Replace Derek? Didi has tall task at SS

ByIan O'Connor ESPN logo
Friday, April 3, 2015

Replacing legends is rough stuff, especially in the Bronx, and when illustrating the point Joe Girardi is a fine place to start. Girardi had been such a tense and uncomfortable presence during his first season as manager of Joe Torre's New York Yankees, Brian Cashman implored him to ease up and make the kind of adjustments in personality and approach that Tom Coughlin made before winning his first of two Super Bowls.

Girardi listened. Girardi changed. Of greater consequence, Girardi took the hundreds of millions Cashman the GM invested in free agents and led the Yankees to the place Torre had taken them four times -- a ticker-tape parade.

"Joe had to be the guy to replace Joe Torre," Cashman said the following spring, "and I'm telling you right now only the shortstop who will eventually replace Derek Jeter and the closer who will eventually replace Mariano Rivera will be able to relate to what he went through.

"I pity the fool who replaces Derek, I pity the fool who replaces Mariano, and you can pity the guy who replaced Torre. But Joe Girardi did a nearly impossible thing. He only needed two years to establish himself after Torre, and that's almost a miracle."

A miracle? You want to see a real miracle? How about Didi Gregorius needing only two years to establish himself after Derek Jeter's retirement?

Torre was beloved, yes, but not like Jeter. A five-time champion player will beat a four-time champion manager every time, and that's just the name of the game.

Fans appreciate the great coach, but they come to see the great athlete. In the Yankee Stadium stands, there were 15 or 20 children and adults wearing Jeter's No. 2 for every old-schooler wearing Torre's No. 6, and for good reason: Jeter was the one performing on stage and, oh yeah, he would go down as the lead member of the touring group known as the Core Four. Jeter was Jagger, and Bruce, and McCartney. There was no doubting the pecking order in his band.

So this is what Didi Gregorius walks into Monday when the Yankees open the 2015 season at home against Toronto. He is merely being asked to succeed a monumental figure in New York sports history, the man held up as the patron saint of the clean ballplayer in the steroid era, the winner who competed in a staggering 158 postseason games, and the captain who finished his career with 3,465 big league hits.

"I admired the way he went about his business, all the things he did on and off the field," Gregorius told me one spring training day at his locker. "He does everything good. So like they say, he's Mr. Right and Mr. October."

That's Mr. November to you, buddy.

Born in the Netherlands, raised in Curacao, Gregorius has long been a student of Jeter's all-American story. He put up a poster of the Yankees shortstop on one of his childhood walls. Last fall, days after Jeter's final game, Gregorius posted to his Twitter account a sketch he drew of the captain waving his batting helmet toward unseen fans.

And yet he was hardly the most logical candidate to take Jeter's place. He left the Arizona Diamondbacks as a .243 hitter (.184 against lefties) and arrived in Yankees camp as a 25-year-old kid with a ton to learn.

"It's not replacing Derek Jeter," Gregorius insisted, "because I'm not putting him in a different position like second base or third base. He retired, and that's a whole different thing. I'm just following in his footsteps."

Some footsteps. But in the spirit of expecting the unexpected, and of never asking an athlete or performer to put a ceiling on his or her dreams, I figured I'd have a little fun with the seemingly gregarious Gregorius ("He's a happy kid who appears to love life and to love baseball," Cashman said) and press him on the possibilities while he listened at his locker that day last month.

Jeter never expected to become Jeter, after all. He'd cried himself to sleep every night during his miserable rookie-ball experience because he wanted to go home to his parents, wanted to go to college and wanted to admit to the Yankees that they'd just wasted a lot of first-round, bonus-baby cash on a high school kid who believed he'd never make it to the bigs. And look what became of him.

I started by repeating Cashman's 2010 line about pitying "the fool" who would someday take Jeter's job. "I'm not going to go and put pressure on myself," Gregorius said through a smirk. "What Jeter did, nobody else is going to do."

Why not? Isn't it possible someone might?

"You think it's possible that what Jeter did, everybody else is going to do that?" Gregorius responded.

Not everybody.

"One person is going to do that?" he asked with a look of astonishment stretched across his face.

Maybe one person. Maybe that one person is you.

"Well," Gregorius said, "I'm already five years too late, because Jeter started at 19."

