Tigers' Granderson has arrived

Tigers' Granderson has arrived

By the time Curtis Granderson woke up for the Tigers' first game in Chicago last week, his arrival was a lead story in the local newspapers,m his cell phone voicemail was filled up and his bank account was about take a hit because practically everyone he knew wanted tickets.

The Chicago Tribune had a story profiling him that bemoaned the fact that both the White Sox and Cubs had passed on the homegrown star after he was second in the nation in hitting in 2002 at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Granderson was jarred awake several times by the persistent ringing of his phone that morning, as the Tigers prepared to take on the White Sox for a three-game series that pitted the top two teams in the American League Central against each other.

That the Tigers were in first place meant the White Sox series was about more than personal glory for him, unlike his previous trips home. It also meant more friends and family members were making ticket requests.

Welcome home, Curtis. You have arrived. Not just as a hometown hero, but as a key player on one of the Major Leagues' top teams.

"It's a lot different looking at it from the last two years coming in, both times at the end of the season, where it didn't really mean too much for us, more for them," Granderson said. "Now it means a good amount for both teams."

The Tigers lost two of those three games against Chicago, and Granderson's exploits were limited to a solo home run in a 4-3 loss. But the Tigers still led by 1 1/2 games in the Central after the series, a margin Granderson has helped keep steady for the past week.

On Monday, he had a game-winning single in the 13th inning as Detroit came back to beat Tampa Bay, 4-3. Granderson went 4-for-6 in the game, also driving in a run in the team's two-run ninth.

The fast-tracking center fielder -- who made his first Opening Day roster after hitting .272 with eight homers in 47 games last year -- is putting up strong numbers and providing excellent defense through his first two-plus months. And if it wasn't for breakout seasons by fellow leadoff hitters Alex Rios of Toronto and Gary Matthews Jr. of Texas, he might be heading to Pittsburgh next month as an All-Star.

More importantly, he's one of the reasons why the Tigers are competing for a division title for the first time since 1993, when they finished tied for third in the old AL East at 85-77. The team hasn't had a winning season since.

Granderson has shown that he's a better than average leadoff hitter, compiling a .285 batting average, nine home runs and 31 RBIs. His 38 runs and 39 walks lead the team, as does his .385 on-base percentage. His play in center has been outstanding as well.

"This kid's a jewel," Tigers manager Jim Leyland told reporters after Granderson's extra-inning single Monday.

Granderson could eventually develop into a middle-of-the-order threat, too. He's better with runners in scoring position (.372, 16-for-43) than with the bases empty (.260, 40-for-154), and he's hitting just .230 when he leads off an inning. He has the second-most doubles on the team (14) and is third in hits behind two former All-Stars in Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez. He's not perfect, however. Granderson's 71 strikeouts also lead the team by a good margin, so there's plenty of room for improvement.

Born in the Blue Island suburb of Chicago, Granderson prepped at Thornton Fractional South, before heading to University of Illinois-Chicago, just north of U.S. Cellular Field. He hit .483 during his junior year, rocketing up the draft charts. He was drafted by the Tigers in the third round in June 2002.

Now 25, Granderson has gone from project to potential star. And he is as well-liked off the field as he is on the field.

"Well, I'll say this, if I had a daughter, I'd let him marry my daughter, that's how much I think of him as a person," said first base coach and outfield instructor Andy Van Slyke. "He's one of the reasons why I love coming to the ballpark.

"He's a terrific guy, he's got a good work ethic and he wants to get better. He's going to get better. He has a desire to play the game right. Those are all the things you look for in a player."

Granderson feels likewise about his coaches, who came in this season with Leyland. Van Slyke, an All-Star outfielder under Leyland in Pittsburgh, and new hitting coach Don Slaught, another former Pirate, have been instrumental in teaching and cajoling the up-and-coming team.

"Andy Van Slyke has definitely helped me out in the outfield from the amount of work he forces me to do, in a good way," Granderson said. "The only way you're going to get better is keep working with the mentality he has. And then Don Slaught, hitting-wise, working with his staff, the combination of those two have helped a lot."

The Tigers have three more trips to Chicago, including a June 16-18 series at Wrigley Field, and Granderson already had dozens of ticket requests.

"It's going to be costly," he said. "I'm telling everybody these are their Christmas presents, so don't try to come at me in December, trying to ask for something."

Jon Greenberg, a freelance writer for MLBPLAYERS.com, is based in Chicago. MLBPLAYERS.com is the official Web site of the Major League Baseball Players Association. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.