PHILADELPHIA — Derek Dietrich has a tattoo on the inside of each wrist. Of course, you might not notice them at first since he also has an elaborate half sleeve on his left bicep, which is regularly set on display by the arm situation, or lack thereof, on his preferred shirts. The smaller tattoos, however, are more sentimental than they are ornamental.
On his right wrist are the words “Believe It” in a vaguely gothic script. Dietrich’s big sister, Dawn, a former professional ice skater, has the same words in a different font. The siblings got the tattoos together early in Dietrich’s tenure with the Miami Marlins as a testament to their bond. They still talk daily, and Dietrich credits her with teaching him how to engage with fans on social media.
On his left wrist, it says “Let it Fly” over a pair of dates. It’s the same phrase that adorns the T-shirts you can buy if you’re a Dietrich fan disappointed in the official team store’s total lack of licensed gear with his name or likeness. It’s the same shirt he wore — with the sleeves cut off, naturally — for an appearance on MLB Network and again in the clubhouse before the first game of a weekend series in Philadelphia.
Let it Fly: It was something Dietrich’s grandfather, Steve Demeter, used to tell him. Demeter had a short, unimpressive big league playing career in the late ‘50s and a long, well-respected career as a Triple-A player and then as a coach, manager and scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system.
Dietrich got the words tattooed on his arm as a sophomore in college, and even his mom, who would rather he skip the ink altogether, had to admit it was a fitting tribute to her father. When he passed away a few years later, Dietrich added the dates for Demeter’s birth and death.
“For a long time, it was just about swinging the bat, letting it fly, taking your best cut,” Dietrich told Yahoo Sports. “But it progressed into just a life motto for me. Let it fly: Don’t get really caught up on one game or one situation or anything, just have fun and play the game and do your best.”
That’s how Dietrich remembers his grandfather — as the man whose life and wisdom, never far even now, helped him to realize that baseball could be more than just a dream. So you can understand, then, why he might not want to talk about the Pirates broadcaster who invoked Demeter and imagined him rolling over in his grave with disappointment at how Dietrich plays the game.
“I’m not going to talk about it, out of respect for my grandfather,” Dietrich says. “I don’t think it even needs to be addressed because I don’t think that man knew my grandfather. I knew my grandfather, and that’s all that matters to me. And I know he’s proud of me and loves me, so out of respect for him, I won’t go any further than that.”
John Wehner took issue with the way Dietrich paused at the plate to admire his handiwork on a recent home run. It’s the ascendant slugger’s signature move when he smashes a no-doubter, and it’s something he’s had increased occasion to do this year. Through mid-June, Dietrich already has a career-high 17 home runs, putting him among the league leaders.
It all started on opening day when he hit a go-ahead, three-run home run in his first at-bat with the Cincinnati Reds.
“Derek Dietrich, welcome to Cincinnati!” bellowed Thom Brennaman on the broadcast. As he crossed home plate, heavy gold chains bouncing with each stride, Dietrich doffed his cap to the crowd and waved his arms like an orchestral conductor encouraging them to get louder. The fans obliged, and a minute later he re-emerged from the dugout for a curtain call.
“Instead of like most guys where it’s all about me, he stands up in front of the crowd and he holds up the part of his jersey with the ‘C: Reds,’” Brennaman says about that moment. “Which, I’ve never seen that before in my life.”
“It’s almost like, destined,” Dietrich says.
Expect to see more of ‘the Derek Dietrich of 2019’
Dietrich’s play has attracted attention outside of Cincinnati for its substance, but even more so for its style and his clear sense of humor, as demonstrated by the costumes he’s donned throughout the season. Even if he didn’t rake, he’d have made headlines for his faux mustache, beekeeper suit, and crafty-if-ineffective tool belt.
In contrast to players who predicate their success on an aggressive intensity, Dietrich seems as comfortable in a throwback uniform as he does in a self-aggrandizing tank top. With greaser hair that manages to make a slight mullet seem cool, chunky eye black, and chunkier jewelry — not to mention the confidence to pull it all off — Dietrich exudes swag, but not in a way that is self-serious or even especially righteous.
At no point in our conversation, for example, did he say the phrase “let the kids play.” This was Derek Dietrich before pimping home runs became a litmus test for baseball’s generational clashes and shorthand for the league’s reckoning with popularity woes. And according to the man himself, “The Derek Dietrich of 2019 is what you’re going to see from here on out.”
Because of his ability to punctuate the deafening roar of a new high in home runs around the game with zeitgeisty flair, the platoon second basemen for a sub-.500 team in a small media market has been the subject of several national profiles even predating this one. The additional scrutiny that necessarily comes along with all of that doesn’t bother Dietrich, however.
