It's 9 a.m. in Santa Rosa, Curacao, and the island's main baseball stadium is already bustling. Thirty baseball players -- many of whom play professionally in the United States -- are taking their places on the field, stretching and getting ready to practice.
As the players near the end of their stretching routine, an older man walks through an open metal gate behind home plate that leads into the stadium. He walks down a few yellow concrete steps and sits down in the first row of the bleacher seats that extend from first base to third base.
A few minutes pass, and the players grab their mitts from the third-base dugout and jog out to the infield, which was converted from a dirt surface strewn with pebbles and small rocks to artificial turf in 2010. Once they get back onto the diamond, the ballplayers, most of whom are donning shorts, short-sleeve shirts and caps representing their Major League organizations, pair up and play catch.
Under the 83-degree sun on this island in the Caribbean 40 miles north of Venezuela, the ballplayers effortlessly fire baseballs back and forth to each other, each throw landing perfectly on target. Chatter accompanies the sound of baseballs smacking into mitts. Speaking in Papiamento, a dialect combining elements of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English that is the most commonly spoken language in Curacao, the players are bantering about all things baseball.
The ballpark's outfield is covered in overgrown grass and a variety of weeds. The rusty metal fences in front of the green dugouts further reveal decades of wear and tear. But despite the less-than-perfect conditions, and the absence of a cornfield behind the outfield wall, this is Curacao's field of dreams.
For this tiny island, which is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands but became an independent territory in 2010, the group of players on the field represents the greatest collection of baseball talent that Curacao has ever produced.
There's Baltimore Orioles star second baseman Jonathan Schoop; Andrelton Simmons, who won two Gold Glove Awards at shortstop with the Atlanta Braves before being traded to the Angels in 2015; and the highly touted Jurickson Profar of the Texas Rangers. Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who usually participates in these thrice-weekly offseason practices, which are held from October through early February, is not on hand on this humid morning.
Although Jansen was absent due to prior commitments, the man that many consider to be Curacao's brightest star is ever-present. As the players disperse around the infield, Mariekson Julius Gregorius -- better known as Didi -- hustles to the area a few feet to the left of second base. There, the Yankees shortstop, who was born in the Netherlands and moved to Curacao when he was 6, gets in position to field the first of what will be perhaps 100 ground balls.
"I've been playing on this field since I was 16 years old," Gregorius said while waiting for the first grounder of the day. "It's always nice when you can practice on the same field you've been playing on since you were a kid. We got a lot of bad hops back then, so we were pretty excited when they put in a turf infield a few years ago."
Simmons is standing next to Gregorius, and the two are laughing.
The camaraderie between these two goes back pretty far. Gregorius and Simmons first teamed up when they were 6 and 7 years old, respectively, and from the time Gregorius started elementary school, they have been close friends.
"When Didi came here from the Netherlands, he was really quiet," Simmons said. "I was already on the team, and when he came in, they put him out in right field, and he didn't say much. But then he made a nice play or two out there, and the coach realized that he had some talent and that he could play anywhere in the infield. Didi let his glove and his bat do the talking."
From that point until the two were in their late teens, Simmons was viewed as the superior shortstop. When Simmons was on the same teams as his friend, he manned that position, with Gregorius playing second base. It wasn't until Gregorius was on a semipro team during his last few years of high school that he played shortstop regularly.
"We have always had a friendly competition," Simmons said. "We always wanted to be the better player or at least as good as each other. But now, we're more interested in helping each other than anything else. If I'm struggling at the plate, it's easy for Didi to recognize what I'm doing differently because he's seen me play practically my whole life, and vice versa. We really try to be there for each other."
For Simmons and Gregorius, the unique similarity in their career paths is clear.
"It's crazy to think that you come up with someone, and now we're both playing at the highest level," Simmons said. "We feel at home whenever we see each other on the field, either here or in the United States."
"It's a special thing," Gregorius added. "There's no doubt about it. It's not something you see every day."
In many ways, the man who is now hitting ground balls to two of the best shortstops in the game today has a lot to do with the surge of ballplayers who have made the journey from the small ballparks of Curacao to the massive Major League stadiums in North America.
Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens was the first player from the island to break into the Big Leagues. Meulens debuted with the Yankees in 1989, and he has served as the hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants since 2010. Much of his offseason time is spent helping cultivate baseball talent in his homeland.
Whether it's through an annual weeklong clinic that Meulens puts together and runs for Curaçao's youngest baseball players, or the practices that he organizes for the older players, no one does more to advance the sport on the island than the former Yankees third baseman-turned-outfielder.
