Didi Gregorius is the Yankees' resident linguist, and he might just be baseball's greatest international ambassador
By Jon Schwartz
Yankees Magazine |
It was July 28, a fine, if muggy, night at Yankee Stadium. The season was entering its final third, and the Yankees were riding four straight wins, setting up a big game with the Rays, another team with its eyes on October.
Masahiro Tanaka pitched brilliantly -- eight strong innings with a career-best 14 strikeouts. The offense came on home runs from all three starting outfielders - solo shots by Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge, and a three-run shot by Clint Frazier. It was quite a game.
For decades, the ultimate Yankee Stadium postgame tradition has been Ol' Blue Eyes sending fans home singing about being king of the hill, top of the heap. These days, it's also Gregorius providing the nightly affirmation of victory. His celebratory missives on Twitter, full of enthusiasm, exclamation marks and -- most notably -- emoji, have become the perfect game story for our modern times.
"I think he's loved by the Yankees fans, and it's a great way to connect them to the team," says catcher Austin Romine. "It's fabulous to see, and people really like it."
Professional sports teams spend millions to acquire world-class talent, then try to surround the players with marketing professionals who can sand off any hard edges and help them put their best cleat forward. In Gregorius, the Yankees have an all-purpose asset. He can mount a grassroots All-Star campaign, steal scenes in the team's promotional movie spoofs or engage fans happily, directly and effectively via his social media channels. He can break through language barriers to serve as a bridge connecting all cultures in the clubhouse. And as a bonus, he can hit a handful of homers each month while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense.
Put it all together, and it makes for quite a [package emoji].
Different players react differently to playing in the Bronx. In today's global market with a nonstop, hypernationalized news cycle, the so-called "pressures" of playing in New York might no longer be quite so unique. If I can make it there, I can make it [buh, buh] anywhere. Maybe so, but Giancarlo Stanton's early-August hot streak in Miami didn't exactly fly below the radar.
Gregorius, though, came to town as the guy replacing the legendary Derek Jeter, after producing stats over his first two-plus seasons in the Major Leagues that were in line with a backup middle infielder. This was the guy who would replace The Captain?
"Let's be honest," Brett Gardner says, "when Derek retired, I don't think it was fair to expect that transition to go smoothly. And I can't imagine it having gone any better over the last few years."
Gregorius laughs incredulously, as though the idea were objectively crazy. "I felt comfortable since day one," Gregorius insists. "I met [Alex Rodriguez] the second day of practice, he took me out to early hitting and all that stuff. So when we started talking about baseball, about hitting, about adjustments and everything in early Spring Training, it was good. I'm here to play the game. That's all I can control."
Yet even if he insists that there was no adjustment period, anecdotal evidence, as well as the numbers, indicate that his game has been on a steady rise. Pitcher Jordan Montgomery raves about how Gregorius handles two-strike counts, fouling off balls left and right and making pitchers miserable. Ronald Torreyes can't understand how Gregorius is able to get to so many balls going to his right in the field. And on a pure results basis -- this year, he had 18 homers with a .312 batting average and an .872 OPS through Aug. 12 -- well, you can't argue with that from the shortstop slot.
"Guys who hit .300 with 20 homers are All-Stars," Romine says. "And then he goes out there and plays what I think is some of the best shortstop in the game … You take it for granted sometimes when he's making those really good plays that maybe some guys don't even get to. It's fun to watch him play."
If it's fun to watch Gregorius, a big part of that is how much the shortstop appears to be enjoying himself at all times. Always smiling, always laughing, his emotive facial expressions make him an obvious target for cameras looking to capture Yankees celebrations. One popular example comes when he lifts the 5-foot-8 Torreyes into the air to toast each of the 6-foot-7 Aaron Judge's home runs.
The celebration is funny, largely because it facilitates a high-five between two players of such opposite physical stature. But it also says a great deal about the role that Gregorius plays in a tight-knit Yankees clubhouse.
Born in the Netherlands before moving to Curaçao as a young boy, Gregorius is fluent in the four languages that the island's children study in school -- Dutch, Papiamentu, English and Spanish. Unsurprisingly, the bounty of tongues at his disposal sets him apart among his teammates, while simultaneously helping to unite the entire crew.
"One, barely," Chase Headley says of his own set of language skills.
"One-and-a-half," says Tyler Wade, who knows a bit of Spanish.
"How many do I speak?" asks Romine. "One. He speaks a lot."
Teammates flock to Gregorius, while also viewing him with a curious fascination. In his spare time, the shortstop loves to draw, he enjoys experimenting with different cameras and photography accessories, and he relishes every chance he gets to travel the world. Baseball players often grow up with a myopic focus on sports, sports and more sports. Gregorius was plenty focused on his baseball skills, too, but when he wasn't on the field, he was learning to conquer the Tower of Babel. As a Big Leaguer, that unique ability can pay major dividends in the clubhouse.
