In commemoration of Black History Month, we will honor the legacy of African-American athletes from ASN's family of schools throughout February. Today: UIC's Curtis Granderson.
Two years ago, Curtis Granderson returned to Illinois Chicago (UIC) to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the ballpark he helped fund.
That sports moment on April 16, 2014, is judged the greatest in the history of UIC — a school with two NCAA Division II titles and a storied history in gymnastics — as the ultimate example of a player giving back to his community.
Before Game 3 of the World Series in Chicago, Granderson received the 2016 Roberto Clemente Award. It's presented to the MLB player who best represents baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions both on and off the field.
The only former UIC player to reach the major leagues credited his parents for showing him the meaning of giving back.
"I remember seeing my mom and dad inviting people over to have food, have drinks," he told MLB.com. "Taking clothes that I had outgrown and passing them on to students that were my size that needed stuff I had outgrown. Giving my teammates when they didn't have rides to and from."
Granderson gave back to the school that gave him an opportunity to play basketball in addition to baseball. But Granderson quit basketball two weeks into his freshman year to concentrate on baseball.
He was discovered during his sophomore season in 2002 by Jerome Cochran, a scout for the Detroit Tigers. Cochran saw Granderson dash from right field to center to catch a deep drive after UIC's center fielder lost the ball.
"He had to run about a half-mile to do it," Cochran told the New York Daily News in 2009. "A guy does something like that, it raises your intrigue."
As a junior in 2002, Granderson led the nation in hitting for most of the season, finishing at .483 — second to Southern's Rickie Weeks, the second overall pick in the 2003 MLB Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.
Cochran convinced the Tigers to take Granderson — who set UIC single-season records in batting average, hits (100) and runs (78) in 2002 and earned Horizon League Player of the Year honors — with the 80th pick in the 2002 MLB Draft.
Granderson has been a three-time All-Star in 13 seasons and appeared in two World Series, with the Tigers in 2006 and the New York Mets last year. In 2011 with the New York Yankees, he was fourth in AL MVP voting.
But Granderson has made a more profound impact off the field.
The Daily News reported that he saved the bars of soap that homeless people near UIC's campus gave him as a token of their appreciation for the change he offered them as he passed by. He heard his preschool teacher say that she wanted a television for Christmas and bought it for her.
"He is an extraordinary young man," former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig told the Daily News, likening Granderson to Derek Jeter. "One classy human being."
After his rookie season with the Tigers, still a college junior, Granderson returned to UIC, went back to living in a college dorm for classes and to work out.
"When he told me he had done the first few weeks of classes on the Internet, I was absolutely speechless," Mike Dee, Granderson's coach at UIC, told the Daily News. "He had a double major, which is even more impressive, and he kept up an A or B average."
Granderson graduated with a double major in business administration and business marketing.
"I didn't know what was going to happen," he told the Daily News. "I knew my odds weren't the best for getting there (the majors). I was used to going back to school and I wanted to pick up where I left off."
Granderson started the Grand Kids Foundation to benefit educational causes and donated $5 million to the construction of UIC's $10 million baseball stadium, which the school named for him. According to Sports Illustrated, it's the largest one-time gift by a professional athlete to their alma mater.
Hundreds of Little Leaguers attend the annual Grand Kids Foundation All-Star Camp at Curtis Granderson Stadium on the campus of UIC.
"It's neat to have my name on something that is going to be here for a very long time," Granderson told The Chicago Tribune.
As the Tribune wrote, "His stellar reputation around Illinois-Chicago was cemented long before the final brick was set in place."