BOSTON — When the Yankees sent Austin Jackson to Detroit before the 2010 season in a trade made up of several moves, including Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson coming to New York, many wondered what the Yankees were up to.
Jackson was a talented youngster with speed and a good glove. A product of the New York farm system, he appeared to be the right fit for the Yankees' newfound attention on building from within and hanging on to young talent. Why general manager Brian Cashman would trade him away for Granderson, who hit just .249 for Detroit the season before and seemed hopeless against certain pitching splits, baffled many.
Three years later, Granderson has been so good for the Yankees that he's considered their top priority when his five-year, $30.25 million contract is up after 2013 (with a club option the team will most likely pick up for next season). He's been such a boon for the team — both in center field, where he produces most of New York's highlight-reel catches, and as a teammate and community voice, where he's been more than exemplary — that the chatter now is whether the 31-year-old can take his game to the next level and join the Yankee tradition of great center fielders.
That may be a tall order, considering New York's history boasts not only Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and modern-day hero Bernie Williams, but also the less-legend-status but still Hall of Fame-caliber Bobby Murcer, Earle Combs and Ricky Henderson (a part-timer in center).
But Granderson showed why the expectations have been picking up again Wednesday night, drilling two homers to left-center with the same ease he's shown throughout his time with the Yankees.
Granderson said before the game Wednesday that, while he's happy he has settled in with the Yankees, joining the pantheon of Yankee greats in center field never really entered his mind — until New York fans let him know what was expected after he was traded.
"I didn't know much about it early on, but as soon as I was traded over, that was the thing that everybody talked about," he said. "From the outside standpoint, whether it be media, whether it be fans in New York, fans of the team in New York, it was amazing just the number of conversations about the outfield, and the ghosts of the outfield, and a number of different things that I had just never given a thought about."
Granderson said he knew what Williams had meant in New York, and how good Mantle had been. But he "never really looked at the Yankees that way."
"It's funny how a lot of people were like, 'It's got to be a dream come true — it's got to be your goal,'" he said of joining the Yankees and having the chance to make his name in such a huge market. "And everybody else's goal isn't necessarily your goal or your dream. I didn't watch the Yankees [growing up]."
Even with the success he's had in New York, he said, he's still taking the same approach as when he was first traded.
"I figured once I came over, I have to do everything like I have been," he said. "Continue to compete, continue to battle, not take anything for granted. Show that I can stay in there for a while."
Granderson has hit 102 home runs for New York since joining the team in 2010 (much of that thanks to Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long helping him correct his swing). He's also racked up 274 RBIs, even with a middling batting average (.248 over the last three years).
Granderson said that, while he hasn't felt the need to live up to the high expectations of being with the Yankees, he does know that playing for such a marquee team has its drawbacks — such as New York being able to swing another trade at any time if management thinks it can upgrade a spot on its roster.
"[Continuing to play hard] was the mindset from Day One, especially with a team like this, where you have the ability to go out there and change when you want, almost get anyone you want," he said. "If they have other opportunities, they go ahead and do it. It keeps you motivated to want to continue to get better, to show them that you can be the guy."
When Yankees fans think of "being the guy," they may be imagining Granderson continuing to blossom and keeping center field strong, as it's been in the years of the slugging fielders before him. For Granderson, just doing his job will be enough.
But if Granderson doing the usual continues to produce the kind of numbers he's put up — with home runs like Wednesday night's game-breaking dingers — he may be fulfilling the lofty expectations, whether he plans to or not.