Sunday, December 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Most Valuable Person? The title belongs to Curtis Granderson

CHICAGO — Curtis Granderson, a very professional outfielder, gives me a walking tour of his old haunts at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He points out the baseball stadium with a backdrop of the soaring downtown skyline, and two new Little League fields with artificial turf and light towers.

We're on the South Side, and not so many blocks from here, mayhem rules too many young lives. This is a handsome oasis. In the summertime, dozens of black Little Leaguers from those often chaotic neighborhoods jam the fields here from sunup to sundown.

Granderson talked with two of those Little Leaguers last year. The boys, 8 and 9, told him they had never seen Lake Michigan, the vast and shimmering water that stretches all along Chicago's eastern shore.

"We wanted to build a place where these kids could play and get a wider view of life," Granderson says. "Then we take them on university tours and get a conversation going that they might not have."

A native of a nearby suburb and a graduate of this university, Granderson goes on about what "we" have accomplished here. He favors plural personal pronouns.

Curtis, I ask, how much did you contribute, besides many hours of your time? He appears not to hear and continues to talk of these children and their lives.

Ah, Curtis? I repeat my question. He says quickly: "I did five."

By which he means he contributed $5 million.

On a balmy November day, Granderson and I walk around his South Chicago neighborhood and talk of baseball and philanthropy and family, and race. He belongs to that endangered subspecies, the African-American baseball player. Granderson is companionable, and by nature not a controversialist. But he knows himself, and this day he speaks candidly.

New York Mets fans last saw their team's 35-year-old right fielder when he was moonlighting in center during a one-game playoff against the San Francisco Giants. Brandon Belt hit a towering shot in the sixth inning that seemed certain to break a scoreless tie. Granderson turned and ran and ran and reached for the ball just before he crashed into the fence.

He fell flat on his back and raised his glove hand aloft, holding that ball. It was a grand moment in what became a gut punch of a loss.

Ask about his impact against that wall, and Granderson shrugs.

"My leg was sore for a few days," he says. "That was that."

We wisely stop short of decreeing any man or woman noble. We're all fallen, although some quite a bit less so than others. Granderson appears to belong firmly in that latter category.

With the help of the Mets and others, he has raised well over a million dollars to support youth education and sports. He gives away turkeys while riding in the back of trucks and hopes to raise a million dollars for the Food Bank for New York City. Every home run he hits translates into money.

He has won a bundle of public service prizes, including baseball's prestigious Roberto Clemente Award, and he poured every needed cent into his Grand Kids Foundation, which supported the youth program at his alma mater. The foundation has no staff member or expenses. Every dollar goes to the programs.

I should offer a throat-clearing confession: On the subject of Granderson, I own a cracked crystal ball. When he struggled two years ago, I opined that his career seemed near an end. He went on to have a fine season and to hit three home runs in the 2015 World Series.

In self-defense, I will point out that others have underestimated him. In 2004, that Bible of statistical analysis, Baseball Prospectus, described him as a "low-ceiling" minor-league prospect who might eke out a few major-league seasons.

It turns out Granderson did not think much of his chances, either. As a college All-American, he figured his pro career would be short.

"I said to myself, 'I'll probably play two to three years in the minor leagues, and I'll probably be released, and I'll go put my college degree to work,'" he says. "Then teams kept letting me come back."

At a touch over 6 feet and supple, he is no behemoth. Yet Granderson, drafted in the third round, has been a regular for 11 seasons with the Detroit Tigers, the New York Yankees and the Mets, hitting 293 homers and playing a fine centerfield before shifting to right. He has made three All-Star teams, and he is one of four players in baseball history who in a single season has hit 20 doubles, 20 triples and 20 home runs, while stealing 20 bases.

He is unassuming in extremis. In late August 2004, after a good Double-A season in Erie, Pa., Granderson followed his annual custom and tossed his glove, cleats and batting gloves into the trash can. The manager beckoned: Curtis, come here.

You've been called up to the majors.

Granderson sprinted to retrieve his glove and cleats. He drove to the Detroit Tigers' stadium.

"Okay, I found the parking lot," he recalls thinking. "Now do I just tell the attendant that I'm a baseball player? I'm sure a million fans try that."

He got his first big-league hit against a hometown team, the Chicago White Sox.

Granderson, a good student, left college when he was drafted by the Tigers after his junior year. He continued to work toward his degree, and once persuaded a minor-league manager to sit in a stadium office and proctor a final exam for him. He wears his socks pulled high to the knee, a stylistic homage to Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's race barrier, and to stars of the Negro leagues.

Granderson grew up in Lynwood, Ill., a racially mixed suburb. From T-ball to college, however, almost all of his teammates were white. "Luckily, I played with a group of white kids who treated me like everyone else," he said. "They are still some of my closest friends."

In the minor leagues, he found black teammates, many of them Latino.

"I got to the pros, and I was, 'Whoa.' This is the most black people I've ever seen. And then they started speaking Spanish."

The crowds were another matter. In many cities, fewer and fewer black fans go to the ballparks.

"We play this game, me and other black players, counting the black people in the stands who weren't working at the game," Granderson says. "'I see one! No, he's Latino.' You're panning, panning, and sometimes it would take us seven innings to count 10."

