- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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The best-hitting center fielder in baseball can walk into the local Starbucks or Duane Reade in his East 72nd Street neighborhood without drawing a second glance.
He can go to a crowded restaurant in midtown Manhattan, not five miles from Yankee Stadium, and stand in a line like everybody else, in no danger of being embarrassed by autograph hounds or fawning maitre d's.
The best-hitting center fielder believes that's because he doesn't look like anyone's idea of the best-hitting center fielder in baseball, including his own.
"I'm really kind of under the radar, across the board," Curtis Granderson said. "I'm not too big, not too tall, pretty ordinary-looking. I think I kind of blend in."
Except on the stat sheet, where this year, Granderson most assuredly stands out.
With one-third of the 2011 season in the books, Granderson leads all center fielders in home runs with 17, in RBIs with 41 and in slugging percentage (.631). In his second season as a Bomber, Granderson has become what the center fielder for the Yankees was always perceived as -- powerful.
Yet Granderson doesn't see himself as a power hitter, not in a clubhouse with guys the size of Alex Rodriguez or Mark Teixeira, or in a league that boasts behemoths like Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder and Jose Bautista.
Still, the numbers say that Granderson can match bombs with just about any of them, even if he sees himself more as a "Jimmy Rollins or Grady Sizemore type," and had no problem when his manager, Joe Girardi, asked him to lay down a bunt in a close game against the Mets two weeks ago.
"I just want to help this team get to the next level and beyond any way I can," he said. "And if that means bunting, driving in a run, getting on base, playing defense, then that's what I want to do."
Clearly, Granderson's self-image has not undergone the same kind of transformation that his swing has since last August, when Girardi took him out of the lineup for two days and sent him into the cage with batting coach Kevin Long to try to iron out the kinks in his left-handed stroke that left him hitting .239 with just 10 homers halfway through the first year of an inherited five-year deal that would pay him $23.75 million over three seasons before a $13 million team option kicked in for 2013.
Something had to be done to salvage the deal that brought Granderson here and sent Austin Jackson, the center fielder of the future, to Detroit.
For two days, Granderson and Long worked in that cage, and when he came out, Granderson went 2-for-3 against the Texas Rangers in his first game back.
From that point on, the numbers are impressive and the transformation truly remarkable.
From Aug. 12, 2010, the day he returned to the lineup, to now, Granderson leads all major league center fielders in HRs (31), RBIs (75) and slugging percentage (.605). He is third in hits (101) and on-base percentage (.359).
Even more remarkably, over the same time period, among left-handed hitters, Granderson ranks first in hits, RBIs and triples and is tied for first in home runs.
And most incredibly of all, against left-handed pitchers -- who used to leave Granderson helpless (he has a .223 career batting average against them) -- he is now hitting .323 and has hit nine of his home runs against lefties.
"The adjustment that this guy has made is remarkable," Girardi said Tuesday night, after Granderson had had three hits and four RBIs, including a two-run homer, off Oakland Athletics lefty Brett Anderson, who hadn't allowed an extra-base hit to a left-handed hitter all season. "If you make a mistake to him, he just doesn't miss it."
The only adjustment Granderson hasn't made is to his new-found power stroke, simply because he doesn't seem to believe it.
"I don't want to call it a fluke," he said. "But at the same time, I still feel like I belong in a different category. I like to think I can do a little bit of everything. I could hit a triple because I still have some speed. I can steal some bases, and I can leave the ballpark. That can be me."
Granderson seems to believe that just because he isn't 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he doesn't really belong in the middle of the Yankees' lineup. He is comfortable, he says, alternating between the second and eighth spots in the batting order, where Girardi was using him early in the season, although he now seems to have settled permanently at No. 2.
And if you even mention talk of a possible MVP award for 2011, he will cut you off.
"You kidding me, man?" he said. "Guys like Alex win the MVP, with like 50 homers and 100 RBI and 100 runs scored. I'm not that kind of a player."
Yet what Granderson has done so far projects out to about 50 homers, 123 RBIs and 132 runs scored over 600 at-bats -- MVP numbers for sure.
In another era, Granderson's 6-1, 185-pound frame -- "One eighty-eight and change," he likes to say, and "Six-two when I'm playing basketball" -- would have compared favorably with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, a couple of pretty good home run hitters who had three MVPs between them.
But in this clubhouse -- where the third baseman is 6-4, 225; the shortstop is 6-3, 210; the first baseman is 6-3, 225; and most of the pitchers are at least 6-5 -- Granderson looks like nothing so much as a preppy grad student in street clothes, especially when he straps on his backpack and occasionally dons his black-rimmed eyeglasses to leave the ballpark after a game.
(For the record, Granderson described the contents of the backpack as follows: "Just basic stuff to get me through the duration of the clubhouse. I got phone chargers, my computer and charger, some notepads so I can write stuff down if I need to, gum, eyedrops, headphones. And when I'm leaving I throw in a couple of bottles of water. That's about it.")
He's a bachelor in the city who hasn't met a lot of women, he says, because "most of the people who recognize me are guys," and he's admittedly not especially outgoing.
"And if I go out with Derek or Alex or any of these other guys, the women all seem to know them," he said.
He said he doesn't really mind the relative anonymity, because it allows him to come and go as he pleases in a city that can rob every last shred of a celebrity's privacy.
Yet when he was quietly waiting in line at a trendy restaurant recently, he did not refuse when the maitre d' spotted him and jumped him to the head of the queue.
"He came over and said, 'I know you, you don't have to wait in line,'" Granderson said, shaking his head at the wonder of it all. "I've got to admit, that was pretty cool."
As the best-hitting center fielder in baseball, he'd better get used to it.