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Didi Gregorius has become an elite player all while trying to replace Derek Jeter

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Didi Gregorius has spent about as much of his professional career as The Next Shortstop as he did the next shortstop, a distinction he’s heard about for years, also one he’d decline to concede. He looks straight through that sort of drama, concocted in the minds of the bystanders and poets who’d attach more to the game than what it already is.

As if it were more important than that. As if it could be.

A month into his fourth year as The Next Shortstop, an event he’d view as his fourth season as shortstop for the New York Yankees, Gregorius has for that month been about the best player in the game; a .340 hitter, 10 home runs, 30 RBIs, 18 walks to 12 strikeouts, two defensive errors.

Nobody pays much mind to the other stuff anymore.

“Replacing Derek Jeter, that’s a tough thing to do,” Aaron Judge observed.

Almost nobody, then.

Didi Gregorius has for the month of April been about the best player in the game: a .340 hitter, 10 home runs, 30 RBIs. (AP)

Course, nobody’d ever tried before. So, eventually, somebody was going to have to stand where The Last Shortstop did and just try not to mess it up too bad, try to play through the narrowed eyes and pursed lips and faint head wags, try to be the guy who, you know, has a little game himself. In that way, there would seem to be two types of big leaguers. Those who play baseball. And those who are baseball players, who by their vibes and instincts and fearlessness seem to have been born in that very spot, whose hearts beat slow and sure, who grin at the worst of it because they are so sure the worst of anything is a temporary condition. Also, the best of anything could be just as fleeting, so he’ll have a month like he has, a calendar year like he has (.297, 35 homers, 116 RBIs), and it’ll be mused he might actually be better than The Last Shortstop, and the notion is buried with all that is irrelevant. All that does not serve today’s ballgame. All that cannot be commanded by him.

So, he finds himself in that place on the field that would not entirely be viewed as his, at 28 years old, and inch by stinkin’ inch he gets that much better, almost imperceptibly better. In fact maybe only he can sense those advances. He is patient and uncompromising. He hits and then he hits for power and then he hits for more power. He begins to hit left-handed pitchers, then he hits them better. He walks, then he walks more. He puts a month together, one that seems to follow where he was headed last summer, almost a hundred at-bats that don’t look in the least bit contrived.

“He plays the game, keeps his mouth shut, it works,” Judge said. “It’s just the type of player he is. He’s smooth. When people say guys make it look easy, he’s the guy they’re talking about. He was born to be on a baseball field.”

And on a Sunday afternoon at Angel Stadium, he would turn in his chair, away from his locker, and plead with you to understand the simplicity of it.

“That’s all I’m trying to do, to get better every year,” he said. “Just to do it the right way.”

His eyes get wide when told, sure, but there must be more.

“Everybody can do it if they want to do it,” he said. “The mind …”

He pointed to his temples with both forefingers …

“… is a strong thing.”

Very emphatic.

When it seemed obvious that explanation would not suffice, or at least would not shake the line of questioning, he said, “What have I learned? I haven’t changed at all. My mind is still the same – go out and get it.”

Get … it?

“I want to be the best for my team,” he said. “That’s all I care about. Trust me.”

His eyes wide again, as though this concept can’t be so difficult to comprehend. But with a smile nipping at his face. Hiding the work. Hiding the commitment. Hiding that thing he had to do, what the guy a few lockers down called “a tough thing to do,” that thing that had absolutely no bearing on learning to lift a ball with authority, to hit left-handers more often, to narrow the strike zone, so one day – in a lineup with Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez – he’s the one batting third.

“He’s really a dependable, reliable player,” manager Aaron Boone, the one who played alongside The Last Shortstop, said. “And now he’s becoming an elite player, too.”

As for the The Next Shortstop thing, let’s agree there’s not yet a comparison to be made, a conversation to be had, not until the championships come and the decades pass. It’ll be enough that he’s not only good enough, but he’s good enough for them, and not yet good enough for himself. That doesn’t end in a season, or in a month. The mind, you see, it asks for more.

Though, perhaps, you may grant he’s had a better month than the last guy has.

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