Even the closest groups of teammates can break into cliques from time to time, often on account of the natural language divisions that are so common in an ever-more globalized game. "Guys maybe start speaking in Spanish or guys start speaking in English, so it happens from time to time," says closer Aroldis Chapman, his words translated into English by Yankees bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu. "We don't see that a lot here, where people get separated into different groups, and I think one of the reasons is that we have a guy like Didi. He helps unify the team just by communicating with everybody."
Headley knows that despite how much effort he puts into having a good relationship with all his teammates, there's still going to be a superficial nature to communications between two people divided by language. He sees how Gregorius reaps benefits from being able to communicate with all of the players around him, and he believes that it can also impact the on-field product.
Headley can head to the mound and give pitcher Luis Cessa a motivational fist-bump or a pat on the butt, but Gregorius can have a chat about the situation at hand. And he can do the same with almost any pitcher on the team, be it Montgomery, Chapman or even Japan native Masahiro Tanaka. "We tell him little Japanese phrases here and there," Tanaka says, assisted by interpreter Shingo Horie. "And the impressive part is that he picks it up really quickly. It's one of the abilities that he has."
Manager Joe Girardi, who gets to see Gregorius on the team plane and in meetings closed to media and fans, says that he appreciates the way that ability to communicate can bring the whole team together, helping get everyone laughing at the same jokes or receiving the same important messages.
"It helps everybody," Gregorius acknowledges. "If I'm talking to everybody, it helps everybody. It doesn't just help me -- it's an all-around thing. It's just being here for everybody else."
How wide can Gregorius's circle of influence spread? In early August, while the Yankees were in Toronto, the shortstop spent a morning handing out free tickets to the observation deck at the CN Tower, then began distributing tokens to ride the city's subway system. One couple, trying to figure out why this random guy was insisting that they take free tickets from him, began talking to each other in Spanish. "And I'm like, 'OK, you want to talk in Spanish, you don't think I understand?' And I started talking to him in Spanish," Gregorius says, laughing as he recounts the interaction. He spoke Dutch with another couple, eventually taking a picture for them.
Combine that with the ways that he interacts with fans from all backgrounds at the ballpark, and it's clear that Gregorius is perfectly suited to be a breakthrough ambassador for the Yankees -- and the sport as a whole. "He's capable of reaching people that his other teammates aren't," Gardner says.
Stephi Blank and Jessica Smith are the Yankees' senior managers of digital and social media strategy. Their job, essentially, is to do what Gregorius does so well -- to reach people that most players, themselves, can't. Through the use of various social media platforms, they offer Yankees fans the latest news and headlines, while also posting quirky photos, memes and videos that can show a different side of the players on the field. Social media is their vocation; they are experts in the field.
Yet even they are amazed at what Gregorius is able to accomplish on Twitter and Instagram. "I think that what he does creates a relationship with our fans that even we can't create from the Yankees' handles," Blank says. Some of his outreach is as old as the game itself -- signing balls for fans, smiling at young kids, even simply wearing a joyful expression at all times. But for all his success holding a bat or wearing a glove, the most revolutionary thing about Gregorius might be what he does with an iPhone.
When Gregorius talks to reporters, he heaps words of praise on his teammates. When he sends out his post-win #startspreadingthenews tweet, he conveys the same message in emoji -- while also cracking a window into the clubhouse through which fans can peek. Gardner, so fiery on the field but a sly prankster off it, is a clown in Gregorius's tweets. Aaron Hicks, the bald-headed 27-year-old, gets the old man emoji. Gary Sanchez, whom Brian Cashman once called "the Kraken," is a squid, while Judge, predictably, appears as a judge (they can't all be poetry). There are funny ones (Romine gets a rowboat), curious choices (why does Wade seem to be Inspector Gadget?) and others that puzzle even the players involved. "I'm sure it has something to do with people thinking I'm extremely serious when I play or whatever, but that's all I got," a laughing Headley says of his avatar -- a bicep paired with a red, angry face.
Indeed, some of the most fun this baseball season has come when fans and writers have taken to Twitter to decipher the shortstop's latest message. A star followed by the letters L-I-N? Clearly, that's Starlin Castro. Others, though, require a bit more detective work. "They seem to have to do more with his own personal connections to certain players or certain things that they might represent as members of the team," says Ben Zimmer, a linguist and lexicographer who has been a columnist for such newspapers as The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe and The New York Times. Castro's avatar, Zimmer says, is a perfectly straightforward, rebus-like representation of the name itself. But Gardner as a clown? "That might be more of a symbolic representation. And that requires some serious exegesis to understand that Brett Gardner is the joker of the team, and so, therefore, he can be represented as a clown."
In a similar vein, in order to appreciate the mafioso-like emoji that Gregorius uses for his new teammate Todd Frazier, you have to remember that he's known in some circles as "The Toddfather," a play on The Godfather, which is a famous movie about the mafia. There are levels involved.
