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Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Didi Gregorius taking successes in stride

It’s 11:22 AM on Memorial Day, just over an hour away from the first pitch of the day fixture of the Diamondbacks’ day-night doubleheader, and a beaming Didi Gregorius is signing balls and hats and baseball cards for fans standing above Chase Field’s home dugout. As he works his way down the line, he signs a Dutch-lettered poster that is meant to commemorate his first career home run, a first-pitch line drive to Yankee Stadium’s right field porch, and then a child’s baseball mitt. And then, while already preoccupied with signing a ticket stub, and without warning, the Diamondbacks’ prized shortstop is struck near the left jawbone with a ball tossed by a hasty fan.

“Man, that’s the second time this year,” Gregorius says, laughing and shaking his head.

He wasn’t referring to a previous autographing mishap; he was talking about the 93-mph Josh Outman fastball that concussed him on April 26, the day of his 11th career start, and forced him to the seven-day disabled list.

Of being hit in the head then, Gregorius explains, “That was my first time.”

At the time, he was rapidly fastening himself to the Diamondbacks’ everyday lineup — going 11-for-27 with a 1.226 OPS and two home runs in his first seven games with his new team while playing an excellent shortstop, showcasing a rifle of a right arm. The reviews were coming in quickly and enthusiastically. The fan base was instantly enamored.

He made his way all the way from Willemstad, Curaçao, through the Cincinnati Reds organization and into manager Kirk Gibson’s batting order — a six-year journey — and then, in a flash, he was prostrate in a batter’s box in downtown Phoenix, more than 3,000 miles from home, his legs waggling upward as Diamondbacks personnel rushed to surround him. Dread glutted the Chase Field aura.

Officially, the injury was called a right temple contusion, but the medical jargon couldn’t fully suppress worry.

“My mom saw it happen. I had like 10 missed calls from my family,” Gregorius recalled of his post-injury trip back to his locker. “They all wanted to see if I was alright.

“When I finally had a chance, I talked to them. I told them everything was fine, that I just got tested and everything. Of course it was frightening for (my mom), to see her son get hit in the head and get taken out of the game.”

The somberness wasn’t limited to the Gregorius household. It loomed large in the press box, as well, and bled over to the sports pages of America and Curaçao by the next day. A fresh career, off to such a promising start, was seemingly in the balance.

You couldn’t help but wonder — would batter’s box distress wreak wreckage on the 23-year-old? Would the hot start be put to a halt because of the errancy of a hard-throwing Rockies reliever?

Not a chance.

“I played a couple of games in extended (spring training),” Gregorius explained of his rehabilitation program, “and I felt comfortable right away.”

The proof of that — comfortability — came in his first at-bat back, on May 5, when he sent a 2-1 Edinson Volquez offering to Petco Park’s right field stands — a solo shot that ultimately accounted for the Diamondbacks’ only run of the game.

A couple of days later, Diamondbacks infielder Cliff Pennington — the guy who was most negatively affected by the emergence of his budding teammate — told his manager that Gregorius was the best player in baseball at the moment.

He may be the most humble, too.

Back in the Diamondbacks dugout on Monday, Gregorius has walked 25 feet to retrieve the ball that hit him in the face. He signs it and tosses it back, nearly completing the autograph line. He takes a seat and sighs.

“It’s going to be a long day, huh,” I say.

“Yeah, and we fly to Texas tonight,” Gregorius says, somehow laughing.

It would be a good flight. After going 0-for-4 in the day end of the Diamondbacks’ doubleheader sweep, Gregorius had two of his team’s seven hits off of Rangers’ pitcher Yu Darvish, who struck out 14 batters in the game. And they weren’t bloop singles nor drag bunts. One was a first-inning RBI triple; the other a game-tying two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth.

Gregorius, it seems, has long been destined to play baseball. He was born in Amsterdam while his father, Johannes, pitched in Honkbal Hoofdklasse, a Dutch professional baseball league. He grew up sharing a middle infield with the Braves’ Andrelton Simmons, fending off the advent of top prospect Jurickson Profar, and looking up to older brother, Johnny, who is now a professional infielder in Curaçao.

He signed with the Reds at 17 years old, turning down previous interest from the Mariners and Padres, among others, to ensure he’d begin his career stateside, rather than in the Dominican or Venezuelan summer leagues.

