Curtis Granderson makes sure charity work has a personal touch

Curtis Granderson poses at the dedication/grand opening of

Curtis Granderson poses at the dedication/grand opening of Curtis Granderson Stadium at the University of Illinois-Chicago campus. Photo Credit: UIC Athletics / Steve Woltmann

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Curtis Granderson slammed into the wall so hard that the padding did little to absorb the shock. The act of getting dressed Monday night sent pain shooting up his entire left side. He strained to get his socks on. He winced when he bent over to put on his shoes.

Soon the Mets would end a road trip that sent them from one coast to the other, all so they could play nine games in nine days in three different cities. Already, the clubhouse was filled with eager chatter about an upcoming day off.

Few needed the rest more than Granderson. Yet when the rest of the Mets boarded their charter on the way to a restful day off in New York, Granderson jumped on a flight to Chicago, his hometown.

Curtis Granderson Stadium is the culmination of five years of planning and $5 million of his own money. On Thursday, he attended the unveiling of the new baseball stadium at his alma mater, the University of Illinois-Chicago.

"It's basically been five years in the making, from talking, planning, getting ideas together, deciding what it was going to be, to ultimately seeing it physically be there," said Granderson, who was involved in the project from start to finish.

For years, he has engaged in a delicate balancing act, with his deep involvement in philanthropy on one hand and his baseball career on the other. Past employers have even raised questions about whether his extraordinary efforts off the field compromised his performance on it.

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Yet the Mets didn't balk when they signed Granderson to a four-year, $60-million deal, trusting that he carefully would manage his own time.

"He not only commits his time but he commits resources," general manager Sandy Alderson said. "But at the same time, he's always ready to play."


A constant battle

The balance begins with time management. Even when compared to other players known for their community involvement, Granderson rises above the pack when it comes to making the most of his minutes.

"He's better at it than me," Mets captain David Wright said. "But as much as you try, you can only do a couple of things here and there. He takes it to a different level. To find the extra time to do the stuff that he does, that's what makes him one of a kind.''

It's common for professional athletes to devote time to charity, but Granderson embraces his causes with uncommon passion. Still, the Mets did not commit to pay Granderson all that money for his desire to make the world a better place. They paid for the slugger who hit 84 homers in a two-year span with the Yankees.

As long as he's playing, Granderson said, the game always will take most of his time. But with what's left, he has resolved to make a difference.

When it comes to matters of charity, athletes typically rely on staffers or hire assistants to handle the details. But Granderson, 33, takes a hands-on approach, even though it takes more time.

He regularly works on projects through his Grand Kids Foundation, which he established in 2007 while with the Tigers. He is one of two players' union representatives, the most senior-level player leadership position in the organization. He travels overseas in the offseason as an ambassador and has become a fixture within Major League Baseball's efforts to grow the game internationally.

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And he gives to his alma mater, Illinois-Chicago, where he first learned the art of juggling commitments as a freshman on the baseball team.

"College helped a lot," Granderson said. "A lot of things needed to get done in that 24-hour time span. You either complain about it or find a way to get it done."

Granderson has found a way to fit it all in.

During his down time, he subsists on a diet of reruns -- "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," "Law & Order," "Martin" -- because they make it easier to multitask. "They're reruns," he said. "So it's not like you have to be 100 percent locked in on them."

One of Granderson's talents is the ability to fall asleep anywhere. He finds rest on airplanes. He draws strength from an endless string of 10-minute power naps that he sneaks in between commitments.

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"I'm like a baby in the car," he said. "I sleep on the plane. I'm the best power napper."

He completes larger projects in bits and pieces "so you don't have a logjam later on." He constantly keeps notes on his phone, his only recourse against forgetting a task. He works off a desire to cross items off of his various checklists, a habit he picked up in college.

Said Granderson: "It's a constant battle."


He really is focused

Sometimes the battle spills into his work space. Before games, a baseball clubhouse is filled with players killing time between tasks. Many work on crossword puzzles or disappear into the lounge for card games. Others send text messages to friends or play games on their mobile phones.

