Sunday, June 11, 2006

Curtis Granderson: Ron LeFlore Without The Baggage

Curtis Granderson sat in front of his locker stall, slowly twirling a bat in his hands. It was quiet time – a couple of hours yet before the Tigers were to take on the Chicago White Sox in April. And he spoke in a soft, pleasant tone to the visitor standing before him. Me.

“We work on footwork a lot,” Granderson said. “We try to find the best way to get to the ball.”

As Granderson filled the interloper’s head with serious baseball talk, his teacher – the other half of “we,” happened by.

“Check out this glove,” outfielders coach Andy Van Slyke said, flapping the leather open and closed in his left hand. “You’ll never drop a ball with this beauty.”

The coach mimicked reaching for a shoestring catch, his eyes dancing and his face bright.

Granderson nodded, watching his tutor with bemusement.

“Here,” Van Slyke said, and he handed the mitt to the Tigers starting centerfielder – anointed as such after a brilliant spring training in which he so badly outplayed Nook Logan, Nook didn’t even make the team. Logan plays in Toledo now.

Granderson took the glove, fitted it onto his hand, and did the same thing every ballplayer from Little League on up does when he places a foreign mitt on his hock: The open-and-close flapping that Van Slyke had just done.

Open. Close. Open-close. Open-close-open-close.

“It’s a nice glove,” Granderson said quietly. “Nice glove. Strings are long, though.”

Van Slyke told of how, when he played for Pittsburgh, his long strings got caught in his spikes and he tumbled over his own feet going for a shoestring catch.

Then came the smile from the young centerfielder that I submit will someday be almost as famous around these parts as Isiah Thomas’ cherubic grin.

Thomas’ grin, though, hid an executioner’s heart on the basketball court: cold, lethal, without remorse.

It’s hard to imagine Curtis Granderson, at this stage of his young career, being lethal to even a housefly.

But Granderson is not only the Tigers’ centerfielder, he’s also been installed as the team’s leadoff hitter. And so, it’s his charge to make things happen. Teams don’t put slow-footed hacks at the top of the order, after all.

There are those that say manager Jim Leyland is still not sold on Curtis Granderson as a bonafide leadoff hitter. Still too many strikeouts. Not enough walks. No bunt singles to speak of.


Granderson can be the best leadoff hitter/centerfielder in Detroit since Ron LeFlore


But there’s speed. Lord, there’s speed. And some power. And, slowly but surely, there’s the innate ability developing of getting the key hit at just the right moment. Often, those hits have driven in runs.

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Curtis Granderson, it says here, is going to make this town go bonkers at the leadoff position.
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Granderson, a lefthanded hitter, is beginning to remind me of Ron LeFlore – a righthanded hitter, but another leadoff hitter/centerfielder who plied his trade in Detroit.

LeFlore, when he came to the big leagues, was an unpolished, rushed work still being sculpted. He had speed, and that was about all. He wasn’t all that great defensively, and his baseball acumen was toward the bottom of the barrel. But what else do you expect from someone who learned how to play the game from behind the brick and stone walls of Jackson State Prison?

LeFlore was busted for armed robbery, but because of his raw and untapped baseball skills, he was rescued from hard time by the Tigers, who saw something and signed him to a professional contract. Imagine that. In one of baseball’s greatest shows of irony, Tigers manager Billy Martin entered the prison to watch LeFlore play. Some say Billy belonged there just as much as LeFlore.

LeFlore spent a brief time in Clinton, Iowa, in the minors, before being called up to Detroit in midseason, 1974. Tigers fans, followers of a losing team, attached themselves to LeFlore’s unmitigated speed and base-stealing knack. They cheered loudly for the young man who went from stealing as a civilian to stealing as a ballplayer.

Gradually, but definitively, LeFlore’s baseball skills grew, and soon he was hitting around .300 every year, with 50-80 stolen bases. He started to hit some homeruns. In 1976, he had a 30-game hitting streak. He was elected as an All-Star starter – three years after living in a six-by-six jail cell. They made a movie about his life. It was called Million To One: The Ron LeFlore Story.


LeFlore turned Tiger Stadium crowds on from 1974-79, but then forgot what got him to the big leagues


But LeFlore wasn’t the quiet, unassuming player that Curtis Granderson is. That’s where the similarity ends. LeFlore eventually forgot what got him to the big leagues, and how thankful he should be that he was out of prison. He began to break team rules. He was accused of not truly shedding his tendency toward illegalities.

Sparky Anderson joined the team as manager in June 1979, and after three months of observing Ron LeFlore’s antics, he’d had enough. LeFlore was traded that December, for a pitcher named Dan Schatzeder. The Tigers got rooked in the deal, but Sparky was rid of LeFlore, and that’s what mattered most, truthfully.

LeFlore played a few more seasons, sometimes brilliantly, then retired. As he was walking off the field at Tiger Stadium in 1999 after the final game played there, part of the closing ceremonies, LeFlore was served with a warrant and arrested for being a deadbeat dad. In his Tigers uniform. There were few folks surprised.

Curtis Granderson, it says here, is going to make this town go bonkers at the leadoff position. He already has the range to make Comerica Park’s vast centerfield his kingdom. He catches balls that others before him in the Detroit home whites haven’t come close to sniffing, let alone catching. And there’s that smile: Face-spreading. Engaging. Ken Griffey Jr.-esque.

It’s not an assassin-hiding smile yet, like Isiah Thomas’. But it will be.

3 comments:

Ozz said...

LeFlore's story is a three-parter: criminal beginnings, redemption, and another fall from grace. Too bad for him, but maybe sympathy isn't warranted? Hard to say.

cbyrdee said...

I'm a born & bred Detroiter whose only sport is baseball and my team is the Tigers, good, bad, embarassing, I love 'em. You have to understand Detroit in the 50's & 60's to understand why things happen to guys like Ron LeFlore. He was one of my heros and I KNOW that he was just another victim of circumstance. My greatest hope is that we will once again have a team like `68 and `84: not just the World Series winners, but the TEAM that had loyalty to the city, the fans, and our sacred ballpark. Only if the front office would look past $$$ and work to cultivate our new guys, instead of having set an enviornment of constant anxiety about who might show up to take your place for tomorrow's game.
Remember the oldies? Stanley, McClain, Hiller, Lolich, KALINE, the Gator, Willie, and my best guy Chet Lemon and Sweet Lou, etc.
Curtis told me recently, "You know, they tried to get rid of me last month". Come on! That boy is IT!! How can anyone play with confidence, feeling that lurking in the back of your mind all of the time? I met him in April of this year because I am infatuated with his old-school style, his warm-ups, his SMILE, his intelligence, his talent, his friendliness. Now why would Dombrowski let a man like Curtis Granderson go? He is IT, my boys! Just look at the series with the pitiful Yankee-girlymen!!
CURTIS for MVP!!!

Deaner said...

Great post... you certainly hit that nail on the head:

"Curtis Granderson, it says here, is going to make this town go bonkers at the leadoff position. He already has the range to make Comerica Park’s vast centerfield his kingdom. He catches balls that others before him in the Detroit home whites haven’t come close to sniffing, let alone catching. And there’s that smile: Face-spreading. Engaging. Ken Griffey Jr.-esque.

It’s not an assassin-hiding smile yet, like Isiah Thomas’. But it will be."