Sunday, March 9, 2008

Granderson's Journey From UIC to MLB

On March 3, snow covers the ground as yet another winter storm passes through Chicago. But 1,172 miles south in Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla., it’s 82 degrees and sunny, as the Detroit Tigers get ready to play the Tampa Bay Rays in a spring training game. For Curtis Granderson, those 1,172 miles represent more than just the difference between the snow and sun. For him, it’s the distance between the Major Leagues and home.

Standing outside the Tiger’s clubhouse in Lakeland, fans call Granderson’s name for autographs after batting practice before he changes into his game jersey. Granderson, 6’1,’’ 185 pounds is in blue and grey Under Amour shirt with a Tigers insignia on the chest, wearing his white game pants with socks pulled up to his knees. He’s charismatic and a line of reporters forms to talk to him.

Granderson, 26, was the first player from University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) to play Major League Baseball, and the only current player in the Majors that graduated from college in Chicago. Granderson was born in Blue Island, Ill. and grew up in Lynwood, Ill., where he played little league baseball. He attended Thornton Fractional South High School in Lansing, Ill. He made varsity as a sophomore and hit .427 as a senior in 1999, being named All-Area by the “Illinois Times” and “Daily Southtown.”

Ken Reynolds was Granderson’s high school assistant baseball coach and current head coach of Thornton Fractional South. He said Granderson was a pleasure to be around.

“He was a popular student in high school, one of those students who were friendly with all social groups,” Reynolds said. “He was well liked by his teachers throughout his high school career. One thing that always stood out was his willingness to be coached. Not only would he listen to the advice, but he would ask questions to gain a more detailed understanding of the point being made. That appears to have not changed as he moved on to college and pro ball.”

Granderson chose to attend UIC, where he said his goal was to play Division I basketball, but hoped to baseball as well.

“I was this close to playing (basketball),” Granderson, motioning with his index finger and thumb. “A broken thumb in my fall practice sophomore year got me away from that. With baseball, I looked at it and said, ‘I am pretty good at this; let’s see where we can go.’ I ended up having a blowout junior year and I got drafted and the rest is history.”

Granderson was a success from the start at UIC, leading the team in home runs (7) and runs (51) his freshman year. As a junior, he exploded for a .483 average, a UIC record, and second highest in the nation, led UIC in nearly every offensive category, and named 2002 Horizon League Player of the Year.

He said the most important thing he learned at UIC was how to approach the game.

“For me, to allow myself to just go, and I’m still in the process of that,” he said. “My head coach, Mike Dee, always told me to trust myself. He goes, ‘there’s a lot of players who go out there and always have to say go, faster go slower, do this and that. You’re instinct is pretty good right now, just don’t second guess yourself.’ That’s the big struggle I still have.”

After his junior year, Granderson was selected 80th overall by the Tigers in the third round. Chicago is not known as a baseball haven, as the northern weather prevents players from playing year round, but Granderson said he was never concerned about coming from a Midwest state for his baseball future.

“Once I got going it was one of those things where it was ‘just keep playing,’” Granderson said. “I was in this world where everybody was so called even and now it was, ‘how can I separate myself?’ I looked and my weaknesses and tried to figure out how I could turn those into positives and keep asking questions, keep trying to get better.”

His teammates had high praise for Granderson. Bryan Russo was a freshman infielder in Granderson’s final year at UIC. Russo, who graduated in 2006 and attending paramedic school, said Granderson was the “hardest working guy on the team” and a leader on and off the field.

“Not only was he a great ball player and knew a lot about the game, he is one of the nicest, non-selfish people I have ever met,” Russo said. “I could talk to Curtis about anything.”

Nelson Gord and Granderson both started at UIC together as freshman. Gord, from Buffalo Groves, Ill., was a utility player and played Independent League ball after college and now coaches baseball in Schaumburg. He says Granderson was a “great” teammate.

“Great example of him putting the team above himself happened in a midweek non-conference game our sophomore year,” Gord said. “He had a ‘slash’ on (fake bunt/hit-and-run) and he was supposed to hit the ball on the ground. He pulled the bunt back and swung and hit a two-run home run over the fence in left-center. He came back to the dugout upset because he didn't ‘do his job.’ Selfless.”
Even though Granderson was drafted as a junior, he went back to school while playing in the Minor Leagues and graduated with degrees in business management and business management. He said he became interested in business after taking an intro class as a high school senior.