Whatever the answers, Gregorius isn't helping with the reveals. He likes to keep his explanations secret, his stance playfully mischievous, and he insists that he spends way less time thinking up the tweets than everyone else does analyzing them. (Guilty as charged.) "I'm not trying to get anything out of it for me," he says, laughing as he cuts down the conversation. "It's just something different for the fans. So they can see from a different perspective."
And it works. People who know Gardner, who encounter him off the field, do get to see the joking side of him that's so different from his on-field persona. But fans almost never do. And how many of them may have had their impressions of the outfielder totally changed by the clown emoji in tweets from a guy with nearly 110,000 Twitter followers, messages that Blank routinely retweets to the @yankees handle's 2.6 million followers? "There's no way for Gardner to be a clown himself for fans to interact with, so Didi almost gives Gardy that voice," Blank says. "Didi gives Gardy that access to fans that Gardy doesn't have."
A study released late in 2015 revealed that emoji are used by 92 percent of the online population worldwide, which has spurred takes calling emoji an international language. And while the full listing of unicode emoji includes thousands of characters, most of which can be interpreted on their own across cultures, Zimmer -- like most linguists -- isn't willing to go quite that far. "There is a certain universality that you might be able to find in an individual emoji," he says. "That doesn't mean that emoji, itself, is a sort of universal language."
Perhaps not, but the tiny graphics are certainly emerging rapidly in the mainstream. Zimmer recalls this past year at the South by Southwest music, film and interactive media festival in Austin, there was an "Emoji Spelling Bee," at which contestants had to take a particular phrase and try to convey it in emoji. "I'm sure Didi Gregorius would have killed at that competition," he says. There's some serious, even sophisticated, wordplay at hand in some of Gregorius's tweets; Romine's rowboat, in particular, stands out. It's hard to imagine there's any association there; it's much more likely that the sound of Romine's name triggered a similar sound in another word, one easily represented graphically. And it's there that the nexus of the multilingual Gregorius and the expert-level emoji savant might reside.
Think of how you learn languages, mastering sound patterns and creating (and memorizing) associative mental images. Gregorius has shown that he possesses such skills when it comes to formal language training. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that he can more easily comprehend the endless list of emoji included on his phone than some others might. "Once you're multilingual," says Tyler Schnoebelen, a linguist who is also an emoji expert, "you really appreciate the arbitrariness. Like, yes, you and I talk about a dog as a dog, but plenty of monolingual English speakers just sort of feel like that's a natural word for a dog or that dogs say 'woof' or 'bark.' Once you start learning other languages, you start seeing that these words are fairly arbitrary -- like a dog can be a perro or a chien. There are lots of words for dog in the world, so little kids, when they're learning multiple languages, very quickly pick up faster than monolingual kids that there's an arbitrariness to these words that are happening, and that's kind of a game. And so that might make him more sensitive to that."
"He's able to navigate this kind of linguistic train quite adeptly," Zimmer says.
The Yankees have long prided themselves on uniformity, on staying within the lines that demarcate "The Yankees Way." Gregorius manages to stand out, but in only the best manner. Twitter, and really all social media, might be the perfect medium for a society too reliant on ego, on propping one's own self up. And all too often, a public person's downfall comes when his or her true colors emerge on any particular social media channel. But as Blank points out, "Didi sets an example of somebody that can use social media in a way that's not harmful, that's not bad for your image, not bad for the team's image." For all of the emoji that Gregorius employs, he never uses one for himself; it might well be the least selfish use of social media in history.
That Gregorius should be finding success in any new sphere shouldn't be all that surprising. This is what he does. The Yankees needed a new shortstop to replace arguably the most beloved player in franchise history. Gregorius was up to the task. His teammates needed a guy who could bridge communication gaps. Didi was there. And in a world tilting evermore in the direction of social engagement, there's no team with a greater asset than the Yankees' shortstop.
"It's a positive message after a win," Torreyes says, with Abreu translating. "And more importantly, it's a way for us to communicate with our fans through him." Or, as Gardner puts it, "I think he uses [social media] not just to his advantage, but to the team's advantage. He's bringing attention to his teammates, to the Yankees … He does a great job of not just promoting himself, but promoting his teammates, his friends and the organization."
Gregorius remains reflexively deflective about the whole thing. "I just try to be myself," he says. "It's basically nothing." His point is fair. This is Twitter, not rocket science. But Gregorius is really good at Twitter, and he's really good at baseball, and -- who knows -- would you bet against him someday being a half-decent rocket scientist?
"He's the best teammate -- one of the best I've ever had," Romine says emphatically. "Same guy every day; works hard. When he does well, he doesn't want any of the attention; he defers it to other teammates … He's artistic, he's fluent in languages, he's cultured. He's a very unique and awesome human being to know. It's fun to be able to be around him, talk to him and call him a friend."
Or, as Gregorius might put it: "It's [thumbs up emoji] to [telephone emoji][row boat emoji] a [two dancing men emoji]."
Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the September 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.