player react to a slump? To getting booed at home? To being ridiculed in the media?

So Naehring set out to learn about Gregorius the human being, talking to anyone and everyone who might have crossed paths with him. What the scout discovered excited him just as much as any untapped power at the plate or Gold Glove potential in the field.

From his connections in Arizona, Naehring figured out what type of person Gregorius was, what type of work ethic he had, that he went to the ballpark early, took extra ground balls and batting practice. Naehring's people in Cincinnati spoke highly of Gregorius, as well, pointing to the fact that he was a very educated young man who spoke multiple languages.

"One thing you can never take away from Didi is that every single day you see a smile on his face between the lines, which I thought was outstanding and speaks volumes to who he is as a person," Naehring says. "We spoke to everybody we knew, and even the clubhouse guys were like, 'Didi's the best.' He comes in, he wants his uniform, and it's, 'Let's go get the job done.'"

Already plenty convinced by Gregorius's on-field projections, Naehring started to see something even greater -- a future leader of the Yankees.

***

Whether it's working out in Florida during Spring Training or hitting the cages in the Bronx, Gregorius approaches his job the same way he always has -- with a smile. "For me, it's always love," Gregorius says. "It's the love of the game because for me, it's a family thing."

Gregorius's father, mother and brother all played the game at a high level. In fact, his father - who also goes by the nickname Didi -- pitched until he was 52. "Yeah, I mean, he's a freak," his son says. "He still runs every day and does a lot of stuff."

Gregorius takes his cue from his father, who is now a coach.

"It's just something he loves doing: helping people get better," Gregorius says. "I think that's how you want it to be. You don't want everything to be about you; you want it to be about everybody around you because you want everybody to do good. That's basically how a team works."

That philosophy is on display both on the field and behind the scenes. In the dugout and in the clubhouse, Gregorius keeps his teammates loose, helping them put a tough performance in the rearview mirror. For the young players especially, they appreciate his affable nature, and they soak up as much as they can.

"I go to him for advice," says Tyler Wade. "He's really knowledgeable, he's got a lot of wisdom, and he's a good guy to talk to in this clubhouse. He leads by example."

Wade and the rest of the Yankees' infielders point to Gregorius's actions at shortstop as a prime example of his leadership. Not only does he inspire confidence in his teammates with his own abilities to make plays consistently, he communicates with them constantly in an effort to increase their own comfort level in the field.

"I'll give guys a heads-up that an off-speed pitch is coming or tell them to move to a certain position. Those are the types of little things that can change the game," Gregorius says. "Right now we have a really young infield, so we've got to talk to them a lot, you know, whistle or something to let them know what might happen, just trying to keep everybody on the same page. You're always going to try to stay ready and try to anticipate everything before it even happens. That's how your confidence level's going to stay up. Nobody's going to be perfect in the game, but you can always try to be your best when you go out there."

For manager Aaron Boone, a rookie of sorts in his own right, having a player with that sort of attitude is priceless. Boone points to the weather-delayed home opener as another example of how Gregorius sets the right tone.

"When we got word that we were starting in 35, 40 minutes, he was like, 'Game on!'" Boone says. "Just the tempo, the energy and everything that he plays with I think is special. Not that he's a big talker or anything like that -- I think he's more of a lead by example guy - but he is somebody that I look to as being one of the leaders in that room."

Video: Didi goes deep in four consecutive games for Yanks

***

By the end of 2014, Naehring had seen and heard enough. When he weighed all the factors -- Gregorius's potential, his makeup, what the Yankees would likely have to give up to get him, the fact that Arizona was dealing from a position of depth with Chris Owings and Nick Ahmed on its roster -- he felt comfortable going to Cashman and saying, "This is our guy."

There was just one problem. Arizona wouldn't make a deal.

The Yankees lobbed offer after offer at Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart, who was open to moving Gregorius, but "we couldn't match up on anything," Cashman says. "He just didn't seem to like anything I was selling."

So Cashman got creative. He called up Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski and told him that he'd been trying in vain to acquire Gregorius. Cashman knew the Tigers had no need for another infielder, so he told Dombrowski that if he could somehow wrest Gregorius from the Diamondbacks, the Yankees would send Shane Greene - a young, controllable, affordable right-handed pitcher that the Yanks were high on - to Detroit.

A couple days passed, and when Dombrowski came back with good news, Cashman circled back one last time with Naehring, who again gave his full endorsement of Gregorius.

"I hung up the phone, and I said to my wife, 'I think our future with the Yankees is going to rest on one man's shoulders,'" Naehring recalls. "She goes, 'What do you mean?' I go, 'Well, I'm kind of putting all the chips in on this one, Babe.'"

On Dec. 5, 2014, in one of those rare three-team trades where no team feels like it got ripped off, the Yankees sent Greene -- now the Tigers' closer -- to Detroit, which sent starter Robbie Ray -- a 15-game winner and an All-Star in 2017 -- along with Minor League infielder Domingo Leyba to Arizona. Taking over at shortstop in New York, for the first time in a generation, would be someone other than Jeter. The Yankees had their man.

"Tim had him as a well above-average player, in terms of his ceiling," Cashman says. "And Didi has proved him correct."

***

When Giancarlo Stanton scuffled out of the gate this season, Gregorius could sympathize. He got off to a slow start in 2015 and heard his share of boos as fans pined for their retired captain. But Gregorius learned valuable lessons about the game he loves from the experience.

"You learn that it's a game of failure, and you can't get upset about it," he says. "That's one thing that actually helped me through my first year here. It didn't start really well, but I learned to play the game the right way because everything will turn at some point."

Those boos have turned to deafening cheers for Gregorius, whose vibrant personality and steadily improving play have made him a fan favorite in the Bronx. What's more, his care for his teammates and his enthusiasm for their development have led to him being viewed as something more than just a talented and popular player.

"To me, part of leadership is communicating with everybody and making sure everybody's at ease and comfortable in the clubhouse, and he's really good at doing that," says Miguel Andujar.

"I see him as a leader here and kind of like a captain."

Gregorius would prefer to take things one day at a time, of course. He isn't thinking about becoming a captain someday or even making the All-Star team for the first time -- although, he does admit that he would love to go at least once in his career. If someone wants to talk, he's always available. In the meantime, he's going to continue working toward his only goal: "Win a ring. That's the only goal I have."

As for Naehring, the scout who "pounded on the table," telling Cashman that Gregorius was the answer? You could say his conviction paid off in more ways than one. He is now the Yankees' vice president of baseball operations. And he still roots like heck for Gregorius.

"It all goes back to the one thing that I like more than anything: The guy loves playing baseball," Naehring says. "We've all been around very good players that really don't have that edge about them; they may not love their job like Didi does. So when you see a guy that's out there having fun and he's happy and he's got that looseness about him, those are the guys that you actually pull for.

"Didi Gregorius deserves all the credit in the world. The young man has worked his tail off, he's overcome some adversity, and if he's able to achieve an All-Star Game at some point, I'll be very happy for him and his family and everyone that he stands for."

Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Didi Gregorius