The 2010/11 ABL campaign came almost as a total surprise to Gregorius, then a Cincinnati Reds prospect coming off his first full year in Class A. Born in Amsterdam while his father pitched for a team in the Netherlands, Gregorius moved to Curacao where he was discovered by the Reds and signed in 2007.
After debuting in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2008, Didi, whose full name is Mariekson Julius Gregorius, moved up to the Rookie-level Pioneer League for the bulk of 2009 before getting a taste of the Advanced Class A Florida State League to end the season. His transition to the ABL began in Class A began with 120 games in Class A Dayton in 2010 before another High-A test to end that season. The offseason took him to a new baseball world entirely.
"[The Reds] waited to the last second to tell me I'm going [to Canberra]," Gregorius said. "For me, it was a really long year, but you know, that's how you get better, playing all-year-round. I made a lot of improvement, and I looked forward and kept going from there."
Gregorius held his own in Class A ball during the North American summer, batting .273 for the Dayton Dragons of the Midwest League and .240 in limited action with High-A Lynchburg. As was long anticipated would be the tool to take him to The Show, his glove took centre stage in Canberra. Though the then-20-year-old batted just .189, his outstanding presence at shortstop for the Cavalry led him to the ABL's first Golden Glove award.
Just months removed from his first full-season campaign in Minor League Baseball, Gregorius found the competition level in the ABL to be one for which he was well suited and, in some cases, well acquainted.
"There were a couple guys [in the ABL] who had played in the big leagues and played professionally in the States. I remembered their faces [from MiLB]. It was a really good competition.
"It was really fun to play with all these guys and meet them, talk to them, see how everything is. They told me it had been ten years or so without [professional] baseball there. It was the first game that we played, too, after ten years. That was really good."
Gregorius and his Cavalry teammates played the first game in the history of the resurrected ABL, the shortstop getting the nod to start at Sydney. The experience, though, went far beyond just making history.
"Having fun with the guys and everything," Gregorius said of his most meaningful ABL memories. "Travel around, seeing Australia more. It was a good place to play, too, in Canberra, so it was fun for me."
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
18 April. Yankee Stadium. After a tumultuous offseason that saw Didi traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a nine-player, three-team deal, a strained elbow that sidelined him for part of the offseason, and a red-hot start to 2013 in Triple-A, Gregorius arrived on the big league stage. He had played in 35 games over the last two years for the Reds, but this day was different. This, finally, was Didi's time.
In the top of the third inning of a scoreless game, New York Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes stepped into his delivery, kicked his left leg, and dealt a fastball that hung over the plate, just above knee-level. Didi didn't miss. The left-handed swinger hammered Hughes's offering, launching it into the New York City night and over the right-field wall. His first at bat as a Diamondback catapulted him into the MLB spotlight, and the smile that curled his lips as he rounded the bases showcased the humility and the sense of just how far he had come.
"As a kid, I dreamed to play in Yankee Stadium," Gregorius said, looking back on his days on far-flung fields thousands of miles from the Bronx. "Luckily, I hit a home run there. That'd make you feel really great. Really awesome."
The offensive show has barely stopped from Gregorius. Nearly 30 games into his first full MLB campaign, Didi is batting .330 with an impressive .909 OPS, providing an even more dynamic-and more dangerous-facet to his game beyond just his impeccable glove.
CAVALRYMEN IN THE SHOW
While Gregorius has opened eyes all across Major League Baseball, a former Cavalry teammate has done the same. First baseman/outfielder Donald Lutz became the first German-developed player to break into the big leagues when he debuted with the Reds on 29 April.
Lutz and Gregorius played together in the Gulf Coast League in 2008 and formed a friendship that carried over to their ABL days and beyond. Not surprisingly, when Gregorius blasted his Yankee Stadium homer, Lutz was among those cheering loudest. When the ABL tweeted congratulations to Didi for his milestone home run, the first retweet came from none other than Lutz.
"We always keep in touch with each other," Gregorius said of his former Cavalry mate. "We have fun every time we play against each other. We talk to each other during spring all the time. He called me a couple of days [after the home run], too, so it was really fun."
The calendar says it's nearly summertime in the United States. And on the first official day of summer, 21 June, the Reds hit town in Phoenix for a three-game weekend set with the Diamondbacks. There, the MLB journeys of Didi and Donald will cross paths for the first time, two former Cavs cheering each other on from opposite dugouts under the brightest of big league skies.