IT'S ALMOST one in the morning, and the stragglers in this cavernous, dimly lit restaurant in downtown Detroit are calling it a night. With bags under his eyes, Curtis Granderson sits in a back room finishing off his filet mignon at the end of a very long day, after a very long week. Earlier in the evening his Detroit Tigers had fumbled through an unsightly 16--10 home loss to the Oakland A's for their sixth loss in eight days. The 26-year-old centerfielder is describing the season's grueling final stretch—"When August rolls around, the sun beats down on you and it seems like it's 90 degrees everywhere you go," he says—when two giggly blondes suddenly appear at his side. "Curtis, can we get a photo?" one asks. Motown's unlikely new hero obliges with a sheepish smile and a nod and stands up to pose with the women. "The attention is nice," Granderson says after they've gone, "but mostly it's kind of strange to me, so I'm like, Why me?"
He also wonders why after every ball game, even when he's contributed nothing more than a small pile of sunflower seed shells on the dugout floor, video cameras and reporters converge at his locker. Why, when there's a future Hall of Famer (Pudge Rodriguez), an MVP frontrunner (Magglio Ordo√±ez) and a Cy Young candidate (Justin Verlander) on the same roster, he wins (in a landslide!) the title of fan favorite in a Detroit Free Press online poll. Why he—out of all the players on the planet—was handpicked by major league baseball to go to Europe during the off-season as an ambassador for the game.
It's because Granderson is too good to be true: He's enjoying a history-making season—with 22 homers, 22 triples, 36 doubles and 23 steals at week's end, he's just the third 20-20-20-20 player in baseball and the first since Willie Mays in 1957—and doing so with a mix of humility and ebullience that makes him, in the words of Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya, "so damn likable." Says Zumaya, "Everyone relates to him. Just look at him."
An unimposing 6'1", 185 pounds, Granderson buys his clothes at Wal-Mart. ("Check this out: 40 bucks!" he boasts to teammates while showing off his $25 shoes with Velcro straps and his $15 polo shirt.) Polite and mild-mannered ("I've never seen him lose his temper," says Joe Lacy, a childhood friend from Illinois), Granderson speaks in the soothing voice of an overnight NPR disc jockey and has the telegenic High School Musical looks that attract young women and their moms. Earlier this year he saw a woman holding a sign, CURTIS, WILL YOU MARRY MY DAUGHTER? Next to her was a younger woman with another sign: I'M THE DAUGHTER. Granderson's stock reply to the many marriage proposals he receives: "Where's the honeymoon?"
"He doesn't make a conscious effort to make people like him, but everyone does," says Detroit first base coach Andy Van Slyke. "I can guarantee you that if I had a daughter, there'd be an arranged marriage."
Granderson, though, is more than an all-around good guy who has 13,394 friends on his MySpace page and never turns down an invite to speak to kids at Detroit-area schools. (He hit seven elementary schools in one week alone in June.) "The way he handles himself on and off the field—he reminds me of Barry Larkin," says Tigers first baseman Sean Casey, an 11-year vet and former teammate of Larkin's. "He connects with everyone in the clubhouse. And he's putting up some sick numbers—right now I'd say he's the most underrated player in the game. By far."
With his delicious combination of gap-to-gap power and speed, the lefthanded-hitting Granderson was tied for the American League lead with 80 extra-base hits, was third in total bases (319), second in runs scored (115) and fifth in slugging (.556) through Sunday. And he's become the undisputed king of baseball's most exhilarating play: his 22 triples are the most since 1949. Granderson's total surpassed that of five teams at week's end.
Granderson racks up the triples not because he possesses track-star speed. ("He's pretty fast, but he's not even the fastest guy in this room," says Casey, looking around the Tigers' clubhouse.) Nor because he plays half his games in Detroit's Comerica Park, which features the most spacious outfield dimensions in the AL. (Thirteen of Granderson's triples have come away from Comerica.) "Triples are all about running hard right out of the box, and Curtis is going hard right from the get-go," explains Van Slyke. "We're in an age of narcissistic players who stand around admiring their hits, but two steps out of the box, he's already in full stride. All out."
Granderson is no different in the outfield, which he roams like a free safety. A July catch at Comerica Park became one of those Have you seen this? video clips that get e-mailed around. In the fourth inning of a game against the Red Sox, then Boston outfielder Wily Mo Pe√±a launched a fastball to left centerfield, the deepest part of Comer-ica. As soon as the righthanded-hitting Pe√±a made contact, Granderson began a hard sprint toward the fence. When he got there, he vaulted into the air without breaking stride, reached over the top of the fence as he smacked into the wall like a bug on a windshield, and snow-coned the ball, which he held on to even as he landed hard. As Granderson loped back to the dugout after the third out, he passed Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo, who said, "Great catch, but if I were [Pe√±a], I would have run out there to fight you."
