Commentary

Curtis restoring grand tradition in CF

He's not Joe D, The Mick or Bernie, but Yanks' latest center fielder can make his mark

Updated: April 22, 2011, 10:38 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

For many years, playing center field for the New York Yankees was a better job than being the Mayor of New York City, and certainly a lot more secure.

Joe DiMaggio held it for 13 seasons, Mickey Mantle for the better part of 15 and Bernie Williams for another baker's dozen.

[+] EnlargeCurtis Granderson
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesCurtis Granderson is making Yankees fans forget there's been a rotating cast of characters in center field since the days of Bernie Williams.

But since Sept. 23, 2006, the last game Williams played in center field for the Yankees, no less than nine men have tried to claim what had once been the most glamorous position in professional sports, and none has been able to hold on to it for more than two years.

From Johnny Damon to Melky Cabrera to Brett Gardner, with brief stopovers by Kevin Thompson and Justin Christian and Jerry Hairston and Greg Golson and even Nick Swisher along the way, the title of center fielder for the New York Yankees has been a transient position, won, lost, passed along and taken away.

No one has really been able to call it his own, and no one the Yankees has tried out there in the past five years has really been able to stick.

Except, perhaps, for the latest one. Curtis Granderson came over here in a trade with the Detroit Tigers before the 2010 season, and he did not come cheap.

He brought with him what remained of his $30.25 million, five-year deal, the most expensive years of which were absorbed by the Yankees -- $5.5 million for last year, $8.25 million for this year, $11 million for next year and a club option for $13 million in 2013.

But he cost the Yankees more than just a pile of Boss Bucks; he also cost them Austin Jackson, at 23 considered by many to be a key part of the team's future. It was a right-now move for a right-now team, and a month into Granderson's first season with the Yankees, it looked very, very wrong.

There was Jackson hitting .356 on May 1 -- and Granderson on the sidelines with a quad injury that would cost him nearly a month. Not only that, he would never really get it going through his first summer as a Yankee, his average mired as low as .225 in mid-July.

Then came the much-celebrated August cage session with hitting coach Kevin Long in Texas, an improved final six weeks of the season, allowing Granderson to finish with respectable numbers -- .247, 24 home runs, 67 RBIs, an OPS of .762 -- but still not quite what the Yankees thought they were getting based on his last season in Detroit, when he hit 30 homers, or his 2007 season, when he batted .302.

Now, 16 games into his second season as a Yankee, Granderson looks like a different player. His home run in the ninth inning of Wednesday night's 6-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays was his third in as many games, and tied him for the club lead at six with Mark Teixeira. The batting average is .273, and Granderson's OPS so far this season is 1.013, third among all major-league center fielders and tops at his position in the American League.

Most eye-popping of all, Granderson's batting average against left-handed pitching, which is a dismal .218 for his career, right now sits at .353, and his first three home runs of the season came at the expense of lefties.

(Odd fact: Granderson actually hit for a higher average versus lefties than Alex Rodriguez did in 2010, .234 to .217, and nearly matched him in home runs, four as opposed to six).

With Josh Hamilton out for as much as eight weeks with a fractured shoulder, Yankees GM Brian Cashman doesn't sound so crazy when he says of Granderson, "He might very well be the best center fielder in the American League."

Granderson, a low-key type, doesn't quite bristle when asked about his career-long lefty problem, but it is clear he is tired of talking about it. He gives Long credit for closing some holes in his swing -- the coach prefers to use the term "quieting down" the swing -- but maintains that what he is doing at the plate this year isn't all that different from what he did last year.

"It's just a matter of being in a good position to hit," he said. "Just little adjustments, an inch here, an inch there, puts you in a position to be able to attack pitches, and when you can attack them, you can do something with them. And that's it. Nothing more than that."

You know it can't possibly be that simple, and yet whatever Granderson and Long installed in that swing last August has stuck around through the winter and into the following April. And Yankees coach Joe Girardi, for one, doesn't think there is anything temporary about this fix or illusory about the results.

"We always knew he had a lot of power," Girardi said. "I think what you're seeing now is more consistent contact. It's been a fairly lengthy period, so that's a good thing, it bodes fairly well for us."

"Obviously, the adjustments have made him better," said Cashman, who took a lot of heat last year for trading away Jackson for Granderson but isn't hearing it quite as much now. In fact, with Jackson hitting .157 through the Tigers' first 19 games, he isn't hearing it at all.

And with comparable, and perhaps lesser, center fielders such as Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells making as much as $18 million a year, the money the Yankees will spend on Granderson over the next two and perhaps three seasons may come to look like a bargain after all.

"He's never gonna hit for average like Jackson, and Jackson might be a slightly better fielder, but I sacrificed some batting average for power, and it's paying off," Cashman said. "Ultimately, I knew what I was getting."

Curtis Granderson will never be DiMaggio or Mantle or even Bernie Williams. But after a lengthy procession of ballplayers who have barely left a footprint in center field at Yankee Stadium over the past five seasons, this one looks like he may leave a mark.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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