Start Spreading the News, and add a hashtag. In his own quiet, quirky way, Didi Gregorius has emerged as a leader on the Yankees. He is their cleanup hitter, the anchor of their defense at shortstop. He has some gaudy numbers: 23 home runs, 80 runs batted in and 140 characters or less.
The latter statistic is the one that is particularly intriguing, one that has helped make him a central figure in the clubhouse. Gregorius is gregarious, thanks to Twitter, as he sends out a cryptic tweet after every Yankees victory. He opens with the phrase #StartSpreadingTheNews and identifies some of the key players, not by name, but by emoji.
For those not quite familiar with digital language, an emoji is a tiny little cartoon figure meant to represent something else. “I’m pretty sure I’m a turkey,” said Jordan Montgomery, the winning pitcher Saturday. He said it with pride, not resentment. Really, a turkey?
“Probably because of a Gamecock,” said Montgomery, who pitched in college for the South Carolina Gamecocks.
There always is a “probably” because Gregorius never tells his teammates why he picks their picture, and, he said Saturday, they never ask. He looks at it the way a comedian looks at a joke: If you have to explain it, it’s worthless.
Sure enough, less than an hour after the Yankees finished a 9-3 rout of the hapless Orioles at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, there appeared on the account of Sir Didi Gregorius a missive lauding a “great start” by a turkey, a three-run home run by a bird head (Greg Bird) and a two-run home run by a man wearing a tuxedo (Todd Frazier, also known as “The Toddfather”).
Only one pivotal figure was missing before the final line — “WHAT A GAME!!!” — and that was the fellow who got it all going by hitting a three-run homer in the third inning and getting two more hits. That would be Gregorius himself. No emoji for that guy.
“It’s not about me,” he said.
But a lot of what the Yankees do, such as a four-game winning streak and a burst of seven wins in the past eight games, is about Gregorius. That is what makes his team-building exercise so effective. I liken it to the time I remarked to the great Don Zimmer that someone was a team’s “spiritual leader” and he replied, “Let’s see how ‘spiritual’ he would be if he was hitting .220.”
Gregorius is hitting .295 and has become a bridge from Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez to the rest of the lineup. “I knew that I had to divide up our lefthanded hitters and it kind of works,” Joe Girardi said of his decision to bat his shortstop at cleanup. “I didn’t know where it was going to lead, but it has kind of led to some consistency in our lineup.”
Said Montgomery, “He’s awesome, man. His smile is definitely contagious, but he plays such good baseball. He plays great defense. He makes plays that are ridiculous and he’s going to make the routine plays every time. Just having him back there for defense is awesome and he swings the bat so well.”
How well? After having gone deep in each of the past two days, Gregorius is one shy of the Yankees’ record for home runs in a season by a shortstop. The mark is held, of course, by Derek Jeter, the icon whom Gregorius was given the impossible job of replacing.
Against staggering odds, Gregorius has been a success as a successor. Most of that has to do with his skill, part of it has to do with his personality. “He’s always happy. He plays hard every day. He does great for us. He’s a big part of us,” said second baseman Starlin Castro, who lockers and plays beside him.
In Gregorius’ lingo, Castro’s emoji is a star. Masahiro Tanaka is a stopwatch (his starts represent “Tanaka Time”). Aroldis Chapman is a flame. Judge is a man in judicial robes. “Everybody loves it,” Castro said.
They would love it if Gregorius would come up with a symbol for himself. Might that be in the offing if the season keeps going this way? The cleanup-hitting shortstop just smiled and said, “Nope.”