IF THERE'S one knock on Granderson, his coaches say, it's this: "He thinks too much," says Van Slyke, a former Gold Glove centerfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates who has become a mentor to Granderson. "His intelligence gets in the way, and too often it cripples him." Van Slyke says that's a big reason why Granderson strikes out so often (his 136 Ks were sixth-most in the league) and struggles so mightily against lefthanded pitchers (against whom he was hitting .157). Granderson, who has the words DON'T THINK HAVE FUN scrawled under the bill of his cap, agrees. "When I'm being analytical at the plate, that's when I start getting into trouble," he says. "I've always been that way, breaking everything down. Now I need to trust my instincts, relax and just go with them."
Overthinking is a tough habit to break, though, when you come from a family of educators: Curtis's mother, Mary, is a high school chemistry teacher in Chicago who went to school at night to get her masters in chemistry; his father, Curtis, is a recently retired elementary school physical education teacher; and his sister, Monica, is an English professor at Jackson State.
When Curtis was growing up, his parents would tape his grades to the refrigerator and not permit him on a baseball field unless he maintained a B average. He later graduated as an honor student and all-conference outfielder from Thornton Fractional South High in Lansing, Ill. He chose to attend the University of Illinois--Chicago because, along with a baseball scholarship, the school offered him a spot on its basketball team, though he wasn't a standout in the sport.
Initially he wasn't all that promising on the diamond, either. "I'd be lying to you if I said I thought he was going to be a major league player," says Mike Dee, Granderson's coach at Illinois-Chicago. "But from Day One I knew he was going to exhaust all possibilities to succeed. He was an incredibly hard worker. And every year he just kept getting better and better."
Granderson dropped basketball after a season, but he didn't start attracting serious attention from major league teams until his junior year when he led the Flames with a .483 batting average that was second in the NCAA only to Southern's Rickie Weeks, now the second baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers. After that year, Granderson was chosen by the Tigers in the third round of the 2002 draft and given a $469,000 signing bonus. Still, he was determined to earn his dual degrees in business management and marketing on time. One of his professors, Dave Kohler, told Granderson he could turn in a written assignment to graduate instead of giving an oral presentation like the rest of his class. But over Christmas break that year, "He came in and did a 30-minute presentation in front of me—[one] that's usually split up among students in a group," says Kohler. "And it was terrific. That's Curtis: He sets out to do something, and he does it. And yeah, he graduated on time."
Granderson is now in his second full big league season, fast becoming Detroit's most beloved outfielder since Kirk Gibson. He's making $410,000 a year but still lives as if he's on a minor league salary. His biggest purchase since signing his first contract? "A $100 leather jacket," he says. "A total splurge." He lives in a modest one-bedroom rental in the Royal Oaks neighborhood of Detroit, and during the off-season he stays at his parents' home in Lynwood, Ill. When he and Zumaya were roommates in their rookie seasons in 2006, they bought their apartment furnishings from Wal-Mart and taped the receipts to each item so they could return everything before the 90-day window for a full refund expired.
AT WEEK'S end the Tigers were 2 1/2 games out in the wild-card chase and 4 1/2 behind the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, and Granderson is still hoping for another shot at the postseason. Last October, in the Tigers' first World Series appearance in 22 years, he slipped chasing a routine fly ball that cost Detroit Game 4. "That whole week honestly was a big blur," he says. "After every game my phone would be flooded with voice mails and text messages."
The attention has not diminished much since. Sitting in his apartment before a late-August game, he received an e-mail from a fan who'd sent an mp3 of a song—Curtis Granderson: Some Kind of Smooth—he'd written about his favorite Tiger ("Well here he comes to save the day/Super Grand is like a '57 Chevrolet"), and another from a fan who'd just given her first son the middle name Granderson.
Granderson savors his connection with the fans—he blogs about his life three times a week, and gives out his e-mail address—but he also admits that the interest in his career is starting to get overwhelming. "I think it's a good thing that outside of Detroit I'm not that big," he says. That's about to change, and when it does, maybe he'll finally start to understand what all the fuss is about.
"He's putting up some sick numbers," says Casey. "Right now I'd say he's the MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER in the game. By far."
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Photograph by Al Tielemans
FLASH AND BASH With his unique blend of speed and power, Granderson is having the kind of season that has not been seen since the days of Willie Mays.
NEW HEIGHTS Granderson's acrobatic grab in July, robbing Boston of a home run, was the must-see clip of the summer.