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A special place to play ball -- thanks to Curtis Granderson

Curtis Granderson answers a question during a news

Curtis Granderson answers a question during a news conference announcing his signing at baseball's winter meetings. (Dec. 10, 2013) Credit: AP

Of everything Curtis Granderson has accomplished in his life, what the new Mets outfielder perhaps is most proud of might surprise you.

His college diploma.

Drafted in 2002 after his junior year at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Granderson worked out an arrangement with his professors to continue his studies from the road. He moved back into the dorms after his first minor-league season and returned to the classroom.

Carrying a double major in business management and marketing, Granderson played minor-league ball in the Detroit Tigers' farm system and completed his degree in December 2003. A picture of him in cap and gown is displayed in the campus athletics facility on the near West Side of Chicago. It's a reminder that there are two words in student-athlete.

A decade later, Granderson is ratcheting up that message.

Fresh off signing a four-year, $60-million contract with the Mets, Granderson is in the process of funding the majority of a $7-million project, already underway, to refurbish the UIC baseball stadium -- and his $5-million donation came with some unusual conditions.

In a telephone interview, Granderson said the university, in return, has agreed to let all of the high school varsity baseball teams in the Chicago Public Schools system play one of their games each season at its new baseball field, to be named Curtis Granderson Stadium.

Granderson's hope is that playing a baseball game on a college campus might spark a high school kid to take a greater interest in his education.

"Trust me, Curtis wouldn't be involved with this if the main idea behind this stadium wasn't about getting kids on a college campus," said Granderson's agent, Matt Brown.

Granderson said at least 68 schools are expected to field a baseball team this season, meaning this idea -- which he came up with through discussions with his former college coach, Mike Dee -- has the potential to have an impact on more than 1,000 high school students.

"We want to show these kids that college is definitely a place where you want to go," Granderson said, "that this is what a college campus looks like, and also play baseball at the same time."

Education, especially in the inner city, is an issue that is close to Granderson's heart.

Granderson was raised in Lynwood, Ill., about a half-hour south of the Chicago White Sox's U.S. Cellular Field, and both of his parents were educators in the Chicago Public Schools system. His father taught physical education in grade school and his mother taught science in high school.

They ingrained in him the importance of an education; one of his parents' requirements for him to play sports in school was that he maintain a B average. They also made no secret of their hope that, regardless of his baseball prowess, he would earn a college degree.

"Curtis comes from a commitment family," said UIC associate coach Sean McDermott, who arrived on campus just a year before Granderson. "The Grandersons are going to do what they say they're going to do. So if he says he's going to get his degree, he's going to do it."

Granderson made his major-league debut with the Tigers in September 2004, about nine months after he finished his degree. Not long after that, he called his former college coach looking to come up with an idea in which his donation could help the program's current players and the city's youth.

They decided on a new baseball stadium that would be open to the community.

"The two of us have gone back and forth on different ways on how to really execute this," Granderson said, "and it took four or five years to get our ideas out."

As part of the deal, Granderson said the university agreed to add turf to its softball field and its two additional intramural fields so there would be three additional fields on campus for youth leagues to use throughout the summer, which he said potentially keeps kids off the Chicago streets.

"This," Granderson said, "is more than just a stadium."

To be sure, there's still a lot of work to be done, and Granderson is happy to be involved.

He spends his offseasons in Chicago and works out at UIC, so he's right in the mix of it. He said he has contacted "heavy hitters" in hopes of securing more sponsorships to help grow the planned youth baseball programs. And with construction underway on the new 1,200-seat UIC stadium since September, he's met the contractor and construction workers and is following the progress.

McDermott said construction is scheduled to be completed in time for the team's home games in early March. Around that time, Granderson will be taking part in his first spring training with the Mets.

"We just hope the Mets might give Curtis some time off so he can fly here," McDermott said, "so he's here for the opening of his new stadium."

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