CHICAGO (CBS) — Emerging from Wrigley Field’s first-base dugout, Curtis Granderson jogged to his familiar right field position.
Set for the first inning of a contest last week with his visiting New York Mets, Granderson had his head glancing toward the outfield grass. About 100 feet past first base, he glanced toward the famed Wrigley bleachers and was greeted by a surprise.
The Chicago native was welcomed back with a large sign that read, “Thanks, Curtis!” Surrounding the banner were dozens dressed in University of Illinois-Chicago’s red and navy blue, offering a standing ovation and cheers. A warm smile came to Granderson’s face, the same one which caught Flames baseball coach Mike Dee when he first recruited the Blue Island native.
“I just can’t say enough good things about Curtis as a person,” Dee said. “He was a great young person when he was at UIC, and he’s grown into an even better man. He was a great leader, great teammates and obviously a great player.”
When Dee first found Granderson, he saw a solid ballplayer with great leadership qualities. He never predicted an All-Star career, and he surely couldn’t have imagined the impact Granderson would make in the community surrounding UIC’s campus.
The $5 million gift Granderson gave to UIC — helping it build a new $10 million ballpark, facing Chicago’s iconic skyline, that opened in April — is the largest known donation from a professional athlete to their alma mater. Now, the Flames have a top-notch facility for their baseball program.
“The stadium is really cool, but the impact that it’s going to have on everyone else is what I was really doing it for,” Granderson said.
Curtis Granderson Stadium represents opportunity, which fostered him into a star outfielder. It symbolizes success through education at a school like UIC. For many who take the field, it will be their first experience on a college campus. Through the game of baseball, the value of education can be realized.
“We were hoping — and it’s coming to fruition, now — that we could start a program to bring kids onto our campus and take them on a tour, familiarize them with the environment, and inspire them,” Dee said.
Added Granderson: “Some of these kids that are going to be playing there have never been on a college campus and may never get a chance to go on a college campus. This helps break that mold.”
The field will host games all through the spring, summer and fall, bringing kids together from all across the city. The guidance of volunteers will help develop the game in its purest form, Little League baseball, while inspiring the importance of education. There will be tours of campus facilities and greetings from faculty. Success stories like that of Granderson will be instilled in the young kids.
On the diamond, there won’t be race, ethnicity, family backgrounds — only baseball players. That’s Granderson’s goal.
“It shouldn’t be different life because of those things, or a fear to step out into those different things,” Granderson said. “Hopefully, this will help embrace different cultures and different areas of the city.”
A successful 11-year career has seen Granderson excel in stops with Detroit and New York, playing for both the Yankees and Mets. His only in-season stops in Chicago come during games with the Cubs and White Sox.
Yet, Chicago is where Granderson’s from. It’s where he was born and raised into a successful ballplayer and allowed the opportunity to give back. He wanted that generous impact to benefit those just like him, growing up with baseball in the city.
“Chicago is home for me, and nobody is going to change that,” Granderson said. “No matter what team I play for.
“To get a chance to hopefully impact some kids here and show them the similar past that I went through, it’s really cool to get to do.”
Those hoisting the large banner Wrigley’s right field bleachers last week understand the impact of Granderson’s gratitude.
Young ballplayers from across Chicago will soon realize it, too.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.