Aaron Boone just walked away, the winner by default. The Yankees’ manager controls the lineup card, and as such, he gets the last word. Or, in the case of this Cleveland evening, the last silent power move.
It’s fun but perhaps clichéd to discuss all that Didi Gregorius can do. Knighted in his native Netherlands, Gregorius first inspired colorful human-interest stories when he posted a drawing he had done of Derek Jeter on social media, long before anyone knew that the artist would soon follow in the footsteps of his muse. But after the deal that brought him to the Bronx in December 2014, as Yankees fans got to know their new shortstop and the media sought to find more intriguing nuggets, the bounty Gregorius offered flowed over. He loves art, of course, drawing in his spare time. He can speak four languages fluently, to say nothing of his way with emoji. He invested in professional camera equipment and now teaches himself to edit videos.
But his main focus is being an All-Star-caliber shortstop, with more power from the position than Yankees fans have ever seen.
Lots of players have rough encounters with the reality that baseball is business. With Gregorius, though, you get the sense that he, himself, sees it that way. Baseball is Sir Didi’s day (or night) job, and he treats it -- like every pursuit of his -- with a determined aim of excellence. When he does something, he does it. And he succeeds.
Armed with more free time than ever this past offseason as he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery, the Yankees’ Mr. Everything was at it again. He took up new hobbies, traveled, and stayed as active as a guy breaking in a rebuilt elbow possibly could. He may have been out, but he wasn’t down. And he wasn’t sitting around. At least, not until June 9.
Gregorius returned from his final Minor League tune-ups to open his 2019 season in Cleveland on June 7, just about eight months after the surgery. He had two hits and barely saw any action on the defensive side of the ball. The next afternoon, he added two more hits -- including a home run. All along, the Yankees’ plan had been to ease Gregorius back, sitting him down roughly one game per series as he built himself back up. But the guy was hot; he was feeling great and was desperate to keep contributing, no matter what the plan called for. After the second game, before a scheduled off-day, he was about to plead his case to the manager, but never even got a word out.
Boone “just walked away,” Gregorius says, laughing. “He just walked away. We’ve been fighting since I got here on the first day.”
It was all in good fun, a competitive guy begging for a chance to compete. But it was also a clear look into the mind of the Yankees’ shortstop: Never content, never still, never tired. “Trust me,” Gregorius says, “it’s always good to be back and playing. That’s what I want to be doing. No hiccups.”
A day here, a day there … this should be the easy part. It’s nothing compared to the out-of-body existence a player endures when he’s forced off the field. Gregorius, though, with multi-disciplined interests, an artisan’s touch and an inability to sit still, might simultaneously be both better- and worse-suited to handle the time away than just about any other player in the game.
Most players will tell you, the hardest thing about an injury is the downtime. These are regimented, routine-seeking men, which is hard enough when you’re constantly jetting across the country early into the morning, or playing one game just12 hours after another ended.
Gleyber Torres, another Yankees infielder who has endured a Tommy John surgery, says that the actual pain and discomfort was a distant second on his list of problems during the rehab. “It was the emotional side,” he contends. “I didn’t feel any pain after the surgery. I just wanted to play, for sure. It was a long time just to do the recovery and all the stuff. But there was frustration because you can’t play.”
Before the stretch when Gregorius couldn’t play, there were the games that he soldiered through. The injury happened during the seventh inning of Game 2 of the 2018 American League Division Series in Boston, when he had to run out to left field to retrieve an Ian Kinsler hit that had caromed off the Green Monster. Gregorius threw it back toward home plate and felt the damage immediately. “I told them right away when it happened, ‘I’m done,’” he recalls. But with the adrenaline pumping, Gregorius stayed in the game, then played in the next two, as well. “They were like, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m playing.’ Before they could say something, I told them, ‘I’m playing.’”
Shortly after the Yankees’ season ended in Game 4, the team told him to get an MRI. The whole thing seemed academic to the shortstop: “I said, ‘It’s already torn. I’m telling you, it’s torn. I can feel it.’” When the results came back, the mood in the room was grim, but Gregorius was already braced. “‘We have some bad news,’” he recalls the doctors telling him. “I’m like, ‘I already know the bad news. I just want to have the surgery and get it over with.’”
The reporters tasked with covering the team had no clue. There was no mention of a diminished Didi, no hint, really, until it came up at the very end of Boone’s season-wrapping press conference days after the Boston series ended.
Gregorius knows that he has a fairly remarkable pain threshold; it’s what allowed him to play the final two games of the ALDS, throwing across the diamond with a busted elbow. It’s just something about how his body works, but also the way he was taught in the Reds’ Minor League system: Play through everything. The lesson took root. The doctors said he’d be able to return during the summer, something like June to August. Gregorius heard June, and he aimed for April. Pitchers, whose jobs and whose reliance on their elbows is admittedly different from a shortstop’s, usually target 14 to 18 months. Gregorius wanted to do it in six.