“When I got drafted, I told the Tigers I wanted to finish school, because at the time I didn’t know how long I was going to get a chance to play this game,” Granderson said. “Did I want to be a pro? Yes. Was I going to happen? I didn’t know. Both my mom and dad teach, my sister teaches as well, and school was never a difficult thing for me, so I enjoyed going to class.”

Granderson started his professional baseball career in 2002 with low A-ball Oneonta, where he hit .344 in 52 games. He progressed quickly through the system. After being named to the AA All-Star team in 2004, he was a late-season call-up by the Tigers, making his Major League debut September 13. He was in the Majors for good at the end of 2005. In 2006, he became the Tigers’ starting leadoff hitter and centerfielder and they went to the World Series.

In 2007, Granderson established himself as a star and one of the game’s most popular players. Despite not being listed on the All-Star ballot, he had the most write-in votes of any player, with 376,033. He became the third player in history to have 20 home runs, doubles, triples, and stolen bases in a season, and the first in 50 years, and his 23 triples were tops in the Majors. This off-season, he signed a 6-year, $30.25 million extension with the Tigers.

“He has always been a great player,” Gord said. “But now he had put himself in a category that virtually no one reaches.”

Despite Granderson’s successes, Gord says he never thought about Granderson playing in the Majors until he was drafted.

“Once he went out and hit 20-plus home runs in AA, I knew it was just a matter of time,” Gord said. “I'm sure he would be the first to tell you that when we came in as freshman no one thought he would be doing the things he is now.”

Off the field, Granderson has become an ambassador for the game. This winter, he traveled to England and Africa to promote baseball. He worked for TBS as an analyst during the playoffs, blogs regularly for, and frequently updates his MySpace. He founded the Grand Kids Foundation in 2006, where he puts on events like charity dinners and basketball games to benefit educational programs and inner-city baseball programs.

“I love being any type of positive role model, from the baseball spot to the education spot, having graduated from UIC and playing baseball,” Granderson said. “Any way to get to that spot and say, ‘I’m from the city of Chicago, I graduated college, I also get the chance to play this sport, so there are a couple different avenues that being in the same shoes that I am, as an inner city kid or a suburban kid, you could have the same opportunities I’ve had.”

Gord feels Granderson has helped to raise UIC profile.

“Even after Curtis made headlines with his .480 average and we made it to our first NCAA regional, we were still flying under the radar,” Gord said. “It wasn't really until Curtis put up his 20/20/20/20 line last year when people started opening up their eyes to the kind of program UIC has. Curtis has definitely helped this process and has been a draw and topic of conversation when it comes to Chicago area players, UIC, and doing things the right way.”

At his high school, Granderson has worked the instructional clinic every year since he was drafted, and lifts weights and conditions with the high school players in the offseason. He also donated money and equiptment to the school’s baseball program. Reynolds says Granderson has “absolutely” influenced kids in the area to play baseball.

“He is so natural around young children, both as a teacher of the game and an advisor of what is really important - grades, family, having fun, etc.,” Reynolds said. “He is also very eager to try and help stimulate a rebirth of interest in the sport within the African American population. At our clinic in February, he spent quality time with a large group of mostly 8 to 12 year-olds, many of whom are just now beginning to really realize how good he is.”

Even with his Chicago roots, Granderson is making his presence felt around the world in a sport not usually associated with the area.

“Despite his recent rise to fame and a larger checkbook balance, he remains very grounded in what's important in the world,” Reynolds said. “I do not expect that to change because of how well he was raised by his parents. I've said many times to many different people, Curtis is a great player, but he is even a better person.”

Curtis Granderson Ground Rule Double 3/3

First Day of Spring Training

Monday, February 25, 2008

'Guitar Hero' Slash Returns from Small Screen to Stage

In the music world, Slash is known mostly for his time with Guns ‘N Roses and Velvet Revolver. But since October, no auditions are needed to play with Slash. In fact, he’ll come right to your living room.

Slash is featured on the cover of Guitar Hero 3, and is a playable character in the video game. The player uses a guitar shaped controller and pushes buttons to play the notes that appear onscreen, mimicking a real song that plays. On Jan. 21, according to Activision, the Guitar Hero franchise surpassed $1 billion in total sales and Guitar Hero 3 became the biggest selling video game for a single year.

