I never talked to Granderson until this week.
Now, I really cheer for him.
He gets it. I knew as much before I met him, but when we huddled up close and personal for the first time in Atlanta before a game between the Mets and the Braves at Turner Field, the whole thing hit me like one of his line drives to the alley. He knows, when you're in the public spotlight, everybody is watching, and he knows, even if folks are looking elsewhere, you still have a responsibility to do the right thing. He knows there are those less fortunate than himself, so he tries to do something about it, not only financially, but physically and mentally. He knows education is the key to success, which is why he follows the mindset of his parents back in his native northern Illinois by operating on and off the diamond as the consummate teacher.
"I can be at a camp, a clinic, a meet-and-greet or wherever, and if I get an opportunity to speak, I always try to relate everything I talk about back to education," said Granderson, who matriculated toward a business degree during his last two years at the University of Illinois-Chicago while in the Tigers' Minor League system.
Added Granderson, "Everybody wants to talk to me about baseball at these events, and I get that. I understand that's why I'm there, but I always mention that I wouldn't have gotten this opportunity if I didn't do certain things in the classroom. I relate having success to, say, getting a sacrifice bunt down through practice. Just like you will get an 'A' on your test by working at it or by getting somebody who is good in that subject to help you. I want to instill the importance of an education into people."
Sounds like a role model. The same goes for this: Granderson rarely talks about the subject to his teammates.
When he does, they listen -- a lot.
"If someone is doing something negative or going about it the wrong way, I might say, 'Be a little more conscious of that, because people are watching," Granderson said. "I'm not going to tell them to change, because everybody is an individual, and they choose whatever they wish to do. It's more by example in my case. I don't talk too much about [being a role model], but I do notice that a teammate might say to me, 'Man, do you know somebody in every city? I saw you waving to three people today." And I'll say, 'No, that was just a fan or somebody,' and then they'll come back to say, 'Wow. I thought you knew them.'
"So without realizing I'm doing it, teammates and others are paying attention to how I'm responding in different situations."
I'm cheering for No. 3 again.
There might be somebody in sports who is more of a role model than Granderson, but probably not. What makes this slender left-handed-hitting slugger of 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds more impressive is that he can play. He had those consecutive monster seasons with the Yankees when he collected more than 40 home runs and 100 RBIs through 2012 along the way to his second and third trips to the All-Star Game. Then he was injured for much of 2013 with the Yankees, and he had an ugly April at the plate to begin his Mets career.
Now Granderson is hitting efficiently again, but even during his offensive struggles, he remained solid on defense and in society.
"I could have picked up a lot of the way that I am now through peers, extended family members and various friends, but if both of my parents weren't there as I was growing up, and if they weren't educators, things could have been a little different for me," said Granderson, referring to his father, Curtis Sr., who was an administrator at an elementary school near Chicago, while his mother, Mary, taught chemistry at a nearby high school.
No offense to the younger or older Grandersons, but there are many folks from perfect family structures who still don't exactly become poster children for truth, justice and the American Way.
That means a lot of this is just Curtis Jr. Six years ago, Granderson established his Grand Kids Foundation to help inner-city youth across the country regarding baseball in general and education in particular. Instead of taking endorsement money from corporations, he told them to contribute funds to his foundation to boost those kids. Speaking of kids, Granderson wrote a children's book a few years ago called "All You Can Be" to encourage youth to chase their dream. He donated copies of the book to the public elementary school libraries throughout Michigan and New York City, and they gladly accepted.
There's more, always more for Granderson, who has a slew of philanthropy awards from everywhere. In addition, he was selected by Commissioner Bud Selig in December 2012 to represent MLB as a baseball ambassador to countries such as Korea, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa. He also was invited by the White House to join first lady Michelle Obama as baseball's spokesperson in her anti-obesity campaign for youth. If those things aren't enough, Granderson serves as a highly visible promoter of past and present Negro League players whenever he takes the field. He wears his socks high in their honor. More striking, he said this particular tribute is his personal reminder to sign every autograph, to shake every hand and to exchange every smile whenever possible.
"In high school, during African-American month, we used to do book reports and projects, and I remember seeing Jackie Robinson and videos of the Negro Leagues in general, and I would say as a baseball player back then, 'Wow. Their uniforms are awesome,' and they certainly looked better than mine," Granderson said, laughing. "As I got older, I realized that those Negro League players gave me an opportunity to play in this game, and it also told me about the respect that they deserved in return. So I started to wear my socks high like this, because I wanted to be like them. Then it all made me realize that kids are doing the same types of things now when they watch us play as Major Leaguers.
"They're watching the way we wear are uniforms. They even start chewing gum a certain way, because they see us doing it that way. So you have to be conscious of what you're doing."
Did I mention I cheer for this guy?