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Big Leaguer

New York Mets centerfielder. Three-time All-Star. Baseball stadium named in his honor. There isn’t much that Curtis Granderson hasn’t accomplished.

by Kevin Cook

Curtis Granderson CBA '03 was a skinny teenager from Lynwood, Ill., half an hour south of the Loop, when he made a recruiting visit to UIC. "I liked what I saw, but I wasn’t convinced," he recalls. "Then I saw the baseball coaches suit up for practice—in catchers’ gear. I thought,‘These guys are getting after it. They want to get dirty out there.'"

Granderson is known for getting after it. Today he’s a Major League standout, a three-time All-Star with more than 200 career home runs. After seven seasons with the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees, he joins the New York Mets in 2014 as their shiny new prize in the free-agent sweepstakes, a $60 million outfielder who’s expected to help third-baseman and team captain David Wright lead the doormat ball club back into contention.

None of this was inevitable 14 years ago. Or even likely. Or even plausible.

"Did I dream he’d be a star in the big leagues?" asks longtime UIC Head Coach Mike Dee. "No. Nobody did, including Curtis." Granderson agrees—sort of. "I didn’t expect it," he says with his 100-watt smile. "But dream? Well, sure. You start with the dream, then get to the hard work."

No superstar in high school, Granderson was an honorable mention All-Stater. At that point, he saw himself as a two-sport athlete. In fact, Granderson chose UIC partly because Dee promised he could play basketball as well as baseball "as long as baseball comes first and your grades don’t suffer."

But the workload wore Granderson down. In the fall of his freshman year, he trudged into Dee’s office.

"Coach, I’m quitting basketball. I can’t do justice to two sports and my grades,” Granderson told Dee.

Dee still marvels at the kid’s decision. "To make a hard choice like that took guts. But that’s CG all over," he says. "For a person his age, he showed a crazy level of maturity. He had a ways to go as a player, but he was already a great person."

Granderson batted just .271 his freshman season with the Flames. He improved to .304 as a sophomore, but his nine homers were a mild disappointment to coaches accustomed to seeing him launch tape-measure shots in practice. "CG used to hit balls that you’d swear were speeding up as they went over the fence," Dee recalls. "But he wasn’t as special in games as he could have been. So we sent him to the Northwoods League," a summer circuit for elite collegians.

Granderson "was a sponge, a real student of the game," Dee continues. "He worked his tail off, and something clicked. A light went on in his head. He comes back and hits .483 as a junior."

That’s .483 as in you’ve got to be kidding. Soaking up advice from then assistant coach Scott Stahoviak, a Waukegan, Ill., native who’d played for the Minnesota Twins, Granderson set school and conference records that still stand, taking a giant step from Horizon League hotshot to pro prospect. Suddenly, he was a blip on every Major League club’s radar. Pro scouts were jostling for position at UIC’s Les Miller Field, taking notes, quizzing Coach Dee on his star player’s work ethic ("Off the charts," Dee told them), moving the formerly unknown outfielder toward the top of their wish lists. The Tigers selected him in the 2002 draft, signing Granderson for a bonus of $469,000. Goodbye UIC, but not for long.

"I was determined to finish my studies," recalls Granderson, who zipped through Detroit’s farm system while taking online courses to pursue his double major in marketing and management.

In 2004, he became the first UIC alumnus ever to start a Major League Baseball game. In 2006, his first full season in the majors, he took a course exam by email during the American League playoffs.

Yankees All-Star

Initially seen as a good-but-not-great big leaguer, Granderson twice led the American League in triples—a sign of his speed—and added power as long hours in the weight room put muscle on his 6’1" frame.

Traded to the Yankees as the centerpiece of a blockbuster deal in 2009, he hit 24 homers for them a year later, but kept hearing grumbles from fans and reporters. "Granderson’s good, but not great," they said. "For one thing, he can’t hit left-handers." Such talk about his shortcomings riled him, mostly because he agreed. The critics had a point: In 2009, he’d batted only .183 against left-handed pitchers. The next season wasn’t much better. That’s when he called an old Flame, former UIC teammate David Haehnel '04 AHS.

"He threw lefty, threw strikes and threw hard," says Granderson, who spent much of the offseason drilling line drives as Haehnel fired pitch after pitch after pitch. "That made a real difference in my career. When the season started, I was ready."