“The Reds were the only team who offered to send me straight to the States,” Gregorius said.

Yet, though he compiled several above-.300 seasons at various levels, the scouting report on Gregorius never deviated from the original mock up. He couldn’t hit, scouts obstinately swore. There were holes in his swing, they said. He lacked power and he was too aggressive. “Helpless” was the word they used to describe his performance against lefties.

Above Gregorius in the Reds organization was shortstop Zack Cozart, an Ole Miss product who was presumed to have a much higher ceiling as a hitter, though lacking the defensive tools to stand out. Five years older and with four years of high-level college baseball under his belt, Cozart had all but blocked Gregorius from advancement on the organizational depth chart.

Given their ages and respective years under team control, Gregorius — who, by the end of the 2012 season had an eight-game major league debut as a September call-up with the Reds — was speedily becoming the more coveted trade target, suspect as his offensive ability may have been.

Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers, who got to see Gregorius play in his own backyard during the Arizona Fall League and never doubted the player’s plate prowess, loved him. By the time trade talks were underway in the 2012 offseason, the left side of Towers’ infield was practically vacated of young talent. Stephen Drew, the franchise shortstop from 2006-2012, had been traded away the previous season, and a handful of players, ranging from veterans like John McDonald and Willie Bloomquist to a low-end prospect named Jake Elmore, filled the position by committee in his absence.

So, stocked with a horde of young pitching talent in his farm system, Towers offered up Trevor Bauer, the organization’s top prospect at the time, in order to attain Gregorius. On December 11, 2012, Towers got his man in a three-way trade that sent Bauer to the Indians, Shin-Soo Choo to the Reds and Gregorius to the Diamondbacks.

The move, like much of Arizona’s offseason, drew considerable scrutiny. Despite his struggles and quarrels with the Diamondbacks the previous season, Bauer was seen as a sure thing with a high ceiling. Talent evaluators, meanwhile, ascribed much less star potential to Gregorius, making his weaknesses in the batter’s box out to be dire.

Towers, on the other hand, compared him to Derek Jeter. “We liked Gregorius better,” he added.

Insubordination and over-confidence are often cited as reasons for Bauer’s departure. Though highly touted and widely considered to be one of the better prospects in all of baseball, the 22-year-old pitcher disagreed with management on matters of approach, refusing to pitch to contact and often straying from catcher Miguel Montero’s lead. His warmup routine was something of a circus, an aerobic regimen of great proportions that seemed to cause pregame exhaustion. But he refused to alter it.

In that regard, Gregorius is Bauer’s antithesis.

“I ask everybody (for baseball advice),” Gregorius says, sitting beneath the dugout Gatorade cooler. “Everyone sees the game differently. I ask my parents. I ask my family. I ask guys in (the clubhouse)… I ask everybody for advice.”

There’s that. And then there’s this: “Just like they say, I’m really not that good of a hitter,” he says, “but I’m working to get better.”

I look up at the lineup board adjacent to the jumbotron. “You’re hitting .330,” I tell him.

“I know I’m not going to hit .330 the whole year, because I’m not a .330 hitter,” he humbly retorts. “And I’m not going to go around and say I’m a .330 hitter.”

That’s fine with Diamondbacks brass.

Team President and CEO Derrick Hall had this to say about his expectations of the shortstop: “If Didi Gregorius is a .265-.275 hitter and occasionally flashes the power that he has, shows the excitement and enthusiasm that he has every day, the speed on the base paths, the chance and willingness to take an extra base, and (play) the defense that he plays, which is just stellar, I’m going to take that.”

His average may no longer be at that .330 mark — it’s currently sitting at .324 after a 2-for-8 performance in Monday’s doubleheader — but Gregorius is putting on a clinic in character, something the Diamondbacks organization clearly holds in high esteem, hitting triples and home runs off of Yu Darvish, and flaunting defensive wizardry.

It’s now just past 11:40, less than an hour until game time, and our chat is coming to a close.

“Have a good couple of games and a great trip,” I say, packing up my things.

Trademark smile and all, Didi Gregorius shakes my hand, jumping to his feet. “Thanks,” he says. “I’ll try.”

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