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The Whitless Wonder Jumps On Curtis Granderson's Bandwagon

June 3, 2011 - John Whittaker
Let Curtis Granderson's 2011 season be a lesson to all of us, courtesy of Chris Kinsler, the Post-Journal's region editor.

Never write off a player too soon.

You see, last year, I mercilessly hammered Curtis Granderson as he struggled his way to a .247 batting average. I was tired of seeing Granderson strike out. I'd had more than enough of seeing him flail away at lefthanded pitching like a toddler using a fork for the first time. I'd had enough of weak ground balls to second and pop flies to right. When the Yankees benched Curtis for three days in Texas so Kevin Long could retool Granderson's swing, I was ready to put him on the bench for the rest of the season. Austin Kearns and Colin Curtis just seemed like more consistent options.

Throughout the rest of August and September, Kinsler would sit at his desk and talk about how much better Granderson's swing had been looking lately. During the playoffs, all he talked about was Granderson's new stroke and newfound consistency.

I still wasn't ready to believe. I was convinced Curtis was just the latest in a long line of players to come to the Bronx with a ton of hype who would end up leaving with their tail between their legs. His solid playoffs, in my mind, was what happens when pitchers work around Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and have to throw fastballs to a guy like Granderson. I still wasn't sold.

Fast forward to June 2011, though, and sign me up for the Curtis Granderson Fan Club.

Curtis Granderson is for real.

Not only have I hopped on the Curtis Granderson bandwagon, I'm standing at the front of the bus right behind the driver, just like Keanu Reaves looking over Sandra Bullock's shoulder in Speed.

This isn't just a two-month hot streak. Granderson's improvement goes back to last August, giving us almost a full season worth of at-bats to judge him on. And, while I won't make the career comparison, at this point of 2011, Granderson is the best combination of defense, speed and power the Yankees have had since the Rickey Henderson's heydey more than 20 years ago.

At his peak, you never knew what Henderson would do from game to game. Three years after his 130-steal season in 1982, Rickey still stole 80 bases even though every pitcher and catcher in the league knew he was stealing if he got on. A Henderson single inevitably turned into a game of catch between the pitcher and first baseman. After 5 or 6 throws over, Rickey could still swipe second any time he wanted. Between learning from Billy Martin how to read pitchers and his own blazing speed, Rickey on the basepaths was a mismatch.

He could run down anything in center field, making amazing catches look routine. And, on those lazy fly balls that found their way to Henderson, there was the snatch-catch, where Rickey would camp out where a ball was coming down and wait, with his glove at his side, until the very last possible second until waving his glove from his side and snatching the ball out of the air. It was a hot-dog play, but amazing nonetheless.

And, for a smallish guy, Rickey had amazing power. For a guy who spent much of his career hitting leadoff, Rickey holds the record for leadoff home runs with 81. Pitchers learned early that you didn't challenge Rickey with a fastball. Starting his stance in an exaggerated crouch with his front leg stretched in front of him, front knee locked, Rickey would kick his leg up and whip the bat through the strike zone. The sound of a perfectly struck pitch and Rickey's patented flip of the bat told you all you needed to know.

I'd never seen a combination of speed and power like Rickey — a reason why my second favorite card in the 1987 Topps set was Rickey Henderson's. It took me months of buying packs to finally find one, card 735 in a 792-card series, with Rickey's swing frozen for all time in his powerful follow-through on a sunny day in the Bronx. I swear the pricks at Topps shortprinted the Henderson and Mattingly cards from that set. I've got 37 Randy O'Neal cards that I got from packs and only one Mattingly and Henderson.

I digress. Back to my point.

The Yankees have had a lot of exciting players since Rickey left in 1989. They've had base stealers and power-hitting outfielders, but nobody who combined the two as well as Rickey — until now.

Granderson has roughly the same build, can steal a base anytime he wants and enough pop to hit 30 homers a year.

After his disappointing 2010 season, nobody had any clue that Granderson would unleash the beast — and save Kevin Long's job — in 2011. Now, he's the Yankees' Mr. Goodwrench. Need a big home run? Call Curtis. Need to steal a base to get into scoring position? Call Curtis. Need an outfielder to bail out a pitcher's mistake with an unbelievable catch? Yep, just call Curtis. About the only thing Granderson hasn't done yet are clean the urinals at Yankee Stadium and drive the bus from the hotel to the ballpark on the road.

