NEW YORK — Most players arrive in a new city and spend their free time looking for a comfortable place to live, enrolling the kids in school, scoping out the restaurant scene and figuring out the pregame parking situation. There’s an additional wrinkle to the getting-acquainted process in the Bronx, where incoming New York Yankees outdo themselves to find novel ways to make a grand entrance.
One of baseball’s most enduring interactive traditions takes place at Yankee Stadium, where fans in the bleachers await the signal from “Bald Vinny” Milano and conduct the team “roll call” in the first inning of every home game. Curtis Granderson was oblivious to the routine as a visiting player, but once his new teammates informed him of it, he wanted to do something to acknowledge the “Curtis!” chants beyond simply raising his glove and waving.
Brett Gardner breaks into a Mr. Universe pose in left field, and Nick Swisher snaps off a military-style salute in right. So how would Granderson announce his presence with authority in center?
You don’t see something like this anywhere else,” Granderson said. “Everybody asked me, ‘What are you going to do?’ So I had to ask the other guys on the team what they do. I finally came up with that thing Redd Foxx used to do on ‘Sanford and Son’ when he had the heart attack.”
This is how Granderson first endeared himself to the Yankees’ faithful — with the Fred Sanford, “Elizabeth, I’m coming to join you!” faux coronary.
It’s fitting that Granderson’s signature move — other than driving fastballs into the seats — is rooted in blue-collar sensibilities and situation comedy checkpoints. Growing up in Chicago, Granderson was a big fan of the sitcom “Saved by the Bell,” and nothing wrecked his day more than rushing home from school with no homework, flipping on the TV and seeing Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace rather than Screech and the Bayside High School gang. The disappointment was enough to turn him into an Atlanta Braves fan.
At age 30, Granderson doesn’t look that far removed from the high school corridors himself. At the start of the Yankees’ recent homestand, he strolled into the clubhouse dressed in an “Average Joe’s Gymnasium” T-shirt, a pair of gray nylon sweats and sneakers. It conjured images of the kid who played hoops at Thornton Fractional South High in Lansing, Ill., and aspired to nothing more than a spot on the University of Illinois-Chicago basketball team’s bench.
Times sure have changed. In this, his eighth major league season and second year in New York, Granderson is enjoying a coming-out party as a burgeoning leader and stat-compiler. A slow start in September and a raging debate over his substandard defensive metrics are threatening to put a crimp in his MVP candidacy, but he’s right in the middle of the debate alongside Toronto’s Jose Bautista, Detroit’s Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, teammate Robinson Cano and Boston’s Gang of Three — Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia.
Judging from the traditional barometer of batting average, Granderson has some work to do. Marty Marion of the 1944 St. Louis Cardinals had the lowest average for a National League MVP winner at .267, and the Yankees’ Roger Maris hit .269 while winning the AL MVP and breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1961.
Granderson entered Thursday’s matinee game with Baltimore hitting .271, but it hasn’t affected his popularity. He received 6.6 million All-Star votes this season and pocketed the AL Player of the Month award for August. He’s winning rave reviews from his teammates for his role in carrying the Yankees when Alex Rodriguez was injured, Derek Jeter was in an offensive funk and Cano was still getting warmed up.
“Every night, when the lights turn on, you know he’s going to give you everything he’s got,” Gardner said. “That’s a pretty good compliment. He’s not like me — slapping the ball to the left side and trying to run. He swings hard and doesn’t get cheated. And he squares a lot of balls up.
“He’s been right in the middle of everything for us. With the season he’s had, needless to say, we wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are in the division without him.”
How do the Yankees count the ways that Granderson has made an impact?
• His 52 home runs since Aug. 14, 2010, are the second most in baseball to Bautista’s 58, and it’s not simply a case of dumping cheapies into the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium. Of Granderson’s 62 homers as a Yankee since his arrival from Detroit by trade, 28 have come on the road.
Most runs scored in a single season since 2000:
• Granderson is a virtual lock to finish this season with 130 runs scored, 100 RBIs, 40 homers and 25 stolen bases. The only other players in history to achieve that are Ellis Burks of the 1996 Colorado Rockies, Larry Walker of the ’97 Rockies and Jeff Bagwell of the 1999 Houston Astros. Factor Granderson’s 10 triples into the equation, and he’s in a fraternity of one.
• He has a chance to join Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Jim Rice as the fourth player in the live-ball era to lead the league in home runs and triples.
• Once derided as a soft touch against left-handed pitching, Granderson is hitting .279 with a .970 OPS against lefties this season. He’s gone deep against Boston’s Jon Lester and homered twice off Tampa Bay’s David Price.