“You can ask most of the guys,” Gregorius says, “I was saying I could play in February. And they were like, ‘No, we’re not going to let you do anything.’”
Gregorius was throwing from 30 feet by January, intermittently told to take it easy and slow down by his throwing partner on any given day. By Spring Training, he was determined to show everyone that he was ahead of schedule, but the team never even considered rushing their elite shortstop. “It was killing him in Spring Training, being down there for that,” Luke Voit says. “Because he wants it. He feels like he’s not a part of it. And I get it, I’ve been hurt before. It’s frustrating. But it’s part of it. You’ve got to suck it up and know that. He wasn’t supposed to be back until the end of the summer, but he’s back before summer even starts. It’s pretty crazy.”
When the season began, and when the Yankees’ catastrophic injury spell brought him some unexpected company down in Florida, Gregorius kept pushing. Aaron Hicks, who signed a contract extension during Spring Training then immediately went down with a back injury, says that he tried to watch every Yankees game while he was working out in Tampa. Gregorius recalls watching two. One, he says, was just a result of hanging out with Hicks for a night and not really having a choice. The other was the game in Arizona when CC Sabathia recorded his 3,000th strikeout. That was it.
That’s the thing about Gregorius. He loves baseball -- playing baseball. To watch baseball would be like an accountant kicking back on his couch and watching other CPAs sort through paperwork. Didi has other things on his mind.
It’s late May, and Gregorius is sitting in the home dugout at PNC Field, watching the rain that will eventually wipe out tonight’s scheduled rehab start with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders fall. This last step before he can return to the Majors is about working out his timing, the perhaps-ironic conclusion to a winter that teemed with time.
For years, Nike had been asking him to join other athletes affiliated with the brand for a roundtable junket to discuss new shoe technologies and creative ideas. This year, he joined the group in Costa Rica for about a week in November, ziplining, touring and enjoying water sports. In a group that included position players such as Matt Carpenter, Adam Jones, Brandon Crawford and Nolan Arenado, Gregorius particularly found himself drawn to Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, the two bonding over their shared love of photography and drones.
That was just the beginning of a long process, though. Back stateside, he would arrive at the Yankees’ training facility in Tampa around 9 a.m. most days, working for about three hours. There was only so much he could do, though. He would add some distance on his throws and take care of his normal weight room routines, but try as he might, there was a limit to the amount of time he could spend on baseball. Afterward, he was on his own. The process was a bit like being told that in order to get better academically, you have to stop doing all your homework. If Didi was going to get back onto the field, he had to find a way to cope with being off it.
Zack Britton, who endured a long rehab from an Achilles injury from 2017 to 2018, recalls the way he handled his own recovery. “I could sit there and watch baseball stuff, but that was going to make it worse,” Britton says. “So, I just sat there and was like, ‘Man, this is a good time to figure out other things that I’m interested in.’ I remember when my wife was in law school and going to classes, I would draw a little bit. I had a huge paper pad. I would draw little things, just learning, and that was a long time ago. Like 2011 or ’12. So, as soon as I got hurt, it was kind of something that I was drawn back to. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll doodle a little bit, start drawing.’” When he got back onto the field, though, Britton put down the pad. Try though he might to avoid it, he found that the time he might spend drawing instead came to be devoted to dwelling on hitters, prepping for the next day’s game and the one after that. “It never leaves your mind,” Britton says, “which is frustrating for my wife.”
Gregorius had the same idea -- he just pushed the throttle to the max. He had to find new expressions of expertise. Perfection was the only option. The photos he had been taking with the camera equipment he acquired? It wasn’t enough anymore to take cool snapshots. He had to master editing software so that he could play around with the images. “I used to just take pictures and then leave it,” Gregorius says. “But I had so much time, that I literally took my time to work everything out, to edit it and get the pictures the way I wanted them to be.” Then he saw “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and his focus turned to animation. He spent months working on a cartoonish recreation -- encompassing some 1,000 digital drawings -- of his game-tying three-run home run against Minnesota in the 2017 American League Wild Card Game.
The creation wasn’t limited to visual arts, though. He bought a piano and taught himself to play, turning to some YouTube videos and mimicking what he would see. “The only thing I’m still working on is reading the notes,” he says. By June, he was playing “All of Me” by John Legend. Not exactly “Chopsticks.” But it goes beyond the fact that he has taught himself to play beloved, award-vacuuming compositions by a piano master. Gregorius wasn’t content to pick up a small keyboard with which to toy around. He had to go buy a Yamaha. No, he had to buy two Yamahas, one for his house in Curaçao, one for Tampa. It wasn’t just convenience; it was discipline. “Two pianos. That’s the way,” he says. “You spend the money on it, so you’d better learn it. That’s how I look at it.”