Actually, he was 21 when he started his first full season with the Yanks.

"You sure about that?" Gregorius said, his astonishment having given way to full-fledged bemusement.

Yeah, I'm pretty sure about that.

"OK, so I'm still four years too late," Gregorius said through a laugh. "No, I'm just going to go out there and play my game and be the best I'm going to be, and work on what I have to work on. I'll give 100 percent every day I go out there."

Just like Jeter did.

Once upon a time, Tino Martinez faced almost exactly what Gregorius is about to face in the coming weeks. Martinez replaced the universally adored Don Mattingly in 1996, and as he struggled he felt the heat from the home crowd early and often. He needed a teammate to help him manage the burdens of it all, and that teammate was a daily lunch partner who was much wiser than his years.

"Derek Jeter, a 21-year-old kid," Martinez said. "He kept telling me to relax, have fun and play my game, and the people will love me. Derek would be laughing at me, and it wasn't funny. But he'd say, 'Hey, we're playing baseball for the New York Yankees. Just enjoy it.' And I thought, 'You know what, this guy's right.' And I started relaxing and hitting the ball."

That same season, Girardi took the place of a catcher, Mike Stanley, who had put up good offensive numbers for three consecutive years before signing as a free agent with Boston. Stanley didn't even remotely approach the Mattingly/Jeter level of stardom, but he was a popular Yankee all the same.

So Girardi pressed and pressed and pressed some more. Following Stanley then wouldn't prove to be as difficult as following Torre later, but Girardi still tried to be something he most definitely was not -- a home run hitter -- until his former manager with the Cubs, Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer, ordered him to stop and be himself.

"Zim said, 'Do your defense, get your singles, do your hit-and-runs and bunts, and do all the little things that you do and everything will be all right,'" Girardi recalled. "And then it all really seemed to change after Doc Gooden threw his no-hitter. For whatever reason, it really relaxed me when I caught Doc's no-hitter. I didn't have to answer the questions after that. I realized I might be here for a different reason than Mike Stanley was, and that really helped."

Girardi had his breakthrough moment a couple of weeks after Cashman said Martinez had his, a 15th-inning grand slam on the road to beat the Orioles. Surely Gregorius would benefit from a winning hit next week or, dare we say, a jump throw from deep in the hole to kill a rally.

"I think it helps," Girardi said. "I told Didi what Zim told me, to just be himself. He's pretty happy-go-lucky and always has a smile on his face, pretty similar to the last guy we had there. So it's important that we keep it like that. He's very athletic and his talent hasn't been completely tapped. I think there's so many things that this kid can do." Cashman agreed on the upside front; Gregorius was a second baseman in Curacao until his teammateAndrelton Simmonsmade his way to the U.S., leaving the Yankees' new shortstop with only eight years of experience at the position. The GM remembered that in Gregorius' first at-bat as a Diamondback in 2013, he homered off Phil Hughes.

The scouts liked his range on defense and figured the right-field porch in the Bronx would make him a stronger, more confident hitter. "Didi's got a really big personality, a lot of warm and fuzzy seems to be surrounding him, and that's good," Cashman said. "When I first saw him I was like, 'Holy crap, he's much bigger than I thought. He looks like an NFL wide receiver. Keep him away from the Giants and [GM] Jerry Reese.'"

Over the phone Thursday, Cashman called Gregorius' defense in this camp "fantastic" and said his swing has looked promising to date. "His hands and range aren't just good, they're great," the GM said. "We think he's going to help us, but he's still developing, and there are going to be some growing pains as he adjusts. If he gives us great defense and hits a little bit, I'll be happy as hell."

Funny, but Torre and others said the same thing about Derek Jeter in the spring of 1996. Jeter went on to hit a little bit, and then some. He hit his way into a forever corner of Yankees mythology.

Gregorius? Right now he's just a kid trying to get past his sore left wrist, a newbie hoping Alex Rodriguez's return provides him the kind of cover in April it provided him in March.

But soon enough the novelty of A-Rod's final act will wear off, and the sun and the lights will shine brightly on the most conspicuous position in the field. That's when Yankees fans will decide whether they should pity the fool who thought it was a good idea to succeed Derek Jeter at short.