- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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DETROIT -- As a ballplayer acquired in mid-career, Curtis Granderson was not favored to enhance the mythology of New York Yankees center fielders. Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Bernie Williams -- they were lifers, men who spent every big league day under the world's most recognizable cap.
Granderson? He was hired out of Detroit to hit some home runs, play some defense, and steal some bases until the Yankees could draft and develop a center fielder who would be the sure thing Austin Jackson was not.
The Yankees dealt Jackson after their 2009 championship season because they didn't think his future would match Granderson's present. And so it was fitting in Game 4 of the division series, on a night Jackson would fail to run down the winning two-run blast from Derek Jeter, that Granderson made two catches honoring the tradition of the Yanks' most celebrated position.
Two catches definitely saving four runs, and probably saving five, in a 10-1 thrashing of the Tigers that made a most improbable winner out of A.J. Burnett and pulled the Yankees from the brink of a devastating end.
"He saved the season," Alex Rodriguez said of Granderson. "Not once, but twice."
The first play was partly the product of an initial misread by Granderson, and yet it will go down among the most significant catches in franchise history if the Yankees win this series and, ultimately, their 28th World Series title.
The Tigers had the bases loaded in the first inning, two out, and Don Kelly at the plate. If Kelly's laser sails over Granderson's head, his speed likely makes it an inside-the-park grand slam, forces Joe Girardi to remove Burnett for the warming Cory Wade, and sends the Yanks way past the point of no return.
"Who knows what could have happened at that point?" Granderson said.
Everyone watching and feeling this game knew exactly what could have and would have happened. The Yankees would have been blown out of Comerica Park and straight into next year, just like they were in 2006.
"We get behind in an elimination game," Granderson said, "here in Detroit. The fans stay in it, the fans get more into it."
Kelly sent his shot directly at the center fielder, freezing him, leaving Burnett to believe the ball was going all the way to the wall. As it started to elevate, Granderson thought to himself, "Oh man," while millions of Yankee fans were saying something that sounded a little more like, "Oh spit."
Burnett had already walked three batters, two unintentionally, and if Kelly's rip cleared the center fielder's head, A.J. would have notarized every vile thing said and written about him before this start.
But Granderson broke back for the ball in a fit of desperation. He lunged and extended and used every last millimeter of his wingspan to make the catch as he fell to the grass, rescuing Burnett from yet another Greek tragedy of his own design.
"It changed the whole complexion of the game," Brett Gardner said.
"And now everything stays neutral," Granderson said, "and we are able to keep it right where we want to."
Burnett said he was "able to take a breath" after his center fielder saved him, and that breath brought the pitcher and the Yanks back from the dead. Jeter belted the two-run double Jackson couldn't catch in the third, Granderson followed with an RBI double in the fifth, and then Granderson delivered one last dagger with his glove in the sixth, when Jhonny Peralta thought for sure he had hit an RBI double of his own.
With two outs and the Yanks up 4-1, Granderson tore through the night and toward left center in pursuit of Peralta's ball. Jeter didn't think he was going to catch it. "I thought we were in trouble," The Captain said.
On the dead run, Granderson peeked at Gardner, realized the left fielder couldn't make the play, and then threw his body forward as if he were a freestyler diving into a pool. "Flying through the air like that," Nick Swisher said, "he looked like Superman."
Granderson's parents, Curtis Sr. and Mary, watched from the stands as their son made the play of his life. The center fielder crash-landed flat on his stomach and held up his glove as he slid across the grass and came to a stop.
Curtis Jr. had his wind knocked out and turned up with a little headache, nothing more. "I was concerned he'd hurt himself," his mother said later. "It was very exciting, but I watched him play like that in 2006."
Against the Yankees, Mary Granderson meant, in a division series A-Rod and the rest would rather forget.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for him," Mary said of her son's leading role with the Yanks.
If Granderson's 41 homers and 119 RBIs might win him the league MVP, these two postseason catches against his old team might do more for his Yankees legacy. Bernie Williams used to scoff at the notion that he ever belonged in the same paragraph with DiMaggio and Mantle, but eventually conceded, "I know what it means to play this position. I understand who's been walking on that grass before me."
So when he was done sending the division series back to the Bronx, done with his postgame news conference, Granderson stopped in a hallway to field this question:
Do you know what it means to play this position for this team?
"First I had to learn about it," Granderson said. "People forget that when I was growing up the Yankees weren't that good, and that they didn't start to get good until I got older. Bernie was the guy I remember, but after I got traded here people started talking about the ghosts out there."
The ghosts. Granderson's father, who watched Game 4 in a Yankees jacket, had a connection to one of those ghosts.
"My dad was a big fan of Mantle's," Granderson said. "He lost one of his prize possessions, a Mantle Triple Crown card, in a home fire. I remember my dad always talking about that."
Now Curtis Sr.'s son is playing Mantle's position for Mantle's team. After Curtis Jr. made the season-saving play in the first inning Tuesday night, the Detroit batter who struck the ball, Kelly, asked him, "How did you do it?"
Granderson did it with nerve, big October nerve, and took his first real steps toward becoming his own legend of the fall.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter". Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.
Curtis Granderson's catches honored the tradition of Yankees center fielders.