- Xander Bogaerts and Didi Gregorius are countrymen who overcame pressure and struggle to become key players for baseball's most recognizable teams.
Everyone who steps into baseball’s biggest rivalry has a moment when he realizes what he’s done. For Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski—who has been a general manager since 1991, and built three World Series teams—it was wife Karie’s reaction when she saw the packed house for his opening press conference. (“This is different,” she said.) Yankees DH Giancarlo Stanton was welcomed to New York with the back-page New York Post headline BEST GIFT EVER! when he was traded from Miami in December; by March it read MANGLES IN THE OUTFIELD after he made an error in a spring training game. Eduardo Núñez, now a Red Sox infielder, debuted with the Yankees. “I was peeing my pants,” he says of that first game in New York. His second year, he hit a home run to tie a game. The next inning, he booted a grounder. The fans booed him. “I was like, ‘Wow,’” he says. Welcome to the Rivalry.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora’s moment wasn’t even about him. In 2007, he was a 31-year-old utility infielder in his 10th year in the majors—and second in Boston—when a rookie second baseman went 6-for-38 to open the season. Fans began clamoring for Cora to replace Dustin Pedroia. Cora was appalled. “I was like, I know he’s hitting .150, but come on!” he says.
The spotlight is so intense that even the most poised leaders sometimes hide from it. When they managed in opposing dugouts in the mid-aughts, Terry Francona and Joe Torre so feared fraternization headlines that they avoided saying hello behind the batting cage. They greeted each other by office phone instead.
Today’s iteration is as hot as ever. Both teams made the playoffs last year … then fired their managers. They have been the two best clubs in baseball since May 4. The Red Sox are on pace for 110 wins, the Yankees for 100. And 14 years after Jason Varitek ground his catcher’s mitt into Alex Rodriguez’s face, a new cast of characters is forging a genuine dislike for one another. An April brawl left two players suspended and four fined—plus Cora and Yankees third base coach Phil Nevin. Yankee Stadium shook so much from cheers during an early-season game that New York manager Aaron Boone said in the dugout, “It’s May.”
When MLB released its list of national broadcasts before the season, 25% of those games featured either the Yankees or the Red Sox or both. There is no reprieve from the scrutiny they face. And yet two young shortstops have stepped into it and exceeded expectations.
Xander Bogaerts is 25 now, in his fifth full year in the Majors, and he seems completely comfortable in the Rivalry’s glare. He plays hacky sack with a baseball on the field before batting practice. He celebrates big hits with celebrations ripped from video games. He politely thanks coaches after they run him through drills. But in many ways, he is still the same chicken-pox-covered 16-year-old, begging his mother to let him audition for a Red Sox scout visiting Aruba, and you know he feels the pressure for a basic reason: He admits it.
In an endless series of Crash Davis–sanctioned press conferences, Bogaerts stands out. When he strung together a 26-game hit streak in 2016, he conceded that he thought daily about maintaining it. When the team scuffled in the early going last year, he confessed that he missed the leadership of recently retired David Ortiz.
Bogaerts says, “When I’m bad, I’m bad. You gotta be real with yourself.” And in 2014, when it mattered most, he was really bad. He would hear the crowd noise swell in a key moment and call timeout to steady himself. It didn’t help. He was the fourth-worst regular in baseball in high-leverage situations, with a .514 OPS.
This year, at 1.107, he’s fourth-best.
During that brutal ’14, Bogaerts had listened to everyone, tried everything. He had never really failed before. As a kid, he was always the star. He raced through the minor leagues. He entered 2013 as the consensus No. 2 prospect in baseball. Even when he scuffled to start that season, shivering through his balaclava in the unfamiliar Northeast cold, he reminded himself that summer would come, and it did. He debuted that August at 20, then started all six games of the World Series at third base, a position he had played regularly only since the ALCS. His skills were so impressive that they hid his nerves. But the nerves were real. When the Red Sox won the 2013 World Series, he felt more relief than joy: The season had ended before he could screw it up.