In 2011, the man Sports Illustrated called "baseball’s friendliest player" made enemies of left-handed pitchers, slugging 16 of his team-leading 41 homers off them. That was the season Granderson led the league in runs scored as well as runs batted in, a feat that had previously been the domain of Yankees named Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle. A year later, he clouted 43 home runs, made his second straight All-Star team, and helped lead the Yankees to the playoffs while radio announcer John Sterling punctuated every Granderson homer with a joyous shout: "The Grandy Man can!"Today, the 33-year-old Grandy Man has nothing left to prove, except to himself. Can he approach 40 homers in the spacious confines of the Mets’ Citi Field? Can he and Wright revive an anemic Mets lineup?

"I like the guy. Who doesn’t?" asks New York Post sports columnist Mike Vaccaro. "But is he on the downside of his career? How much can he help a team that’ll be lucky to win as many games as it loses?"

Granderson, of course, takes a sunnier view of his predicament. Correction: his opportunity. "I can help a lot," he says. "There’s change in the air at Citi Field. We’ve got a young, energetic team. We’ve got as good a chance as anybody."

Of course, that’s what everybody says in the spring, when hope springs eternal even for Mets fans. But Granderson did more than hope during the offseason. He tossed his gear into a gym bag and drove from his home (yes, he’s a South Sider) to UIC Athletic Center. Day after day, he trained with Coach Dee’s current players, who have no idea how to address the multimillionaire in their midst. Should they call him CG, as the coach does? Or Mr. Granderson? How about Your Allstarness?
“He acts like anybody else—like a player who’s still in our program,” Dee says.
 
Granderson couldn’t care less what they call him. "Curtis is fine, or CG or 'Hey you.' We’re all on the same team." Only he’s the one with his name on the ballpark.

Granderson Stadium
At last year’s inaugural Diamond Dinner celebrating Flames baseball, Dee and UIC Athletic Director Jim Schmidt announced that the team was retiring the number 28 once worn by its most illustrious alumnus. Says Schmidt, "Curtis is one of the humblest, most unselfish individuals I have met in my 33 years in college athletics. His generosity to UIC attests to his focus on inner-city youth and education. I can’t think of a better representative for UIC Athletics than Curtis Granderson." The guest of honor promptly announced that he would donate funds to pay for a new baseball complex on campus—not only for the Flames, but for local high schools and youth groups, as well. Set to open in Spring 2015, the complex will feature four diamonds in what Granderson calls "a safe, well-lit environment." The main attraction, which opened this past April, is Curtis Granderson Stadium—a $10 million state-of-the-art facility with 1,284 fixed seats, grassy berms beyond the outfield and the Chicago skyline beyond the berms.

"That’s some hitter’s background, isn’t it?" Granderson asks. "It’s going to be a fan-friendly place with the kind of 'Wow' factor I want to bring to the UIC community."

It’s a community Granderson never really left. After a decade with pro teams ranging from minor-league clubs in Toledo and Tampa to MLB franchises in Detroit and New York City, he still lives a short walk from the UIC campus and stays in touch with more than a dozen old teammates. "I came in with a group of 15 other freshmen and transfers in 1999, and we still keep in touch," he says. Granderson leaves tickets for them at Mets games. "We text all the time," he adds. "They’ll text me all kinds of congratulations if I hit a game-winning homer, unless it’s against the Cubs or White Sox." And when the season ends, Granderson comes home.

His routine is the same every fall. After a couple postseason weeks to unwind and "rejuve" (his typically active term for rejuvenation), it’s time to get after it again. He’ll head back to UIC Athletic Center to work out with Flames players a dozen or more years his junior. Some will sweat buckets trying to keep up with the still-wiry veteran of 10 big-league seasons, a guy whose drive to thrive may be matched only by the wattage of his disposition.

"When I made my college choice, I didn’t know that much about the school or the campus," Granderson says. "At first, it made me nervous. It wasn’t the safest neighborhood. But I did a lot of growing up in the next three years—learning the city of Chicago, starting with the South Side, the place that became my home. Now it seems better every time I come back. You see UIC students walking and tossing Frisbees and riding bicycles, a transformation that keeps going. And pretty soon they’ll be going to Curtis Granderson Stadium. Sounds kinda weird, doesn’t it? But it’s not the name that matters. It’s the process. I’m proud to be part of that ongoing transformation, proud to be part of UIC."

Read more about Granderson Stadium here.

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