“Actually I welcome it because I think this is part of it,” he says. “People want to know, fans want to be able to have that interaction with players. The game of baseball is obviously a game but it’s also a product; it’s entertainment for a lot of people.”
But if he’s so media friendly and marketable, why haven’t you heard of Dietrich before now?
It’s not because he’s a rookie or even especially new to the league. Although he still has two years of team control left and will only make $2 million this year, Dietrich, who turns 30 next month, toiled away in baseball’s version of total obscurity as a utilityman on the Marlins for parts of six seasons. Then, the man who has already been cast as this year’s All-Star snub was DFA’d by one of the worst teams in baseball last November before signing a minor league deal with the Reds.
He never posted numbers in Miami like he has through three months in Cincinnati, but still, does Dietrich feel like he went under-appreciated by his former club?
By the front office or the fans?
“What fans,” he deadpans.
“Dietrich has always been a phenomenal hitter,” says J.T. Realmuto. The two of them played together in Miami and have kept in touch since Dietrich signed with Cincinnati and Realmuto was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Now, Realmuto speculates the change of scenery jumpstarted Dietrich’s offensive production.
“It’s a lot different, just having fans that are so passionate about the game show up every night. It just gives you something to play for,” Realmuto says. “It’s tough to play when there’s 3,000 people in the stands. It’s kind of a graveyard. You can hear the other team talking in their dugout. That’s not fun for anybody.”
Why Cincinnati has allowed Dietrich to be fun
Fun: That’s what has made all the difference this year in Cincinnati. Sure, Dietrich adjusted his batting stance ever so slightly, closed it off a little, but he insists the biggest change is just that the city and the team has embraced his swaggy, silly, fun-loving self.
It sounds like a cop-out or a blow off; it sounds like a cliché spoken by someone who just doesn’t want to answer the question. But if that’s the case, Dietrich has schooled his accomplices well on sticking to the story.
“He probably feels like he’s back in his home state and he can show off for the people that are watching him in Northern Ohio,” says Reds broadcaster Chris Welsh.
“I think he’s comfortable here,” says manager David Bell, who has made a concerted effort to foster an environment of inclusion and individual expression. “He loves Cincinnati, he loves playing in our ballpark in front of our fans. He loves the group of players that are in here. I think those things can go a long way maybe for some players more than others and I think he’s responded to that. I think that’s a big part of it.”
“For me, it’s really important that guys can be exactly who they are,” he adds. “It makes it more interesting. To me, that is chemistry, if people from all these different backgrounds can find a way to get along. That’s when it’s fun.”
And there’s that word again.
“I’ve always had that personality, but we have good guys that want to have fun and appreciate that,” Dietrich says. “Other guys are just very outgoing in this clubhouse. Obviously Yasiel Puig is one of the best teammates you can have, loves to have fun, plays the game hard.”
That last sentiment manages to sneak a searing rebuttal to the way much of the league feels about players like Puig and Dietrich inside a pleasant platitude.
“The atmosphere here really makes it easy to be yourself,” Dietrich added.
The explanation is at once mawkishly basic and infuriatingly imprecise. Imagine if, in the face of an increasingly quantified and projectionable game, a player proved that there was still immense power in clubhouse culture, that he could outperform every one of his historic metrics just by having more fun. That would upend the entire evaluation system that underwrites the baseball industry. It’s also why we bother talking to these guys at all.
Fortunately, or not, the Reds haven’t been quite successful enough this season to seriously challenge the use of previous ability to predict future performance. But there’s something to be said for feeling comfortable in your work environment and what that does to your ability to reach your full potential. Outside the context of baseball, it’s so relatable as to be intuitive.
‘The best is still yet to come’
So now the question becomes: What exactly is Derek Dietrich’s full potential?
“I can’t imagine he doesn’t belong in the All-Star Game,” Bell says.
To get there as a starter, however, Dietrich would need a write-in campaign (he can still be selected as an alternate). All-Star candidates are due early in the season, and the Reds front office nominated José Peraza at second base over their newly acquired bench player. Now, Dietrich has played his way into an everyday role against right-handed pitchers on the Reds, the headlines across the baseball country, and the conversation of who deserves to be in the Midsummer Classic.
More than just his first All-Star bid, earning a spot this year would be a homecoming for Dietrich, who grew up in Cleveland. Even though he’s not on the ballot, he’s thought about who he would want to be there. His friends have started asking about tickets. It’s a little cocky, but that’s Dietrich.
“I always knew that I was going to play major league baseball and have a nice long career. And also, I always had faith that I would have an opportunity to really show what I can do,” he says. “I think that it’s here in Cincinnati. And I think the best is still yet to come.”
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