And no one is more proud of Curacao's most important baseball statistic.
According to The New York Times, the seven players from the island who were in Majors in 2014 gave Curacao the most Big Leaguers per capita in the world. If that's not impressive enough, there were another eight players on Minor League rosters in 2016. When considering that the 171-square-mile island's population is only around 150,000, and that until 28 years ago, no player from there had ever suited up for a Major League team, it's easy to understand why Meulens gushes about the way that Curacao has found its way onto the baseball map.
"Back when I was hoping to get signed by a Major League team, more than 30 years ago now, it was just me and one other player out here," he said from the dugout during a brief respite and water break in the middle of the three-hour practice. "We would pitch to each other and then pick up all the baseballs and do the same thing again. It's amazing to think that there are 30 talented players on this field today. Things have really changed."
Among those players, it's clear that Meulens has a special respect for Gregorius.
"He's always available to help people out," Meulens said. "We had a great baseball week here in December where we gave clinics to Little League kids, and Didi went out of his way every day. He showed up early, and he spent a lot of time doing baseball drills with the kids. He came to the clinics when he was a kid. Now, he's signing autographs and taking photos. He's always available to help and to give back. That's the best quality you can have."
Meulens also admires Gregorius for what it took for him to get to where he is today.
"He works so hard," Meulens said. "He's always here, working out as hard as the players who haven't made it yet. I'm so happy to see someone who has worked so hard having success in the Big Leagues."
After a few minutes, Meulens and the other coaches, all Curacaoans whose backgrounds vary from playing in the Minor Leagues to serving as scouts, return to the field. With Meulens on the mound, several of the players assemble near home plate for live batting practice while others occupy the infield and outfield, waiting for their turns in the cage.
As soon as the first round of live batting practice begins, Gregorius grabs a bat, and he and one of the coaches walk over to a spot in foul territory between home plate and third base. The coach softly tosses a bucket full of baseballs one by one into the air, and Gregorius hits each into a net.
"The younger guys always tell me that I can get in the cage first," Gregorius said in between swings. "But I would never cut the line and not wait my turn. It's just as important for them to get as many swings as I get."
When his turn arrives, Gregorius gets into the cage. Wearing a pair of Yankees shorts, a Yankees cap and a T-shirt that reads "Always Going Deep," he drives one baseball after another into the outfield, several of them crashing into the fence and a few clearing it.
When Gregorius finishes his final round of batting practice, he stands behind the cage watching the rest of the players take their cuts, then jogs out to the pitcher's mound to help pick up the baseballs scattered around the infield.
Once the baseballs have been collected and placed in a wheeled cart, the players and coaches walk slowly toward the third-base dugout. Save for Simmons, who had to leave a few minutes early, the entire contingent of stars and blossoming prospects gather around to do something they've never done together -- pose for a group photo. Meulens, standing in the second row, is beaming as the photographer snaps several frames.
"When I think back 30 years ago, there were two of us working out here," said Meulens, wearing a blue Curacao baseball jersey and matching shorts. "To think that there are now 14 guys who've been up to the Big Leagues, that is so unbelievable. The success that those guys have had has put Curacao -- an island that you can drive from one end of to the other in an hour -- on the map. I'm just so proud of everyone on this field."
A Local Product
Gregorius grabs a Yankees duffel bag and walks out of the ballpark through a dirt parking lot to his car. He makes the 30-minute drive to Tera Kora, the oceanside town on the east coast of the island where he has lived since he was 10 years old.
Today, he still lives in the same one-story house where he spent most of his childhood, sharing the home with his mother, Sheritsa Stroop. And while the house may not have changed much over the years, the backyard now includes an indoor batting cage where Gregorius works on his craft almost every day during the offseason.
When he gets to the house, Judiviene -- his longtime girlfriend, who grew up across the street and still lives there -- is waiting for him. It doesn't take the couple long to figure out where they want to have lunch, and within a few minutes they are on their way to a restaurant that the shortstop refers to as "the most local place on the island."
After a short drive along roads bordered by cacti and divi-divi -- Curacao's dome-shaped national tree that creates a canopy about 10 feet above the ground -- Gregorius and Judiviene arrive at Restaurant Komedor Krioyo. Situated high above the countryside, Gregorius sits down at a table in an outside seating area, overlooking the plush green landscape of Curacao.
When it's time to order, Gregorius chooses a traditional chicken dish -- as he usually does. He doesn't eat red meat, and although restaurants like this one serve some of Curaçao's best fish dishes, including whole red snapper, the shortstop rarely orders anything but poultry.
