Dale Budge is a sports writer for the NZ Herald.

Baseball: Gregarious New York Yankees star Didi Gregorius inspiring

New York Yankees short stop sets high standards in his baseball career in the MLB and hopes to inspire Kiwi kids. Photo / AP
New York Yankees short stop sets high standards in his baseball career in the MLB and hopes to inspire Kiwi kids. Photo / AP

Didi Gregorius wears the famous pinstripes of the Yankees and replaced the great Derek Jeter as the team's everyday shortstop but his baseball career began a long way from the dazzling lights of New York City.

The 26-year-old will visit New Zealand over the next couple of weeks as part of a Major League Baseball and Baseball New Zealand initiative to help grow the sport. Like other star players that have visited these shores before him Gregorius can encourage New Zealand kids to play baseball but the story of his rise to success is maybe a first-hand example of how small beginnings can lead to stardom.

Born in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, Gregorius began playing baseball in continental Europe before moving to the Dutch Caribbean Island of Curacao at the age of five. With a population of 150,000, Curacao is hardly a big place but baseball has more traction there than in Europe.

"Baseball is not that big in the Netherlands but it is getting bigger since 2011," Gregorius says.

"Soccer is the main sport over there but baseball is getting bigger and bigger all the time. Hopefully we get more people playing the game out of there.

"It is bigger in Curacao. Soccer is still one of the main sports here but it is hot most of the year so baseball is big.

"We play baseball a lot here so there was a better chance for me to make it through here than in the Netherlands."

Gregorius made it all right. He was spotted by a Cincinnati Reds scout while playing for the Dutch Under-18 national side in 2007. He signed on with the Reds and made the move to the United States.

He made his major league debut with the Reds at the end of 2012 before being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

A year earlier, Gregorius represented the Netherlands at the 2011 Baseball World Cup, which they won after victory over Cuba in the final. He was set to be part of the Dutch side at the 2013 World Baseball Classic but injured his elbow on the eve of the tournament.

"It is just amazing to play baseball at that level," he says of international baseball. "It is great to play against countries from all around the world. Some of your [club] teammates play for different countries so you get to play against them, which is a lot of fun.

"It is amazing to see all the players come together and represent their own nationalities and play the best of the best."

While he was making his way through the minor leagues at the Reds organisation Gregorius spent the 2010-11 summer (US winter) playing for the Canberra Cavalry in the Australian Baseball League, playing against a couple of New Zealanders.

"It was really great. I didn't know what to expect when I went there. I went there with one of my teammates - we played for the same team in Canberra. We both had a really great time there - we didn't win but it was a great experience for me. I got to know a different culture and a new place and it was a great group of people.

"It is always valuable to play through the off-season. If you never stop playing it helps continue your physical and mental shape."

Rising American baseball superstar, New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorious. Photo / Getty Images
Rising American baseball superstar, New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorious. Photo / Getty Images

Gregorius won the Gold Glove as the league's best fielder that season.

He says the standard of baseball was better than he was expecting.

"You play against guys that are from the States, too. It is a good league. It is the same competition because there are a lot of guys there from the States there or with professional experience. I think it is a really good level to play at."

After spending two seasons with the Diamondbacks, Gregorius was traded to the New York Yankees in December 2014 as the most successful club in MLB history looked for a replacement for Jeter, who retired a month earlier.

Jeter was the Yankees captain from 2003 until his retirement and won five World Series rings in his time in New York. He is set to be a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee and is regarded as one of the greatest players of the past few decades.

Taking over from a player of Jeter's standing was never going to be easy for Gregorius but he handled the adjustment well.

"I found it a little hard in my first month there with the Yankees but I settled down after that. Like I tell everybody - I am not replacing him. He retired after a long and successful career and I am the one to follow him. For me it is a lot of pride to pull on the pinstripes and an honour to play with all the guys and see all the history the team has."

Living and playing in the bright lights of New York has been a massive challenge for numerous players over the years. The club has the highest profile of any team, the majority of the news media is based in New York and the fans are ruthless.

Despite his humble beginnings, Gregorius says he's comfortable on the biggest stage.

"It is a big difference. It is a way bigger market. There are 6 million people in New York and maybe 150,000 in Curacao. It is way different - it is not even comparable. It is great to play in New York but it is also great to play back home in Curacao."

I am over there to do a couple of clinics with the kids and then I might take a little tour of New Zealand. It is always about the kids. If they like the sport they can give it a try and if not you can't force them to do it.
New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius

He enjoyed a superb 2016 season in which he batted .276 with 20 home runs and 76 runs batted in - a major lift in offensive numbers to go with his stellar defence.

"You always want to improve," Gregorius says. "You are never satisfied with yourself. I am trying to learn offensively and defensively and do everything the right way.

"I am trying to be a better player and a better teammate so we can have as successful a season as possible."

The Yankees are a team at the crossroads - the days of their dominance are well behind them and they've adopted a youth approach in the past couple of seasons as high profile players with massive contracts have moved on.

Gone are the likes of Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Mariano Rivera and Carlos Beltran.

Gregorius is optimistic about what lies ahead in 2017.

"I just want to play really well. Last year didn't quite go how we wanted but we finished the year playing the way we wanted to play.

"With all the young guys coming up, and playing the way they want to play, I think we are building. We have a young team but we have some veterans to give everyone some direction."

His year starts with a first visit to New Zealand to maybe inspire another crop of kids to dream of following his path to the big time.

"I am over there to do a couple of clinics with the kids and then I might take a little tour of New Zealand.

"It is always about the kids. If they like the sport they can give it a try and if not you can't force them to do it," says Gregorius.

- NZ Herald

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