If playing center field, making diving catches and batting second or third for the Yankees weren’t demanding enough, Granderson has assumed the mantle of responsibility among his peers as a prominent voice in the Players Association. He serves as New York’s player representative and doubles as one of the union’s two league-wide association reps with Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell.
Granderson first became involved in the Players Association in 2006 in Detroit. As the son of two former public school teachers, he has a natural inquisitiveness and an analytical bent. He relishes the opportunity to have a say in big-picture baseball issues, whether it’s fan and player safety, MLB’s promotional efforts or scheduling and competitive balance questions. Granderson has played a significant role in negotiations toward a new labor agreement and conducted a clinic in the art of time management.
“He’s intelligent, he’s dedicated, and he’s very open-minded,” said Michael Weiner, the players union’s executive director. “A lot of people are very smart and think very hard about issues, and then they reach an answer to a question and that’s it. But not Curtis. He’s able to deal with opposing views, and that’s so important in a union context.”
The hazards of Granderson’s role were recently in evidence during a Yankees-Orioles spat over rain-related makeup dates. The two sides disagreed on everything, and the dispute eventually grew so messy you half-expected CNN to airlift Anderson Cooper into Baltimore to cover the proceedings. Granderson wound up releasing a statement saying the Yankees were “perplexed” over the Orioles’ stance, and manager Buck Showalter and other Orioles officials countered by bashing the Yankees for their approach to the problem.
“What is he, a lawyer?” Jim Palmer said after broadcast partner Gary Thorne read Granderson’s statement on the air.
In hindsight, Granderson said he tried to take each side’s viewpoint into account under difficult circumstances and “maximize all scenarios.” When the Yankees and Orioles hit a wall, he decided to speak up on his teammates’ behalf.
“When things don’t necessarily go the way the 25 guys here think they should go, it’s my job to step up and represent us and talk about it,” Granderson said. “This isn’t life or death. We’re not going strike over it or not show up for the games, but if we feel strongly about something, why can’t we have a stance without getting flak for it?”
As a rule, Granderson’s professional, civil demeanor wins him admirers across the board, both on and off the field. Curt Schilling, not exactly the world’s biggest Yankees fan, recently hailed him as a “tremendous, humble, awesome” kid during an ESPN broadcast. After Granderson traveled abroad to China, South Africa and other far-flung locales on an MLB International goodwill mission several years ago, commissioner Bud Selig wrote him a personal letter of thanks.
The picture ultimately emerges of an athlete with a purpose and a mission beyond stolen bases and home run trots. Granderson has written a children’s book, “All You Can Be: Dream It, Draw It, Become It!” and established a foundation with an emphasis on helping urban school children. He’s been in demand as a broadcast entity since doing work for TBS during the 2007 and 2008 playoffs, and even the morning culinary crowd loves him. Die-hard Yankees fan Martha Stewart once helped adjust the Velcro on Granderson’s batting glove from the box seats, and he reciprocated by appearing on her TV show last offseason and helping her make cornbread and macaroni and cheese.
When Sports Illustrated surveyed more than 300 big leaguers in 2010 and asked them to name the game’s “friendliest players,” Granderson appeared in the upper echelon alongside Jim Thome, Johnny Damon, Joe Mauer and a handful of others.
“He’s a good dude,” said Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia. “We knew that from day one of spring training last year. He’s one of the better guys in baseball, really.”
Weiner thinks Granderson has the skills and dedication to “accomplish pretty much whatever he wants to accomplish” in life, but at the moment it’s all about prioritizing. Granderson steers clear of the New York social scene and is generally content to wake up, putter around on the computer and order takeout food until it’s time to head to the park. His profile will undoubtedly rise, and the demands on his time will increase if he wins an MVP award and the Yankees capture another World Series. But he won’t change a lick.
“I still feel like I fly under the radar a lot.” Granderson said. “In the past, I’ve been at a Walmart or a Target buying potato chips or whatever, and people will stop and look at me like, ‘Wow, you’re here buying that? You don’t have someone who does this for you?’ And I’m like, ‘Of course I’m here. Why wouldn’t I be?'”
Once the initial shock of the encounter subsides, Yankees fans have a way of reminding Granderson what truly matters most.
“People say, ‘Nice meeting you. Are you guys going to beat Boston?'” Granderson said, laughing. “We could be in first place by five games, and they’ll say, ‘Are you going to beat Boston?’ That’s the one thing you always get.”
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, “License to Deal,” published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.
+ Add your comment