He's easily the Yankees most valuable player this year and possibly in the league. I know it's early, but if not for Bartolo Colon, Curtis could win the Comeback Player of the Year and MVP in the same season. He's hitting .278 (a 31-point improvement from last season) with 17 home runs, 41 RBI and 44 runs scored already. He'd have driven in more runs if he hit lower in the order. He has eight stolen bases. He's already legged out 5 triples. His .612 slugging percentage is easily the best of his career. After hearing for two years about Granderson's futility against lefthanded pitching, he's only hitting .303 with 9 home runs. He's gone from a toddler using a fork for the first time to the fat guy in the buffet line — a real pro who knows how to use his tool of choice.

Maybe nothing sums up Granderson's versatility than the May 24 game against Toronto. With the Yankees trailing 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth against Jays closer Frank Francisco, Granderson came up with two outs and a man on second base, punching a ground ball through the hole into right field to score Chris Dickerson to tie the game. With Mark Teixeira at the plate, Granderson swiped second base to move himself into scoring position. Three pitches later, Mark Teixeira singled to score Granderson and give the Yanks the win.

In the span of six pitches, Granderson turned a loss into a win, but that inning is just a microcosm of his impact on the team this season. Whatever the Yankees have needed, Granderson has provided. He's been the most consistent hitter in the lineup, one of the two or three best centerfielders in the league and a base-stealing threat who knows when to run and when to let Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez work their magic behind them.

It seems like there is nothing he can't do. From game to game, I have no idea how Granderson will impact the game. I just know he will. If he offered his services to President Obama, Curtis might be able to get a debt ceiling agreement done, sew up re-election and balance the budget, all in a week.

For now, though, he just needs to carry the Yankees to the postseason.

Last Week's Record: 4-2.

Division Standing Through 54 games: 31-23, first place, two games ahead of Boston, three games ahead of Tampa Bay.

What I Liked This Week:

Pitching: Every time I think the Yankees' pitching is about to start living up to its preseason predictions, the starters rip off another unbelievable week. It could still implode at any time given the type of pitchers that make up 60 percent of the staff, but right now, the pitchers are absolutely dealing. The only guy to really struggle was Ivan Nova, who gave up 4 runs in 3.2 innings to Seattle in his last start. We can't forget that Nova is only 24 and only has two dependable pitches. As for the bullpen, David Robertson had another lights-out week with no walks and Joba Chamberlain didn't allow a run. Mariano allowed a run to Seattle, but I refuse to worry about Mo. Seriously, though, I never expected the Yankees pitching to be this solid.

Kiss the season's batting average off for Nick Swisher, but if he can start hitting the ball with authority for the rest of the year, he's still useful piece. Let's face it, we all knew Swish wasn't a .300 hitter, just like Kris Humphries knows that white dress Kim Kardashian is wearing on her wedding day doesn't mean she's a virgin. For Swisher, the two home runs last week, in pitchers parks, plus another home run that Franklin Gutierrez snared at the wall in Seattle, tell me Swisher's getting his power stroke back. Swisher is, and always be, streaky. His batting average fluctuates like Oprah's weight. When he's cold, you just hope he continues walking to get on base and plays his usual good defense. When he's hot, he can carry a team. I think I see a hot streak coming from Swisher.

What Concerns Me:

For once, not much. I'd love to see more out of Jorge Posada, but the team played well last week. There's really nothing worth getting too worked up over.

Since we've got some time to kill, how about those NBA Finals? With apologies to Simon Teska, a former Post-Journal sportswriter and rabid Heat fan, I'm rooting for Dallas, solely because Dirk Nowitzki has turned in one of the more amazing playoff performances I've ever seen and deserves to be rewarded with an NBA title for carrying a Dallas team that is incredibly old. With three of the four best players in the series, Miami should win in 5 games, but the Mavs have earned a split on the road and Nowitzki hasn't even played that well yet in the finals. Once the Big Blonde Volkswagen finds the touch on his jumper, I think Dallas could give Miami serious trouble. As for the Heat, athletically, they will continue to bother the Mavs defensively. I haven't seen a defensive unit that good since Jack Bauer. The Heat's problem will be grinding out possessions consistently — when they get too dependent on isolation plays and stop passing the ball, their offense is horrible. Bad shots let Dallas hang around games, and then you're putting the game in Nowitzki's hands — which is right where Dallas fans want it.

What's Coming Up (for the Yankees):

Three games on the road against Anaheim, three games on the road against Boston, four games at home against Cleveland.

 
 

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The 1987 Topps baseball card captures Rickey Henderson's swing perfectly - powerful, compact, quick. Now, look at the next photo....