Granderson offers these observations with concern but not bitterness; he appreciates baseball and the people of all colors who appreciate it with him. He is known for stopping to give fist bumps to kids as he goes out to the on-deck circle.

As a teenager, he felt the tug of basketball, a more multihued sport, on the court and in the stands. He was a point guard, good enough to play Amateur Athletic Union ball.

"My friends are going to Orlando to play national tournaments in air-conditioned gyms, and I'm driving an hour to play baseball in rural Indiana, where it's 105 degrees and we're using wooden bats and hitting is hard, hard."

He laughs. "I wondered about myself sometimes."

As he poses for photographs with his Little Leaguers on the South Side, he listens to their conversations and feels a pang for his sport.

"Kids don't think baseball is cool," he said. "There's a lot of references to it being a white kid's sport."

On the Mets, Granderson and David Wright — the team captain and a white Virginian — are the veteran leaders in a clubhouse of whites and Latinos from four nations, and a couple of African-Americans.

"David and I are in the same type of position on the team," Granderson says. "We don't hang out, but we respect each other and always mess with and go at each other. We talk a lot of race stuff, too."

Granderson has formed friendships with teammates of all races and ethnicities. And yet, he notes, race remains a complicated calculus. If you look at the stretch circles before games, he says, you'll most often see "a perfect pie chart: all Latinos, all blacks, all whites."

While stretching, or in the locker room, Granderson tosses out what he calls the daily race question: Food, spice, music, clothes, cars — what are your favorite kinds? The talk that follows is lighthearted and yet gives players an understated way to measure difference and similarity, and perhaps to push open life's many doors.

"Sometimes we get Terry Collins in on it," Granderson says of the Mets' manager. "'Hey, T.C., what do you think about this?'"

Most times, Granderson says, Collins just laughs, and they break off and practice.

I ask about the lack of diversity among managers. Fairness in hiring is not quantum physics. Why are there so few black and Latino baseball managers?

"There's a lot of conversation about that," Granderson replies. "We all know guys who did a good job in the minors, as a manager or pitching coach, and then a manager is hired and these guys weren't even in the interview process. We wonder why not."

Granderson pulls in front of his brick town house on the South Side. He offers a final story: As a young player, he worked with a wizard of a batting coach, Leon Durham, a former major-leaguer coaching for Detroit's Triple-A franchise in Toledo, Ohio. When players got to the big club and fell into slumps, they would hop in their cars and drive back to Toledo for a morning refresher course.

"We'd go on a hot streak, and everyone knew: Leon was getting guys right," Granderson says.

That memory is a dozen years old. Durham just received his first promotion to a major-league coaching staff. He will be the Tigers' assistant hitting coach.

"Sad to say, but you look at who owns baseball," Granderson says of the vastly white ownership ranks. "You wonder."

Our conversation turns to that night's fundraiser at a hip club. All day long Granderson's cellphone has rung, with questions about food and music and DJs; he has a bar mitzvah's worth of details to attend to. It's the offseason, his downtime. Why do all this?

He mentions the example set by his parents, Mary and Curtis Sr., whom I will meet and talk with that night. Childhood sweethearts in tiny Tchula, Miss., they attended Mississippi Valley State University, married and migrated north to Chicago to work as teachers. His father was an elementary school dean who mentored scores of young men; his softball team still gives away a dozen turkeys every Thanksgiving.

His mother taught high school chemistry and raised money for the Girl Scouts, the PTA, the church. And the Grandersons raise money each year to endow scholarships so that children from Tchula — the fifth-poorest town in our nation — can attend Mississippi Valley State.

"I watched and absorbed without realizing what it was," Granderson said. "Slowly I became a part of it. 'Mom, so-and-so needs a ride.' 'Dad, so-and-so wants to eat. Can I invite him over?'"

This is philanthropic impulse as learned memory. In addition to his work through the Grand Kids Foundation and his youth academy, Granderson is a leaguewide spokesman for the White House's initiatives to get children to lose weight and drink more water. He expresses frustration with himself that he has not taken more Little Leaguers from Harlem and the South Bronx to games at Citi Field. He also wants to spend more time talking to New York's hip-hop radio stations, the better to spread the gospel of baseball.

In past years, he acknowledges, a few querulous baseball sorts asked pointedly if he risked tiring himself out with his charities. (The Mets, Granderson says, are entirely supportive, with time, money and enthusiasm.) He rolls his eyes.

"I'm single, I don't have kids yet," he says. "You want tough? Talk to my teammates who wake to care for little babies and then have to play."

Age is an insistent visitor now. I watched Granderson spend two hours swimming, lifting weights and doing crunches. Still, he will be 36 on opening day. He plays within the shadow of career's end.

He has talked to retired players like Derek Jeter and given thought to what lies around the corner. He does not want to be that guy who stumbles where once he made a shoestring catch.

"I've been so lucky," he says. "I want to step aside gracefully."

He checks the time and politely excuses himself. He's got three hours before this evening's fundraiser. He has calls to make and public service spiels to record.

We shake hands, and Granderson moves off at a youthful trot.

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