CHICAGO — About 20 years ago, when Curtis Granderson was coming out of high school, his plan was to play basketball. He was a pretty decent baseball player, too. But college hoops was the ultimate goal. He’d played in a league with some NCAA Div. 1 players the previous summer, and felt like he’d held his own. He accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Illinois at Chicago specifically because they said they’d let him play both sports.
But that’s also where his hoop dreams reached an unfortunate end. One day, during his first fall at UIC, Granderson had a baseball practice at 5 p.m. and his first basketball practice of the season two hours later. But he never made it. On the diamond that day, UIC was working on pick plays at second base. Granderson was the baserunner, and had to dive back into the bag. But when he did, the shortstop taking the feed from the pitcher got twisted up and fell on Granderson’s hand, breaking his thumb.
That kaiboshed the basketball season, and forced Granderson to focus instead on baseball. He led UIC as a freshman in both homers and walks, and did it again during his sophomore season, batting over .300. A year later, he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers. And today, 15 major-league seasons later, it’s safe to say Granderson’s basketball career was best left behind.
“My goal was never to be a major-league baseball player,” he says. “But I guess it’s worked out.”
This weekend, back in Illinois with the Toronto Blue Jays for a three-game series with the Chicago White Sox, one of Granderson’s first stops was the UIC campus, where he hosted a youth fitness event for about 300 children through his endorsement deal with New Balance. Granderson’s hosted these events all over the continent for the last five years, staging one in Toronto earlier this month and Washington during the all-star game.
But only at UIC can Granderson host the event at a stadium bearing his name. Several years ago, Granderson personally donated $5 million back to his alma mater, helping the school construct a new 1,800-seat ballpark as part of a larger project that included new training facilities and a complete indoor infield with synthetic turf. UIC figured it was only fitting to name its new yard Curtis Granderson Stadium.
“Doing that was important to me. UIC gave me the opportunity to do this,” Gradnerson says, pointing his bat at Guaranteed Rate Field where he went 3-for-8 with a home run and a walk over three games this weekend. “They gave me an ability to get a college degree, play the game, improve, and then get drafted. So, there’s a lot that I owe to the university. They’ve put me in the situation I’m in now.”
Granderson graduated UIC with a double major in business administration and business marketing, putting that expertise to use off the field, where his Grand Kids Foundation has impacted more than a million children across the continent over the last decade. Meanwhile, he’s put together a 15-season MLB career that this year brought him to the Blue Jays.
That season hasn’t gone how anyone planned. And due to that, Granderson’s time with Toronto is likely coming to an end.
A veteran left-handed hitter with a proven track record of production, strong reputation across the game, and willingness to fill a platoon role, Granderson is exactly the type of player coveted by contenders at the deadline looking to bolster their lineups ahead of the stretch drive. And with an expiring contract, he’s exactly the type of player non-contenders like the Blue Jays look to move for future assets at this time of year.
Granderson’s name has come up frequently in trade rumours over the last week, and although he doesn’t seek those rumours out, he’s heard them all. The Yankees, the Phillies, Cleveland — whenever new speculation about him comes up, Granderson inevitably receives a text from a friend or family member asking if they need to go out and buy a new jersey.
It’s a tough spot for a human being to be in, not knowing where they might live in a week’s time. But if anyone’s realistic and reasonable about the realities of professional baseball, it’s Granderson.
“You just understand that anything can happen at any time,” he says. “But I’ve been rumoured before and stuff never happened. There’s not much you can really do until something actually happens.”
Last season, something did happen, as Granderson was involved in an August trade, with the New York Mets sending him to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a player to be named later, which eventually became right-handed reliever Jacob Rhame. Granderson didn’t expect to be moved at the time, and he says he doesn’t expect to be moved now.
He of course understands the reality of his situation. But, having been traded twice before and currently playing for the fifth MLB franchise of his career, Granderson has no illusions about the business side of the game. And he doesn’t think worrying about a potential move is particularly productive.
“I’m not going to go ahead and put more stress on myself than I need to,” he says. “I think that people forget that this stuff is happening all the time. Guys get called up, guys get sent down, guys get hurt, guys come back and get active. So, you’re exposed to that stuff a lot. It’s not necessarily always a trade, but players are coming and going all the time.
“So, there’s no reason to worry about it. You understand you might be switching uniforms. But, at some point in your career, you’ve probably already done it. And guys on your team have been doing it all season.”
What Granderson does know is this winter he’ll be back at UIC, like he always is. He lives just two blocks from campus, and works out five times a week at the facilities he helped fund, along with a tight crew of other big-leaguers, including Jason Kipnis, Luke Gregerson, and Jason Hammel.
They lift Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, they swim in the pool, they throw and take batting practice. And, if the Midwest weather permits, they’ll get some work in outdoors before the Chicago skyline at Curtis Granderson Stadium.
“I still can’t really call it that,” Granderson says, shaking his head. “I call it CG Stadium when I have to. Calling it by my name just feels too weird.”