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Didi, Part 1: The Kid

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This is the first part of two articles dedicated to Didi Gregorius in which I try to tell you something more about his background, which might have contributed to the success of his baseball career, although unfortunately not with the Diamondbacks.

BASEBALL-CLASSIC-ISR-NED Photo credit should read KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

Mid 1990s, Netherlands, Europe. Late Spring. Unlike nowadays, it is probably a hazy day. Not cold, probably somewhere around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Kinheim from Haarlem and Neptunus from Rotterdam are the teams that dominate Dutch (and European) baseball, but we are in Amsterdam, the Dutch capital, in the western part of the city. Eyes are focused on a game of the local Amsterdam Pirates, here in the tiny stadium of the Jan van Galenstraat.

The Pirates are one of the biggest clubs in the Netherlands, but without much success in these early 90s. The people that are watching the game, behind home plate, do not talk about local hero Dennis Bergkamp, who will fight with the Dutch national soccer team on the World Championship in the USA, but rather about Hensley Meulens, the first Dutch Antillean player ever who played in the MLB. And for the New York Yankees! Some might even know local kid Rikkert Faneyte who grew up playing for the Pirates and is playing in the majors for the San Francisco Giants. Will he stick around?

These are promosing times for baseball in the Kingdom. Andruw Jones is on the rise in the minors and Robert Eenhoorn has a chance to stick in the majors for some years. The older people attending the game make some remarks about Wim Remmerswaal, who was the first Dutch player in the MLB, although almost noone in The Netherlands knows the real story behind him.

“It is in our blood”

On the mound, a big Dutch Antillean guy. Huge hands. It is Mariekson Gregorius, who is a pitcher, just like his father. He pitches in the Dutch leagues though, like many migrants from the Dutch Antilles, who would move to The Netherlands to find a job. “Didi” also pitches for the Dutch national team. Mother Sheritsa Stroop plays softball.

“Didi” has brought his kids with him, who play and fool around in the green grass that surrounds the playing field. At those moments when the smallest one, also nicknamed “Didi”, is alone, he shows his remarkable sporting skills, like doing keepie uppie with a can, as one of the club coaches would later remember of him.

Despite being in the prosperous Netherlands and working for the Dutch national postal service, the Gregorius family is having hard times financially. Mariekson decides to return to Curaçao in 1995, when Didi Gregorius (Jr) is 5 years old, and decides to dedicate even more time to baseball back home.

I was playing baseball so I had to carry my kids along. I taught my oldest son till he was 13, and he was the trainer of my youngest [Didi]. [...] After work our life was on the baseball field, my work is baseball, the entire family was on the field all day. [...] They learned school, listen well ... [always] perform at your best and go after what you want.

- Didi Gregorius Sr. in a radio item for NTR Carribbean network, November 3, 2013 (Dutch)

Curaçao is an island in the Dutch carribbean, north of Venezuela, with just 150,000 inhabitants. Home of nowadays famous players like Kenley Jansen, Andrelton Simmons, Jonathan Schoop, Ozzie Albies and, already some time ago, Andruw Jones and Hensley Meulens. It is a country within the Kingdom of The Netherlands, and is one of the most prosperous islands in the Carribbean. It is slightly industrialised although a lot of income is generated by Dutch and American tourism. The island is dry and therefore most baseball fields are sandy, not the most ideal environment to learn baseball:

Our surface [on Curaçao] is bad, we play on sand. This has influence on the reaction capabilities of a kid. Most times we start start playing at a young age, the age of 6, [and] most kids get the possibility to go abroad with 16 years to become a professional baseball player, and you carry 10 years of playing experience with you, of which 90% while playing on sand. That affects rhythm and reaction time in a way that a kid playing in a better environment has not had.

- Thakaidzwa Doran, former president of the Curaçao baseball federation, in a radio item for NTR Carribbean network, November 3, 2013 (Dutch)

Although, compared to The Netherlands, where baseball fields are better, Curaçao has its advantages:

Opportunities [to play baseball] are better in the Carribbean. In The Netherlands you will probably stay in Europe, here you can go to Venezuela, Santo Domingo [Dominican Republic] or, where most kids want to go to, the States.

- Johnny Gregorius (brother) in a radio item for NTR Carribbean network, November 3, 2013 (Dutch)

Because we play on rocks, you get a lot of bad hops. So we kind of get used to it. And then you go to the States and it is all grass and a little bit of dirt in the infield, but that makes it easier for us, kind of, because we played in the dirt, and that is one of the advantages we have.

- Didi Gregorius in an item for Fox Sports Netherlands, December 18, 2015 (Dutch/English)

Baseball is a sport on the rise on the island ever since Hensley Meulens played in the majors, and is bumping soccer from the throne of the most popular sport on the island. The success of Andruw Jones gives the popularity of baseball on the island the lift off:

Before Hensley, the scouts didn’t come very often over here. [...] Once Hensley became a big leaguer, baseball became more popular on the island. He broke the barrier of now who will be the next one?

- Orlando Nicolina, former outfielder of the Dutch national team in an MLB promo video, July 6, 2020 (English)

After that, when Jones made the Major Leagues, then the baseball blew up.

- Frank Curiel, baseball trainer on Curaçao in an MLB promo video, July 6, 2020 (English)

In such an environment, Didi Gregorius thrives. The island is much safer than busy Amsterdam, and the Gregorius brothers can do what they want. Especially playing baseball.

Yeah, we just did everything [...] what kids do [...], stones, foil...we had a big garden, everywhere. Since two years old, throwing, running, hitting...he has become good. He has grown, I am happy with it.

- Johnny Gregorius (brother) in a radio item for NTR Carribbean network, November 3, 2013 (Dutch)

When I went back to Curaçao I did more baseball than ever, but while playing baseball I also did swimming, so doing two sports at a time. My mother said, you have to choose one of the two, so I chose baseball. [...] Baseball is in my blood.

- Didi Gregorius in a tv item for Amsterdam Full Color, November 24, 2011 (Dutch)

From age 6 till 14 Gregorius plays for the little league team of Marchena, a neighbourhood in the West of Willemstad, together with Andrelton Simmons. At the age of 15 he joins the San Maria Pirates, a semi-professional team, in a league of players much older than him. He plays all over the diamond and even pitches very well, but his wish is to play an infielder.

I wanted the chance to be an everyday player, I knew I could be a good shortstop, and I was prepared to sign with the first team that gave me that chance.

- Didi Gregorius in a report of MLB, June 8, 2017 (English)