The first thing you notice when you sit down and speak with Didi Gregorius is the smile.
A big one leaps off his face as he starts talking about the unique way he rehabilitated his elbow after ligament reconstruction (Tommy John) surgery in October 2018.
“I bought a piano,” he said with a laugh.
He extended his right arm and pretended to tickle the ivories. Feel free to join in at home. Feel everything working in the forearm and up to the elbow? That’s what Gregorius felt when he played the piano.
“I want to say it helped, moving around and getting the blood flowing,” he said with (of course) a smile. “I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone but it helped me.”
Gregorius’ face continued to light up as he told the story of how he picked up his nickname. In the minor leagues, he’d hear public address announcers introduce teammates by their first and last names. Then he’d come up.
Now batting …
“They couldn’t pronounce my first name,” Mariekson Julius Gregorius said with a laugh.
Back home in Curacao, folks called his dad and brother Didi. So on the ballfield in the States, Mariekson became Didi. The nickname has a fun ring to it, even if Didi is not sure actually what it means.
Gregorius’ good nature was tested in April 2015. That’s when he was charged with succeeding legendary Derek Jeter at shortstop for the New York Yankees, arguably the most visible sports team in the world. Gregorius hit .206 in his first month with the Yankees.
“On opening day, I was booed,” he said.
The boos continued all month, but Gregorius never took it personally.
“I took it as they wanted me to do better,” he said.
Eventually, he did do better. In five seasons with the Yankees, he averaged 19 homers, peaking at 27 in 2017, and 72 RBIs. He played in the postseason four times on his way to becoming a favorite of managers Joe Girardi and Aaron Boone — as well as the fans.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you end,” Gregorius said. “I kept fighting and ended on a good note.”
The Yankees let Girardi go after the 2017 season. In 10 seasons, he led the team to six postseason berths and a World Series title. Girardi was hired as the Phillies’ new manager in October, just as Gregorius was hitting free agency.
As Girardi settled into his new job in Philadelphia, he learned that Phillies management was looking for an infield bat and that moving shortstop Jean Segura to second base was a consideration. Girardi immediately began pushing for the Phils to sign Gregorius, a player he believed in on the field and in the clubhouse. The Yankees had a desire to bring back Gregorius, but with depth in the infield chose to budget their free-agent dollars for pitcher Gerrit Cole, who they eventually signed for $324 million over nine seasons. That left the door open for the Phils to score Gregorius on a one-year, $14 million deal. He was introduced with fellow newcomer Zack Wheeler earlier this week at Citizens Bank Park.
According to sources, Gregorius had a more lucrative offer on the table, probably in the form of a multi-year deal. His decision to come to Philadelphia was in essence a bet on himself and his future free-agent earnings as he continues to get stronger after missing the first half of last season recovering from elbow surgery.
“I always look at it as I’m a work in progress,” he said, referring more to his baseball talents than his emerging self-taught piano-playing skills. “I know what I’m capable of when I’m 100 percent.”
Reuniting with Girardi and Rob Thomson in Philadelphia was a big attraction for Gregorius, who will turn 30 in February. The coming season with be Thomson’s third as Phillies bench coach. He’d previously worked on Girardi’s staff in New York.
“Those two guys always push you and want the best for you,” Gregorius said. “They make you feel like they’re behind you.
“Joe is an energetic manager who always fights for his players.”
If he didn’t already have the nickname Didi, Gregorius might be a candidate for a different moniker.
How about G.G.?
As in Gregarious Gregorius.
Gregorius’ effervescent personality, love for the game, team-first attitude and multilingualism made him a leader in the Yankees clubhouse and that could be valuable in Philadelphia. Veteran players don’t always take position changes well and it’s no secret that Segura can be a little moody. But a bridge-builder like Gregorius should have no trouble building a middle-infield chemistry with Segura — and all his teammates, for that matter.
“Being a good leader for me is just being yourself because there is no reason for me to be fake,” Gregorius said. “I just be myself and I try to help everyone because it's a team and you want the whole team to do good. It's not a one-man sport. As long as you help the guy next to you, the whole team gets better. I want everybody to feel comfortable. That's the way I've always been taught to play the game. It could be as simple as saying hello.
“You have to keep having fun in this game. The game is hard if you put pressure on yourself and think too much. If you’re happy playing the game, that good energy will feed to other people.”
Gregorius’ fun personality and commitment to his teammates can be seen on his Twitter account, @DidiG18. Scroll down and see how he celebrated Yankee victories and the heroics of his teammates in a language of emojis, exclamation points and ALL CAPS. He will keep the practice going in Philadelphia and is thinking about adding some animation to his tweets. He’s even ready with a new hashtag — so, goodbye, #StartSpreadingTheNews … hello, #RingTheBell.
Turns out Gregorius knows a little about Philadelphia sports.
“Cheesesteaks and ringing the bell,” he said with a laugh. “I was a big Allen Iverson fan.”
Gregorius lit up in approval when it was suggested that maybe some night he’d ring the bell before a Sixers game.
He lit up a little brighter at the prospect of ringing the bell — for home runs — at Citizens Bank Park.
“I’m here to win with these guys,” he said with, you guessed it, a smile.