The next year, the nerves took over. When third baseman Will Middlebrooks broke his right index finger in May, the Red Sox were short on infield depth. They re-signed Stephen Drew, who had played shortstop for them the year before, and planned to move Bogaerts to third base. The news broke on a Tuesday. Bogaerts choked back tears. “I was crushed,” he says. He took the field that night knowing his days at short were limited … and threw away a grounder on the second play of the game. In the fifth he bobbled a ball on the transfer. He heard boos. Oh my God, he thought. I suck.
The season only declined from there. Bogaerts hit .182 over the two months after he switched positions. Middlebrooks returned and the Red Sox traded Drew to the Yankees at the deadline, shifting their young shortstop back to his left. He hit .123 in August. All seemed lost.
“You go through a stretch where you don’t even feel like you’re a baseball player,” he says now. “You should be playing another sport.”
Finally his childhood hero, fellow Antillean Andruw Jones, called. Find someone you trust, he said. Follow only him.
Before the first game of a September trip to Yankee Stadium, Bogaerts approached assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez, who had been his minor league hitting coordinator. “You’re my guy,” he said. They went straight to the batting cage, where they tried a few drills to keep Bogaerts’s upper body from diving forward. That night he lofted a home run to centerfield. He grinned as he jogged off the field. He hit .313 the rest of the way.
“We talked about attitude,” says Rodriguez. “When that situation comes, he should know who’s under pressure. It’s the pitcher. It’s not you. And we present it that way. Look at the situation. Who’s under pressure? Who’s in trouble? It’s not you! The work you put in during the offseason—it’s for that situation. It’s not to come hit with nobody on. It’s to hit in that situation. That’s how you make your money.”
Bogaerts is still not entirely convinced. “Yeah, he says with a laugh, “but the pitchers are probably more veteran than me. [And they make] more than me!”
After Rodriguez left for the Indians this year, Bogaerts had to learn to trust one other person: himself. He was too patient for a player with his talent. Last year he swung at the fewest strikes of any regular in the game, 53%. The book on Bogaerts was simple: Attack.
When Cora arrived in Boston, he did not need to dig through advanced metrics or spray charts or videos in search of an adjustment for Bogaerts. He had seen the problem firsthand as the Astros bench coach, as Houston scouted the Red Sox in anticipation of their ALDS meeting. Bogaerts led off the last 17 games of the 2017 season; he took a first-pitch fastball for a strike nine times.
“And here’s a guy who can hit it out of the ballpark every time,” Cora says. “I wanted him to be more aggressive. It doesn’t mean he’s gonna swing, but don’t take just to take.”
Didi Gregorius had to contend with something more intimidating than another player when he joined the Yankees before the 2015 season: the specter of one.
In his first week with New York after an offseason trade from Arizona, Gregorius hit .130, misplayed several groundballs, was thrown out twice on the basepaths and weathered a chorus of “Der-ek Jet-er” chants—from his home crowd.
New Yorkers had reason to be skeptical. Two organizations, the Reds and Diamondbacks, had already traded Gregorius. In 179 major league games in small markets—most with the then-mediocre Diamondbacks—he had a .680 OPS.
Since he joined the most storied, scrutinized team in the sport, and replaced its most beloved player, that number is .765.
He even felt the flipside of the New York media attention early this season, when he slugged .828 through 25 games. The Post immortalized him on its front cover as the Roosevelt of “Mount Crushmore,” a USA Today columnist tweeted that his trade was more of a steal than the one that brought Babe Ruth to the Bronx, and—poetically—fans began to shower him with “M-V-P” chants.
Neither extreme fazed him, the 28-year-old Curaçaoan says. Ask him about replacing a legend, and he is polite but exasperated: “I tell people, I didn’t replace Derek Jeter. Did he go to second base? Did he go to third base? No. He retired after a successful career. All I did was be the guy after him.”
