He speaks four languages, has been knighted, and is a self-taught pianist. He replaced Derek Jeter in New York, moonlights as a sports photographer, paints portraits, and animates cartoons.
He spent quarantine learning to ink tattoos, went indoor skydiving to pass time during what is usually a grueling rehab process, and celebrates wins with emoji-filled tweets.
Meet Didi Gregorius, the most interesting player in the Phillies clubhouse and perhaps the key to unlocking a lineup that could carry the Phillies to October.
A season ago, the Phillies built a lineup they thought could power the team to the postseason. Instead, it produced below the league average.
Enter Gregorius, who had a .778 OPS over the last four seasons and hit 20 or more homers in four of the last five years. Only one Phillies shortstop — Jimmy Rollins — has hit more than 20 homers in a season. And Rollins’ 2007 MVP season is the only time a Phillies shortstop bested the .829 OPS Gregorius posted in 2018.
The Phillies, finally, are injecting their lineup with a shortstop who has some pop. But the lineup’s new addition is much more than a bat.
“You’re not just a robot who goes out there and plays 162 games,” he said. “There’s a life and things that you need to do because we are human beings. The same hobbies that everyone else has, we have them too.”
Gregorius, 30, was born in Holland and raised in Curaçao, a small island in the Caribbean that was long ruled by the Dutch. His father was a professional pitcher in one of the top Dutch leagues and his mother was a catcher on the Dutch national softball team.
He is fluent in English, Spanish, Dutch, and Papiamento, a language spoken on the “ABC Islands” of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. It was mandatory in school, Gregarious said, to learn all four languages.
But now his fluency has allowed him to cross clubhouse borders and connect with players from various backgrounds. He even learned to speak enough Japanese during his time with the Yankees to hold conversations with pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.
“His teammates love him,” said manager Joe Girardi, who managed Gregorius in New York.
In New York, he proved to be fluent, too, with emojis. A Yankees win wasn’t truly a victory until Gregorius fired off a tweet with emojis representing the stars of the game. That tradition, he said, is coming to Philadelphia.
“I’ll have new emojis,” Gregorius said.
Gregorius, after his fourth minor-league season, helped the Netherlands win the 2011 Baseball World Cup. He had nine hits in the tournament, including a home run, and the Dutch beat 25-time champion Cuba in the finals to capture their first title.
But the players soon found out there was no prize money. Instead, they were knighted on behalf of Queen Beatrix, who was then the queen of the Netherlands. Gregorius became “Sir Didi” in a ceremony in Curaçao a month after the tournament as he became a Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau, which was founded in 1892.
“I was happy I got knighted, I didn’t care about the prize money,” Gregorius said. “I knew I was going to play hard to get where I wanted to be and the money would be there.”
Gregorius signed with the Reds as a teenager and made his major-league debut in 2012 against Roy Halladay and the Phillies. He was traded that offseason to Arizona and played two seasons with the Diamondbacks before being traded to the Yankees to replace the retiring Jeter at shortstop.
“It’s the same baseball. Nothing changes. He retired after a successful career. I wasn’t replacing him,” Gregorius said.
“I tell everyone that they got that part wrong. So if they want to get the question right: ‘How does it feel coming after Jeter?’ Because he didn’t go to second base or third base. Replacing changes the whole thing. Instead of just saying ‘after a successful career,’ people kept saying replacing. It’s not replacing. He didn’t go to the bench. He retired after playing 20 years in the Bronx and as an icon in New York.”
That mind-set seemed to work as Gregorius blocked out the pressure of being the player to follow Jeter and hit .269 over five seasons with a .759 OPS and 97 homers. He had the fourth-most homers and fourth-most RBIs (357) during that span among all American League shortstops.
He became a fan favorite in the Bronx, but first he had to win the fans over after their captain retired.
“I got booed without even having an at-bat. As soon as I got there, I got booed. So there’s nothing I can do to change the opinions of the fans,” Gregorius said. “All I can do is go out there, play every day, and work hard. Then things will go right and move in my direction. That’s all I ended up doing.”
Gregorius tore his right ulnar collateral ligament during the 2018 postseason, played through the pain for the final two games of the series, and then had Tommy John surgery. The recovery cost him the first two months of last season, and the rehab process after Tommy John often can be mentally taxing.
For months, players fill their days with long, tedious workouts while the season goes on without them. Gregorius spent his rehab process in Tampa at the Yankees’ spring-training complex.
“It wasn’t a mental grind for me, because I’m a person that can’t sit still,” Gregorius said. “I always need to be doing something different.”
He bought a piano and taught himself to play by watching YouTube videos. He watched spring-training games from the camera well at Steinbrenner Field and photographed the action. He went indoor skydiving in nearby Brandon, captured pictures of sunsets in Clearwater, and sketched portraits of himself and his teammates.
He brought his cameras to spring-training this year with the Phillies and watched a game in March in Tampa against the Yankees from the same camera well he was in a year earlier while he was rehabbing. His elbow was more than a year removed from surgery and Gregorious said he felt fully healthy.
A few days after watching from the camera well, Gregorius looked around the clubhouse in Clearwater and the players who surrounded him. There was Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto and Rhys Hoskins and Andrew McCutchen. Jean Segura was to his left and Jay Bruce was across the room. The Phillies, a season after thinking they had a talented lineup, now looked even deeper.
“From top to bottom, it’s something really cool,” he said. “It’s fun to see everyone in front of you.”
A few days later, spring training was canceled. Baseball was paused for three months and Gregorius’ first season in Philadelphia was delayed until July.
He went home to Curaçao, but the most interesting man in the Phillies’ clubhouse could not spend his time at home just sitting around. It was time to add another hobby.