NEW YORK — Curtis Granderson believes in Jackie Robinson West, knowing those South Side kids can send a powerful message at the Little League World Series.
That’s not PR spin or jumping on the bandwagon for Granderson, the New York Mets outfielder who grew up in Chicago’s south suburbs, not far from Morgan Park. It’s personal.
That’s why Granderson planned to get updates from South Williamsport, Pa., during Sunday’s game at Citi Field. While the Cubs beat the Mets 2-1, the Jackie Robinson All-Stars are one loss away from elimination after a 13-2 mercy-rule decision against Las Vegas.
He already put his money where his mouth is, donating $5 million to help build Curtis Granderson Field at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he earned his business degree and met some of the Jackie Robinson West coaches and players during an outreach event last fall.
That West Side stadium with a great view of the Chicago skyline gets inner-city kids playing in a safe environment and seeing what a college campus looks like. All those issues ran through Granderson’s mind during a conversation at his locker that lasted more than 20 minutes.
“Hopefully something like a team from Chicago — (though) they are an all African-American team — can help spike the interest back into the baseball community,” Granderson said. “Not just the African-American community. Just baseball in general, because the numbers are down, and where I grew up was a very diverse neighborhood.
“It’s not just the black kids that aren’t playing. It’s the white kids. It’s Hispanic kids, the Asian kids. Kids aren’t playing it as much as they used to.”
Some of Granderson’s friends grew up playing in Jackie Robinson West. The 33-year-old three-time All-Star estimated the league he played in as a teenager has dropped from around 750 kids to about 330. He pointed out how his local qualifying tournament for the Little League World Series has been slashed from roughly 16 teams to four now.
“It’s amazing to look back,” Granderson said. “I just remember seeing that bracket and it was our city, Lynwood. There was Lansing, there was Glenwood, there was Homewood, there was Olympia Fields, there was Country Club Hills, Sauk Village, Crete, all these different teams.
“So as you start to see there’s only four, well, which ones of these have folded? And how many of them have combined? And that’s just in my 15-mile radius. Now you start to expand that and move further and further…
“You’re seeing the number of fields is still high. But the number of kids on the field as you drive by on a normal summer day is drastically low.”
That’s a huge issue for Major League Baseball’s next commissioner, Rob Manfred, making sure this doesn’t become a sport for rich kids whose parents can afford sending them to showcases and tournaments, paying for personal trainers and sessions with private coaches.
“It’s gotten very costly,” Granderson said. “The willingness to play shouldn’t be deterred by the cost. I have cousins and friends and know families that are playing travel ball. It’s great exposure. You get a chance to play a lot of games and do amazing things. But when the cost starts to get up into the $1,000-to-$5,000 range, most families can’t afford that, especially if you have more than one kid.”
The Manfred administration will have to grow the game, making it more accessible to a younger generation and widening the audience. Because, ultimately, who else is going to buy tickets and deliver TV ratings?
As the son of two Chicago Public Schools teachers, and an MLB Players Association representative, Granderson already sees the big picture. He immediately quoted the NCAA cap on college scholarships – 11.7 for each baseball program – and explained how that drains elite athletes from the sport.
Granderson recalled being invited to play for an AAU basketball team as an eighth-grader and having the uniforms, sneakers and travel costs taken care of by a sponsor.
“I remember all the different AAU teams in the city of Chicago that my friends played on,” Granderson said. “The kids that I remember watching, such as the Dwyane Wades, the Eddy Currys, I’m thinking: Wow, all of a sudden, they’re in Orlando, or they’re in Vegas. How are they financially coming up with this?
“Well, somebody’s footing that bill. Is it the NBA? Is it adidas? Is it Nike? Is it Juwan Howard having an AAU basketball team in the city of Chicago? Someone’s providing the opportunity for the kids to play.”
Granderson is trying to find the answers to those questions, working through his foundation and as an MLB ambassador. For the record, he didn’t get much interest from the Cubs or White Sox last winter before signing a four-year, $60 million contract with the Mets: “The stories made it look like I was getting a bunch of offers from both Chicago teams, but that was just the newspapers.”
The Chicago Tribune reported last week’s Jackie Robinson West game on ESPN got a higher rating in the market than the average Cubs or White Sox game. No matter how far they advance in the Little League World Series, Granderson knows the kids from Morgan Park can be a powerful symbol for the game’s potential.