The Yankees had been aware for years that they would have to appoint a successor eventually, but Jeter’s announcement that the 2014 season would be his last allowed them to hunt openly. There were no viable candidates in the organization. They discussed a series of “I don’t want to say retreads, but older guys,” says then pro scout Jalal Leach. But Leach, now in the same position with the Giants, and VP of baseball ops Tim Naehring kept mentioning a young shortstop who couldn’t even start for his own team.
Scouts often prefer to see a player struggle a bit. You’d rather watch him handle adversity before you get him, the thinking goes. So the Yankees did not view Gregorius’s unsettled position with the Diamondbacks as much of a problem. He’d been up and down and played both second and short, and Arizona seemed to rank him third on its middle-infielder depth chart. Naehring was less interested in his status than in his reaction to it.
“You try to figure out the heartbeat,” he says. “If there are struggles at the plate, does he take them into the field? You look at how he handles the next groundball after he makes a mistake. If there’s question marks, those question marks tend to become reality when they put on the pinstripes.”
Still, a dozen games into that first season in New York, Gregorius was hitting .189 and avoiding talk radio. Around this time, he began to work in earnest with assistant hitting coach Alan Cockrell.
“In New York, you get it from everywhere,” he says. “Media, front office, manager, coaches, your neighbors. It comes from everywhere. So I was a non-threatening person to Didi. I could just kind of hear him out.”
He heard Gregorius’s frustration at the instructions he had received at earlier stops. Cut and slash the ball. Stay low to the ground. Don’t try to get the ball in the air. Bunt. Cockrell and head hitting coach Jeff Pentland saw the shortstop as he saw himself: a good hitter who just needed a shot. He had never played a full season in the big leagues before he got to New York, both coaches point out. The ability was there.
Cockrell thought of something Clint Hurdle, now the Pirates manager, had told him when the two were coaches in the Rockies’ system. Often players who throw righthanded and bat left, like Gregorius, get too quick with their front side. The dominant hand slides the barrel through the zone, which produces an uninspiring string of grounders to the right side of the infield and popups to the left. The trick, Hurdle said, is to coach them like you would a switch hitter, focusing on the non-dominant hand. Gregorius had always done one-handed drills, but with his bottom hand; starting in late April, Cockrell suggested he try working the top hand.
Gregorius hit .278 in the second half. He has slugged 72 home runs since the beginning of 2016, including 25 last year. That figure set the record for longballs in a season by a Yankees shortstop, breaking the mark set by Jeter. Gregorius still does top hand drills every day.
Gregorius says he has never felt anxious in his life. He was not afraid of spiders or the dark as a child. He never stressed over tests. He eagerly stands atop tall buildings. He swam with nurse sharks in Bermuda last winter. Has he ever felt his heart rate quicken? “No,” he says.
Designated hitter Carlos Beltrán, who mentored Gregorius that first year, laughs at that assessment. “There’s no doubt he did feel the pressure,” he says. “I told him, ‘Hey man, don’t worry. We all go through this.’”
Bogaerts and Gregorius met as teenagers on the Dutch national team, playing in tournaments and eventually being knighted together after they won the 2011 IBAF World Cup. They played alongside each other again in last year’s World Baseball Classic, Bogaerts at third and Gregorius at second to accommodate Andrelton Simmons, a Gold Glover. Along with Jonathan Schoop and Jurickson Profar, they formed such a dream group of middle infielders that Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens recorded infield practice on his iPhone.
These days the two mostly meet on the field before games. In April, Bogaerts greeted Gregorius enthusiastically: Every time he turned on the TV, there was his friend’s face.
This is a new era of the Rivalry. Bogaerts and Gregorius do not communicate by office phones but by group text. They would be unlikely to slug each other during a brawl. They did not grow up in the shadow of Fenway or Yankee Stadium, dreaming of inhabiting their roles—a benefit, Bogaerts thinks, because it reduced the baggage they carried. But now that they have those roles, now that they will play 19 times this season and perhaps again in October, expect to turn on the TV and see their faces.