For Granderson, that dead time can be used to catch up on correspondence for his foundation. He often finds himself sitting at his locker, answering emails or weighing in on future projects.

But he's mindful of when it's time to put it all away to focus on baseball.

Christina Coleman has worked as Granderson's marketing representative for the last three years. The two remain in contact daily. Yet she is aware that there are boundaries.

"Everything in his life is calculated," Coleman said. "Just like there are blackout dates for travel, he also has blackout dates."

Granderson works off a carefully mapped out calendar that contains what she called "no-go zones." They typically cover any point from the All-Star break through the postseason. That usually includes days off during the regular season.

The two sit down in spring training to lay out the following year. They save more ambitious projects for the winter, when there's more time. But with the rest of the days, they work to make every minute count.

While athletes often fall into the trap of spreading themselves too thin, Coleman said Granderson strategically has worked to direct his time toward his most passionate causes: the education, health and wellness of children.

"He pipelines his efforts," Coleman said. "He really is focused on the sectors in the community that make the most sense for him."


I've been told to slow down

At times during his stint with the Tigers, Granderson's off-field activities became a point of contention. He recalls times when members of the organization encouraged him to cut down on his charity work to devote more time to baseball.

During slumps, those voices got louder.

"I've been told to slow down," he said. "But then it's 'can you help us out with this?' "

Despite the mixed messages, Granderson never strayed. His slumps came and went, but his desire to give back remained the same. He continued that work with the Yankees and now with the Mets, who have taken no issue with Granderson's off-field interests.

"Actually, it was a plus," Alderson said. "This guy's got great character. He's committed to the community. He's the total package. We're very pleased he continues to be involved. He goes beyond the average, that's for sure."

Granderson recalls a period in the minor leagues when he had too much free time on his hands. He was miserable.

It happened in the summer of 2003 when he was a Tigers farmhand with Class A Lakeland. Though he had been drafted in the third round the year before as a junior, Granderson made arrangements to earn his degree.

He completed his first pro season, then returned to Illinois-Chicago, where he took classes before leaving for camp halfway through the spring semester. Because he stayed long enough to complete his midterms, his professors showed leniency, allowing him to finish his studies while playing in the Florida State League.

The days began at the ballfield with morning workouts. They ended with evening study sessions at a nearby public library, where he could access wireless Internet for free. A few hours before a game early that season, Granderson commandeered his manager's cramped office so he could take his finals.

With that, he was finished with coursework until the fall semester, when he ultimately received his diploma. He was free to focus on baseball.

Most might have been overjoyed. Granderson spent the summer "going crazy."

"There was a window there where all I had was just baseball," he said. "There was just nothing else to release from it, there was nothing else to turn to outside of the game."


He's all inA streaky hitter by nature, Granderson found that his outside interests helped keep him steady. Without them, he no longer had a buffer between himself and his results on the field. The ups and downs drove him nuts.

Granderson hit .286 that summer in Lakeland, the least productive year of his climb to the major leagues. He still regards it as "probably one of the most stressful times in my baseball career."

Since then, he never has lacked for causes.

In his first camp with the Mets, Granderson immediately dived into a new season of philanthropy. He arranged for kids from a nearby YMCA to attend a spring training game, which was followed by a baseball clinic. He planned each activity himself -- two stations for hitting, one for pitching, one for baserunning.

Each lasted no more than 17 minutes. Experience has taught him that anything more would test the attention span of the average kid.

Though Granderson has slumped early in his tenure with the Mets, he has pushed forward with his endeavors as usual, including Thursday's stadium dedication at his alma mater. Three days after slamming full speed into an outfield wall, he was joined by his parents, both retired teachers from Chicago's public school system.

He wanted the project to be worth his time. It wasn't enough to simply write a check. So as part of his donation, he insisted that high school teams and youth leagues from throughout the city be able to make use of Curtis Granderson Stadium.

"He spends a lot of time with the things he's passionate about charity-wise," Wright said. "You hear about guys kind of putting their name to things, guys kind of doing things halfway. He's all in."

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