With a fanbase as passionate and knowledgable as the Tigers', there are going to be many popular players. In any given year, the Tigers may have a half dozen or more players considered "fan favorites." Over the last few years, it seems like the entire starting rotation fit that bill.
But then there are fan favorites. Players that are so popular, they could be gone for multiple seasons and still welcomed back with open arms. Curtis Granderson is one of those players. Easily the team's best center fielder since Chet Lemon, Granderson was a major part of the team's resurgence in 2006. He also teamed up with Magglio Ordonez to provide one of the most memorable non-playoff seasons in Tigers history in 2007. Despite spending less than five full seasons with the Tigers, Granderson ranks 27th among position players in team history with 19.4 WAR. Thanks to this production, his down-to-earth attitude, and his mega-watt smile, Granderson checks in at #53 on our countdown.
Curtis Granderson was born on March 16th, 1981 in Blue Island, Illinois, a suburb on the south side of Chicago. The son of two teachers, Curtis attended the University of Illinois-Chicago after graduating from T.F. South High School in Lansing, Illinois. He originally attended Illinois-Chicago because he wanted to play both basketball and baseball, but he quit the basketball team during his freshman year. The move paid off, as Granderson was named an All-American on the baseball team during his junior year.
Granderson was selected by the Tigers in the third round of the 2002 draft. He had an impressive showing in the New York-Penn League in 2002, batting .344/.417/.495 with 22 extra base hits in 240 plate appearances. The Tigers promoted him aggressively, sending him to Advanced-A Lakeland the next season. Granderson responded with an .821 OPS in 545 plate appearances, including 10 triples. After hitting .303/.407/.515 in a full season at Double-A Erie in 2004, Granderson cracked Baseball America's top 100 prospects list, peaking at #57 prior to the 2005 season.
Granderson started the 2005 season at Triple-A Toledo, and hit .290/.359/.515 in 503 plate appearances. He spent a week with the major league club in July -- his second call-up after a cup of coffee in September 2004 -- but hit the majors for good in mid-August. From August 16th to the end of the season, Granderson had a .759 OPS with six home runs.
Heading into the 2006 season, Granderson compete with Nook Logan for the starting center field position. By the end of the spring, Logan had a .207 batting average and .298 on-base percentage. Granderson's .476 on-base percentage was nearly as high as Logan's .499 OPS. Suffice to say, Granderson won the job and didn't look back.
He and the Tigers jumped out of the gate together. Granderson hit .269/.376/.473 in April and had an .857 OPS by the end of June. Meanwhile, the Tigers had a winning percentage of .640 or better in each of the first three months of the year and were 30 games over .500 by the All-Star break. Granderson was just one cog in the machine led by new manager Jim Leyland, but the team's performance was a breath of fresh air for a franchise without a winning record since 1993.
The second half wasn't quite so rosy for Granderson or the Tigers, but it could have been worse. The team went 36-38 after the All-Star break, but still finished the year with 95 wins, a comfortable five games ahead of the Chicago White Sox for the AL Wild Card. Granderson wasn't quite as prolific offensively either, hitting just .238/.293/.408 in the second half.
The postseason was an opportunity for a fresh start, and Granderson took advantage. He collected 10 hits in 32 at-bats in the ALDS and ALCS, including three home runs, as the Tigers stormed their way to their first World Series since 1984. While we all know how that final series ended, the damage was done: baseball was relevant again in Detroit, and Curtis Granderson was one of the team's biggest stars.
Naturally, the biggest question surrounding Granderson and the Tigers heading into 2007 was whether the previous season was just a fluke. There would be some regression, sure, but how much? The pitching faltered, and the Tigers won 88 games. While this would be enough to get them into the postseason years later, they finished well behind the Cleveland Indians in the divisional race, and six games behind the New York Yankees for the Wild Card.
The big story in 2007 wasn't the playoff race, though. Magglio Ordonez was in the midst of a magical season, hitting well above .350 and flirting with the .380 line at times. He won the AL batting title with a .363 average and led the league with 54 doubles. His performance also earned him a second place finish in the MVP voting, behind Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees.
Ordonez wasn't the only Tiger to put up some gaudy numbers, though. Granderson was busy finding gap after gap, and collected triples by the bunches. He had 15 triples by the All-Star break, leading some to wonder if he could eclipse the magical 20-20-20-20 barrier. No player had hit 20 doubles, 20 triples, and 20 home runs while stealing 20 bases since Willie Mays in 1957, and only two players had ever done it in MLB history.
Granderson added another triple and homer on July 14th, then three more homers before the end of the month. He collected his 20th and 21st triples of the year on August 24th, and added a couple of homers and three steals in the final days of the month. By September 1st, Granderson was only two home runs and three stolen bases shy of joining Mays and Frank Schulte in this exclusive club.
It didn't take long. Just nine days into the month, Granderson swiped his 20th base of the year, pushing him across the 20-20-20-20 line. Amazingly, Philadelphia shortstop Jimmy Rollins would join him 21 days later, collecting his 20th triple of the year on the final day of the season. Rollins' feat was recognized with the National League MVP award, while Granderson would have to settle for 10th.
Granderson again led the league with 13 triples in 2008, but he would not make his first All-Star appearance until 2009. Ironically, it was his worst season with the Tigers. He only hit .249/.327/.453 that year, and accumulated just 2.6 WAR. His team was in first place, though. Well, for most of the year. Tigers fans don't need a reminder for how the 2009 season ended, but Granderson was hardly to blame. He reached base three times in Game 163 and scored a run, and also made a couple of solid defensive plays. However, he could not deliver a win for the Tigers, who went home empty-handed in a 6-5 loss.
As crushing as that blow was, it would not come close to the pain that many Tigers fans would experience 64 days later. Just as we were getting over the loss to the Twins, Dave Dombrowski made arguably his coldest move as the Tigers' general manager. Granderson was traded to the Yankees as part of a three-team deal that brought four young, cost-controlled players to Detroit. The deal wasn't popular, but it made some sense objectively. Granderson's performance had declined a bit in 2008 and he was starting to get more expensive.
That doesn't mean it didn't hurt, though. As mentioned above, Granderson was a fan favorite. I have yet to meet a Tigers fan that didn't love watching Granderson track down a fly ball in Comerica Park's spacious center field or see him turn on the jets as he tried to stretch a double into a triple. He played with a youthful passion that not all players possess, and his humble attitude further endeared him to the Tigers' fanbase.
Five years later, those scars have healed. Of course, it helps that Dave Dombrowski landed a Cy Young winner and another fan favorite center fielder in that trade. The four division titles are nice too. Granderson, on the other hand, has battled through some rough stretches. He hit 41 home runs and finished fourth in the 2011 MVP voting, but has only been worth 4.6 WAR over the past three seasons. His problems against left-handed pitching were never fixed, and his speed has started to decline as he has aged. Nearly 34 now, the New York Mets may be stuck with an albatross of a contract on their hands.
That doesn't change what Granderson did in Detroit, though. He helped spark a downtrodden franchise, and his efforts both on and off the field helped create a new generation of Tigers fans, one that is still following the team with abandon to this day.