This was originally published in The Athletic.
When you drove up and down the local interstates this winter, you didn’t see billboards with Derek Dietrich’s face on them. You missed his whirlwind tour through town when he stopped by to visit the mayor, did some interviews and visited with the kids in Roselawn because it didn’t happen. Dietrich’s face isn’t on the cover of the Reds yearbook, or the media guide. There are no Derek Dietrich bobblehead giveaways planned (yet), and if there was Double-D merch to be bought in the team shop on Opening Day, it must’ve been tucked behind all the Yasiel Puig gear.
Dietrich signed a minor league deal with the Reds this offseason, in a move that came with about as much fanfare as me telling my Twitter followers what I had for breakfast. The only reason I remember what I was doing and who I was with when I found out that the former Marlin would be competing for a roster spot in Goodyear is because the guy I was riding in a car with turned to me and asked, “who the f**k” Derek Dietrich was.
He knows now.
Derek Dietrich is the guy who’s among major league leaders in home runs slightly more than a third of the way through the season despite not starting in roughly 40 percent of his team’s games. He’s the guy who punctuated the season opener with a three-run homer that not only helped beat the Pirates, but sent people to their phones trying to figure out who the guy with the thick gold chain is. He’s the man who’s owned Pittsburgh pitching this season with seven home runs, including the three he blasted on Tuesday night. He’s the player who’s provided not only pop during a season that’s been defined by the Reds’ offense being mostly (but not recently) punchless,but some needed levity and character to the proceedings. That’s not an insignificant thing for a beaten down and weathered fan base. He’s the guy who right now might be your favorite Red.
Or, maybe he isn’t. That kind of thing is up to you, and completely anecdotal, but if I did some sort of unscientific poll about who the most popular current Red is, Dietrich would be in the running. He would surely among the top vote-getters, perhaps benefitting at least a little from what, to this point, has been a down year from Joey Votto as well as a lackluster offensive performance so far from Puig. And Dietrich certainly would cash in on the recency bias that comes with being a player who’s just clubbed three taters in one game.
But it’s not just the long balls. Dietrich is a chameleon of a baseball player, capable of changing into a different character depending on the mood.He can play the beloved red-ass, playing baseball with great ferocity while coming up big in game-deciding moments, he can fill the role of a showman who drips with the arrogance of a greasy wrestling heel when he stops to take in one of his majestic homers, and he can play a funnyman who breaks the mood with a painted-on mustache or an impromptu beekeeper get-up.
Dietrich in two months has gone from “who the f**k is that?” to the face and personality of a team that’s entertaining, even if it hasn’t won as often as we’d like. There have been media appearances, including one this week – with the NBA Finals about to start, no less – on Jim Rome’s nationally syndicated radio show(if Derek would like to appeal to a more local audience, I know a guy) to talk both dingers and his admiration of them, and another a few weeks ago on MLB Network’s Intentional Talk. There’s been a USA Today profile, and of course,which someone in the Reds marketing department should turn into a kitschy giveaway item. And given both his mastery of the Pirates and his willingness to taunt them, he’s become fodder for cranky old Pittsburgh ballplayers to say really dumb things on TV and radio. Oh, and of course,there are T-shirts.
All this for a guy who couldn’t get a big-league deal after being cut loose by the Marlins and was supposed to be a bit player on a team expected by most to finish dead last in its division.
That brings me to two points.
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