Although he's not into local fish dishes on this day, Gregorius is anxious to show off his ability to eat one of the spiciest peppers in the world. And so, he asks the waitress for a small dish of Madame Jeanette peppers. As soon as they get to the table, Gregorius casually pinches two small pieces of the red peppers and places them into his mouth. Despite the heat, Gregorius's only reaction is laughter.
With lunch on the way, Gregorius, sipping on the fruit punch that is served everywhere on the island, takes a trip down memory lane.
Even before he moved with his family from the Netherlands to Curacao, Gregorius found himself near the diamond. His father pitched in a professional league in the Netherlands and played professional or semipro baseball for much of Gregorius's childhood.
"I can still remember being on the field with him," Gregorius said. "Those things don't ever leave you."
After moving to Curacao, Gregorius graduated from Tee Ball to baseball, playing on his first Little League team at 6 years old.
"Simmons used to make fun of me," he said. "I was the only kid on our Little League team who wore long sleeves out there. Even though it was 100 degrees on the field, I just liked wearing long sleeves. I guess I was always a little different."
After playing for a local Little League team in the town of Marchena until he was 14, Gregorius joined a semipro team that his father and older brother were already on.
"I was playing against guys in their 20s when I was only 15," Gregorius said. "My dad wanted me to play on that team, and doing that really helped me learn a lot about the game. Being around my dad and my brother was also helpful, because they were very focused on baseball. I followed their lead."
Gregorius excelled during the two seasons he played for the San Maria Pirates, playing second base, shortstop and catcher, and also pitching. Although he was still a few years away from his high school graduation, Gregorius caught the eye of several Major League scouts at that time.
"There were a lot of teams that contacted me when I was 15 years old," Gregorius said. "Then, during my last year in high school, I did a bunch of tryouts in Curacao, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela for different teams."
Although it was Gregorius's desire to sign with a Major League team, he was not interested in a career on the mound.
"I wanted the chance to be an everyday player," he said. "I knew I could be a good shortstop, and I was prepared to sign with the first team that gave me that chance."
At 17 years old, Gregorius played in a tournament featuring some of the best young players from the Netherlands, Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles -- a group of five islands including Curacao that functioned as an autonomous part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands until 2010. Playing shortstop, Gregorius made one play after another in the weeklong Kingdom Games under the watchful eye of Cincinnati Reds scout Jim Stoeckel.
"He saw me play for the first time in the Netherlands," Gregorius said. "He talked to me after the game and said that he was going to fly to Curacao to watch me play some more. He told me that I would have a chance to play shortstop in the Reds organization, and he was willing to send me directly to the United States, as opposed to the Dominican Republic. He decided to make me an offer, and I signed with the Reds."
Soon after his high school graduation, Gregorius embarked on his professional baseball career in the United States, beginning with the Reds' Gulf Coast League team in 2008.
Gregorius struggled in his first professional season, batting just .155 in 31 games, but he quickly picked up ground in his second season.
"The schedule was a little tough to get used to that first year," Gregorius said. "But I felt a lot more comfortable when I got back to the United States for my second season. I really felt like I was about to take off at that time."
That's exactly what Gregorius did. He batted a combined .298 in Rookie Ball and Single-A in 2009.
In addition to moving up the ladder in the Reds organization, Gregorius played for the Netherlands in the IBAF Baseball World Cup in 2011. After his team won the cup that autumn, Gregorius and his teammates were knighted.
"It's not something I brag about," said Gregorius. "But it's something I am proud of, and it's fun to sign 'Sir Didi' for people who want my autograph."
After making his Big League debut and playing in eight games with the Reds in 2012, Sir Didi was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he played in 183 Major League games over the next two seasons.
Then, in December 2014, Gregorius began to hear rumors that the Yankees -- in need of a shortstop to replace the recently retired Derek Jeter -- were interested in trading for him.
"We were doing a clinic down here, and my agent called to tell me that I might get traded to the Yankees," he said. "I started laughing. I told him that there was no way I was getting traded to the Yankees."
Later that day, the Yankees completed a three-team deal with the Detroit Tigers and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Just like that, Gregorius knew he would be given the opportunity to play shortstop for the Yankees and to succeed the legendary Jeter.
As the conversation over lunch turns to the task of replacing Jeter, Gregorius is asked if he had a poster of the iconic shortstop in his bedroom when he was a kid.
"Who didn't have a Derek Jeter poster?" Gregorius responds.
