Curtis Granderson figured his professional career would last two years—maybe three, tops. Drafted by the Tigers in 2002 out of the University of Illinois of Chicago, he could see the end from the start. All the scouts that said he wasn’t good enough, that he’d put up big numbers against bad competition, that he wasn’t athletic enough or strong enough to be a major leaguer—he figured they’d be proven right. “It motivated me to go, but at the same time, I was on the understanding that there might be some validity to it,” he says.
If nothing else, by the end of his first full year in the minors in 2003, Granderson was ready to quit. The breaking point was the small town of Lakeland, Fla., home to Detroit’s High A ball affiliate. It wasn’t the baseball, though, that got Granderson down; he handled that part just fine, hitting .286/.365/.458 and making the Florida State League All-Star team. What had him itching to return to Chicago was Lakeland itself: hot, boring, full of insects that would swarm over your food. He lived in a repurposed barracks on a former air base that the Tigers had turned into a minor league facility; the cellphone reception in his room was so poor that he had to lean his head out of the window to talk to his friends and family, dodging mosquitos the whole time. Far from home and unsure of his future, the 22-year-old wondered why he—holding a college degree and interested in plenty else besides baseball—was there.
“I’ve got other friends who’re doing well, I’m making $1,100 a month,” Granderson says. “I was this close to walking away.”
Sixteen years, seven teams and nearly 2,000 major league games later, Granderson is still here. Now with the Marlins at 38 years old, he has doggedly hung on to a career full of accomplishments: three All-Star team selections, 339 career home runs, starring roles on several contenders. He’s one of the elders among the game’s elder statesmen, and a beloved figure among those in the clubhouse, held in regard just south of sainthood. “Curtis is the best guy,” says former Mets teammate Brandon Nimmo. “We all strive to be more like him.”
“He’s one of the best teammates,” says Marlins closer and fellow grayhair Sergio Romo. “He talks to everybody, he’s got a great relationship with everybody, he’s respectful, he’s polite, he’s on time, he’s where he needs to be, he’s professional, he’s giving. It just keeps going.”
Granderson is baseball’s resident Mr. Rogers. He says hello to everyone and shakes hands with entire spring training rosters. He never swears, never yells, never throws tantrums or flings equipment. He regularly invites teammates out to dinner and brings food to the stadium, like the cake balls he took from a favorite bakery in Chicago to Wrigley Field when the Marlins were there to play the Cubs in early May. “Pretty much any characteristic you can come up with to say this is what a good person would be like, that’s Curtis,” Nimmo says.
Granderson has kept this sunny disposition even as he faces the end he long ago envisioned. Over the last couple of years, he’s entered the itinerant veteran phase of the baseball player life cycle, bouncing from New York to Los Angeles to Toronto to Milwaukee and now Miami. At this stage in his career, he’s firmly a bench bat and reserve outfielder, but his time is running out. A free agent last winter, it took him until February to land a job, and an unenviable one at that: a minor-league deal with the rebuilding Marlins, fresh off a 98-loss season and looking for cheap veterans to fill roster spots and mentor a young squad. It’s miles from both relevance and that which has constantly eluded Granderson for the last two decades: a World Series win. Barring one of the unlikeliest second-half surges in MLB history—as of Monday, Miami was 19 games under .500 and dead last in the NL East—or a midsummer trade to a contender, the final chapter of Granderson’s career may come to an ring-less close.
It’s not the conclusion that befits who Granderson is, yet it’s one he actively chose. He knew, coming off of his 15th major league season, that he wanted to keep playing. A few teams reached out, including some contenders—Atlanta and Washington—as well as Detroit and Toronto. But it was Miami that he felt made the most sense. “Everything lined up well to come here,” he says. “The fit, the seriousness, the transparency, a combination of all those different things. And I liked what I saw.”