Gregorius also noticed a side-benefit to his new hobby. The finger dexterity required to play challenging piano works went hand-in-hand (or finger-in-finger) with his rehab goals. “I kept moving the fingers around, which increased the blood flow every time I played,” he says.
And then there was the skydiving. “Indoor skydiving,” he corrects. “Make sure you have that in there before people kill me.” Like the rest of his pursuits, it started as something to do. He and Yankees pitcher Jordan Montgomery, who was also rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, brought some of the Minor Leaguers out for a bonding trip to iFLY in Tampa. “And then I got addicted,” Gregorius says, laughing. He’s planning on spending as much time necessary at one of the similar facilities in New Jersey or New York so that he can get his skydiving certification. “I was going every week. Every week. You can get way better at it. I’m way better at it now.”
Even when he’s having fun, he’s working. There’s probably a lesson there.
In the RailRiders’ indoor batting cages, before the game gets banged, Gregorius takes his swings, then heads to the monitor to check out some video on the pitcher he’s scheduled to face tonight. Partly, he’s training his mind to identify the things he’ll need to pick up on once he’s back in the Majors. But he’s also just a guy who wants to get hits, and this is the best way to do it.
“He’s a proud guy; he wants to play the best brand of baseball he can play, wherever he’s at,” says Jay Bell, the RailRiders’ manager. “And whether it’s here in Scranton, or whether it’s in Tampa, or wherever he may be, he wants to figure out a way to have success. Does it help translate to whenever he gets back to New York? Absolutely, it does. But in order to be successful there, he has to prepare well here, so that whenever he is ready to go, he’ll have a great deal of success.”
Which is just the way Didi works. Perfection might be an impossible goal in a sport such as baseball, but that won’t stop him from pursuing it. As Gregorius’s return loomed, Boone didn’t worry about the numbers his shortstop was putting up in the Minors or anything of the sort. He knew the player he was going to be adding back to his lineup.
“Didi’s the total package,” Boone says. “Obviously a really good player in every facet. Defender at a premium position. For us, a left-handed hitter with power. Runs the bases really well. A guy you trust in every moment. He’s one of those guys that, four times a game, I’ll think, ‘All right, hit it to Didi.’”
The funny thing, then, was that the always-reliable Gregorius actually showed some rust when he returned in Cleveland, and then when he played his first home game against the Mets on the afternoon of June 11. There were a number of misplays and errors, the type that happen to any player but draw notice when they happen to Didi. After Boone inserted Gregorius as a defensive replacement in the ninth inning of that third game in Cleveland, with the Yankees nursing a one-run lead, the ball found him. It seemed like an ordinary two-out grounder that would end the game and cap a challenging road trip, but it hopped on him and ricocheted into the outfield, allowing the tying run to score. It was a shocking moment that changed literally nothing about the player at the center.
“No one we’d rather have the ball hit to,” Boone said afterward. “It was just at that point, one of the odd things kind of happening in that game. But the guys continued to fight and hang in there. Again, that’s one of those odd ones with Didi because I was telling somebody, If I had a nickel for every time we say over there, ‘Hit it to Didi, hit it to Didi,’ over last year and this year, I’d have a lot of nickels.”
His skill set can be so disorienting, though. Of course, Gregorius was rusty. Of course, there were hiccups. Just because he exudes confidence, pride and glee, because he makes everything seem so easy, it’s easy to forget how crushing the game can be, and how hard it is. When James Paxton came to the Yankees, Gregorius was one of the few players he had even met back when they were teammates in the Arizona Fall League in 2012. “And he was an impressive player even then,” Paxton says. But the pitcher marvels at what he saw in Didi’s first few games back with the big league club. “He’s gotten better. Better hitter. Smarter player. He was really good on defense then, too. The progressions that he has made in the last seven years, he’s one of the best shortstops in the game.”
That’s the value of the work. Gregorius says he loves playing, and the joyful smile he wears on the field seems to bear that out. But judging by the way he lives his life, it’s clearly more than love that drives him, that spurred him on a hyperspeed rehab track over the course of this past (extended) offseason. Gregorius loves excelling. He loves expertise. It’s there in the wind tunnel when he’s trying to become a certified skydiver, in the editing bay as he’s spending hours on another few seconds of his animation, at the table in Costa Rica as he’s offering opinions on what could make his shoes more dynamic. Gregorius loves working, particularly at things he loves. And as the Yankees get healthy and continue to pursue a 28th championship, there’s no one they’d rather have in the middle of the infield than their eclectic, exceptional shortstop.
“You don’t worry about Didi,” Boone says. “Because he’s just such a grown-up. He’s so reliable. There’s a toughness that he plays the game with. He can get banged up and play through things. He likes to play. And he’s really, obviously, very popular in our room.”