Although he's not in the mood to wax poetic about being an adoring fan of the guy he replaced, Gregorius has certainly embraced his role as Jeter's successor. He maintains that the former captain has shown his support, reaching out to Gregorius on a few separate occasions. And after struggling in the first few months as the team's everyday shortstop in 2015, Gregorius has become the player the Yankees hoped he would be.
He finished his first campaign in pinstripes with a .265 average and nine home runs, and he improved upon those numbers in 2016, batting .276 with a career-high 20 longballs.
As Gregorius's lunch comes to a close, the stalwart defensive shortstop sheds light on what his play over the last two seasons means to him.
"We've had a lot of great players come out of Curacao," he said. "Keeping that tradition going is important to me. Playing for the Yankees, one of the few teams that are on TV down here, makes the whole experience even better. I want the young kids from here to understand that I have realized my dream, and so can they."
"Everything I Could Want"
A few hours after lunch and after spending some time in his backyard batting cage, Gregorius and his mother arrive at a small gym on the campus of a high school a few minutes away from his house.
As the two walk through a patio in the back of the building and into the gym where several other baseball players from that morning's session are already working, the older man who was watching from the ballpark seats greets Gregorius.
"We've got a lot to work to do this afternoon," Romeo Coenraad said. "There's no time to waste today."
With Coenraad at his side, Gregorius begins a rigorous hourlong workout that includes everything from lifting free weights to exercises designed to improve balance. At the same time, Gregorius's mother gets busy with her own daily workout regimen.
The exercise machines and surroundings in the two-room gym are similar to the field that Gregorius works out on each day. Their wear and tear is evident, yet the idea of working out at another facility is not even an option for the ultra-loyal Gregorius.
"Why would I ever go anywhere else?" Gregorius said. "I have everything I could want at this gym."
Coenraad, who has owned the gym for nearly three decades, has a history with Gregorius that goes back to when the shortstop was 10 years old. At that time, Gregorius's mother taught a late afternoon aerobics class in a room above the gym. While her class was in session, Gregorius waited for her, sitting on a wooden bench on a patio outside the gym.
As he sat there, Gregorius peered into the gym as Coenraad trained other athletes.
"One day I saw this little guy sitting out here," Coenraad said from the bench. "He caught my attention because his eyes were following me without his head moving a millimeter. I approached him and said, 'Do you play baseball?' Before I finished the sentence, he said, 'Yes.' I told him to come into the gym, and I gave him two little dumbbells. He started his first workout with those dumbbells."
From that moment on, Gregorius and Coenraad have worked together, and the trainer has kept the dumbbells in his office.
"I just had a feeling that Didi was going to be special," Coenraad said. "I can't explain exactly why I felt that way, but I just knew it."
Following their workouts, Didi and his mother join Coenraad on the bench where they met all those years ago.
"I'll be right back," Coenraad said as he walks back into the gym.
A minute later, Coenraad returns with the two tiny pink weights.
"You've got to be kidding," Gregorius said.
"Why don't we take a photo together?" the trainer said.
As the two men pose for the photo, Gregorius's mother looks on with pride.
"I'm proud of the person that my son has become," she said. "He is a beautiful soul."
Where It All Started
The sun is about to set on Curacao, and Gregorius has already put in a full day. But with Spring Training looming, he decides to make a pilgrimage back to the field where it all began for him.
From the gym, Gregorius drives to the town of Marchena. He pulls off the main road onto a tiny dirt street that leads to Marchena Little League field, where he first played organized baseball.
Gregorius walks past a few roosters in the parking lot before traversing the overgrown outfield.
From there, he walks toward second base and stops.
Standing on the dirt infield, Gregorius bends down and picks up one of the thousands of rocks scattered around the infield.
"Back when I played here, there were just as many rocks in this infield," Gregorius said. "It was hard to field ground balls, but it made us better."
Gregorius then turns around, now facing the outfield wall that sits in front of a few rolling hills. He points to a house located behind the wall in right-center field.
"I started playing here when I was 6 years old," he said. "When I was about 13, I hit a ball off that house."
Walking toward the lime green first-base dugout, Gregorius reminisces about his favorite memory of playing on the field.
"When I was 9 years old, we were playing our arch rivals," he said. "We had 10 wins and they had 10 wins, but they had beat us in a game that I didn't pitch. We had another chance to play them in the finals, and I pitched that game. I threw a complete game one-hitter, and I struck out 13. We won the game, 1-0, even though I almost gave up a run in the last inning."
As he finishes the story, Gregorius has goose bumps on his arms.
"I can't tell that story without feeling something," he said. "This is where it all began, right here on this field in Curaçao. This will always be home for me."