Overthinking is a tough habit to break, though, when you come from a family of educators: Curtis's mother, Mary, is a high school chemistry teacher in Chicago who went to school at night to get her masters in chemistry; his father, Curtis, is a recently retired elementary school physical education teacher; and his sister, Monica, is an English professor at Jackson State.
When Curtis was growing up, his parents would tape his grades to the refrigerator and not permit him on a baseball field unless he maintained a B average. He later graduated as an honor student and all-conference outfielder from Thornton Fractional South High in Lansing, Ill. He chose to attend the University of Illinois-- Chicago because, along with a baseball scholarship, the school offered him a spot on its basketball team, though he wasn't a standout in the sport.
Initially he wasn't all that promising on the diamond, either. "I'd be lying to you if I said I thought he was going to be a major league player," says Mike Dee, Granderson's coach at Illinois-Chicago. "But from Day One I knew he was going to exhaust all possibilities to succeed. He was an incredibly hard worker. And every year he just kept getting better and better."
Granderson dropped basketball after a season, but he didn't start attracting serious attention from major league teams until his junior year when he led the Flames with a .483 batting average that was second in the NCAA only to Southern's Rickie Weeks, now the second baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers. After that year, Granderson was chosen by the Tigers in the third round of the 2002 draft and given a $469,000 signing bonus. Still, he was determined to earn his dual degrees in business management and marketing on time. One of his professors, Dave Kohler, told Granderson he could turn in a written assignment to graduate instead of giving an oral presentation like the rest of his class. But over Christmas break that year, "He came in and did a 30-minute presentation in front of me—[one] that's usually split up among students in a group," says Kohler. "And it was terrific. That's Curtis: He sets out to do something, and he does it. And yeah, he graduated on time."
Granderson is now in his second full big league season, fast becoming Detroit's most beloved outfielder since Kirk Gibson. He's making $410,000 a year but still lives as if he's on a minor league salary. His biggest purchase since signing his first contract? "A $100 leather jacket," he says. "A total splurge." He lives in a modest one-bedroom rental in the Royal Oaks neighborhood of Detroit, and during the off-season he stays at his parents' home in Lynwood, Ill. When he and Zumaya were roommates in their rookie seasons in 2006, they bought their apartment furnishings from Wal-Mart and taped the receipts to each item so they could return everything before the 90-day window for a full refund expired.
AT WEEK'S end the Tigers were 2 1/2 games out in the wild-card chase and 4 1/2 behind the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, and Granderson is still hoping for another shot at the postseason. Last October, in the Tigers' first World Series appearance in 22 years, he slipped chasing a routine fly ball that cost Detroit Game 4. "That whole week honestly was a big blur," he says. "After every game my phone would be flooded with voice mails and text messages."
The attention has not diminished much since. Sitting in his apartment before a late-August game, he received an e-mail from a fan who'd sent an mp3 of a song—Curtis Granderson: Some Kind of Smooth—he'd written about his favorite Tiger ("Well here he comes to save the day/Super Grand is like a '57 Chevrolet"), and another from a fan who'd just given her first son the middle name Granderson.
Granderson savors his connection with the fans—he blogs about his life three times a week, and gives out his e-mail address—but he also admits that the interest in his career is starting to get overwhelming. "I think it's a good thing that outside of Detroit I'm not that big," he says. That's about to change, and when it does, maybe he'll finally start to understand what all the fuss is about.