More than any teammate’s praise, that speaks to the perpetually positive outlook that Granderson has, seeing the burnt-down house that is the Marlins as a fixer-upper worth investing in. “I liked how I could fit into this team and this organization, what their plan was moving forward,” he says. “It’s a very eager group, very talented, very excited.”
The jury is still out on the talent, given that Miami is on pace for 104 losses and has one of the worst offenses in the league. But Granderson was happy to join a team where his role was clear: part-time reserve. The added factor is the mythical, unquantifiable and intangible clubhouse presence that he brings as a good-natured veteran happy to impart his knowledge on rookies and young players.
Most every team has these would-be mentors, passing on advice as they soak up spare at-bats and innings. Players like Granderson in their twilight years can eke out a living this way, acting as clubhouse leaders for contenders and rebuilders alike, just as older players once did for them. “If you were brought up right, meaning you had good teammates when you were young, it’s just the right thing to do,” says Yankees lefty CC Sabathia, who played alongside Granderson in the Bronx from 2010 through ’13. “It’s your duty as a veteran to make younger guys feel comfortable.”
Granderson assumes that mantle quietly, without forcing the issue. “He’s not going to be a rah-rah guy that’s trying to pump people up,” Nimmo says. “But he brings an energy with him that you want to be like. He naturally leads that way and by example.”
“I think that’s what we’re being asked to do here, and I think for Curtis, it’s easier for him because of the type of person he is,” Romo says.
What earns Granderson respect is how he goes about his business: treating everyone the same, be they rookie or superstar. “He doesn’t look down on anybody,” Sabathia says. When Granderson was with the Tigers, he remembers a teammate telling him that he should make Cameron Maybin, a top prospect who was called up in 2007, carry his suitcase on trips. “Why would I do that?” he wondered. “I can carry my own bags.”
Granderson finds it strange that he’s ended up here, a veteran leader and an old man in a young game. Every team, he feels, has a combination of players: the new talent, the established stars, and the older part-timers. He has now been all three, though he worries that baseball is increasingly hostile to that last group. “To be turning 38 this year and everyone’s like, you’re old,” he says. “It changed from you’ve still got five years left to you’re old.” He recalls talking last year to some teammates in Toronto about peripatetic pitcher and friend Edwin Jackson. “He’s only 35, he’s still so young,” Granderson says. “One of the teammates came to me after and is going, dang, you think 35 is young? I get it. In your eyes, it’s not, but it was young in baseball terms.”
It isn’t any more. Set to turn 39 next March, this is likely Granderson’s final year in the majors, which makes it all the more surprising that he’s spending it marooned in Miami instead of taking whatever he could get from a contender. There’s a chance that, come the end of July, Granderson could end up, as he has the two years previous, a bench player on a World Series hopeful. But given how poorly he’s played so far this year—a .178/.268/.350 line in 60 games—and the disappearance of the August waiver trade deadline, during which older players were usually moved, the odds aren’t in his favor.
Granderson has come achingly close to that championship, particularly in the last few years, winning pennants with the 2015 Mets and ’17 Dodgers (and narrowly missing one with last year’s Brewers). But if 2019 ends without him spraying champagne in a locker room, so be it. “It may not happen, but there’s a lot of things that I never thought would happen that did,” he says. The same holds true of his career: If this stint in Miami is the last time he puts on a uniform, he’s okay with that.
“As much as I’ve loved this game, I’ve never been only about the game,” he says. “When one chapter closes, there’s another one already open.”
When that moment comes, Granderson says there’ll be no fanfare to it—no farewell tour, no last game full of ceremony. He’ll simply be done, and that will be that. He’s been ready to go for a while. But when he goes, he’ll leave behind a legacy far beyond wins and hits.
“I’ve played on the same team with some Hall of Fame guys, guys with unbelievable careers,” Romo says. “Omar Vizquel, Miguel Tejada, Randy Johnson, Buster Posey. Now I’m gonna add his name to that. Now I can say, Curtis Granderson. That’s pretty cool.”