“There’s like a demographic I’ve never met (laughs) that all the sudden recognizes me as the guy from Guitar Hero, but then as a result exposes them to Velvet Revolver and Guns ‘N Roses and whatnot,” Slash said in a phone interview. “You can’t knock that. If you really want to resurrect rock and roll, the first place you got to start is with kids.”

Detroit Free Press Digital Life writer Heather Newman says that Slash’s presence might lead to the introduction of his music to younger players. “While playing is nowhere near as difficult as playing the real thing, it does hint at the complexity of some of the guitar riffs in famous guitar-heavy tracks and solos – which might lead some new audiences to better appreciate the work of some of the ‘older’ masters,” Newman said.

Putting Slash on the cover might also help to bring more credibility to the game, according to Robin Kaminsky, executive vice president of Activision Publishing. “Guitar legend Slash, combined with Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock's robust soundtrack and innovative new game features, will continue to solidify the brand's leadership in the rhythm-action genre," Kaminsky said in a statement.

Newman said that the cover is important for video games. “You always need an iconic guitarist for the cover of Guitar Hero, and despite his goofy hat, Slash is certainly one of the best-respected and best-known modern guitarists out there,” Newman said. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a guitarist in a more recent band that had as big a name.”

But Slash, the man behind riffs like “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child of Mine,” says the actual guitar skills don’t necessarily transfer to the game.

“I got good enough at it at one point when I was exposed to Guitar Hero 2, and I beat it, but only on medium,” Slash said. “I didn’t have the time or the patience to get into hard and expert and all that. I put it away because I was so addicted to it that I completely shirked any other responsibilities I had for like two weeks. When Guitar Hero 3 came out, they sent me one, and I thought, ‘This will be easy. I’ve been playing real guitar for the six to eight month interim.’ I was completely rusty playing Guitar Hero so I had to start completely over again.”

Does that mean that Slash, who Esquire named “Best Guitarist” in 2005, can’t even beat the video game with his face on the cover?

“I haven’t even gotten past the first concert,” Slash said laughing. “I’m scared to because once I start I know I won’t be able to stop. I’ve got a lot of things going on right now so I can’t really afford to be sitting there kicking on the jams on Guitar Hero.”

His already busy life is about to get busier, as Velvet Revolver kicks off a tour on Jan. 24 at the Riviera Theater. Slash, 42, says that despite all his years in music, he still gets excited to go out on the road. He said, “I love touring, I’m a sicko that way.”

Guitar Hero 3 Commercial with Slash

Video of Guitar Hero 3 Battle with Slash

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

From the Front Row to the Last Row, Wilco Shows Are a Hit

With the wind chill down to 2 degrees there aren’t many people outside on Monday at 4 p.m. in Uptown, except for the clustering of about 20 people standing outside the Riviera Theater, waiting in line for the third night of the Wilco Chicago hometown residency. With two hours to go before the doors open, blanket and hot beverages are aplenty as the fans try to move around to keep warm.

Sitting in folding chairs at the front of the line are Chris Cross and Leo Cahalan, who drove up from Michigan to go to the shows. Wrapped in blankets head to toe, exposing only a bit of their faces. They have been in line since noon, taking turns switching off from the bitter conditions with friends.

They purchased tickets to all five shows through the presale and have been waiting outside of each show early. Friday they got in line at 3 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m. and waited until the doors opened at 7 p.m. “We weren’t first (in line), but we were pretty close to the front, within the first 10 people,” Cross said from behind a thick teal blanket.

Getting in line early is something that Cross and Cahalan say they do at a lot of concerts, and not just for the chance to be close to some of their favorite musicians.

“Half of the fun is just spending time with these people and just the adventure of it,” Cahalan said, peeking out from under his hood, looking more like an artic explorer than a concertgoer. “A lot of us have met at these shows. You get to meet a lot of like-minded people. We might seem crazy to do this, but it’s a lot of fun.”

“It’s so worth it,” Cross added.

But not everyone finds bracing the cold for hours fun. Sitting in the last row of the balcony on Saturday are Jerry and Kim Voris who came from the suburbs. They have been to seven or eight other Wilco shows. After missing out on tickets though the presale (“those were gone in like 30 seconds,” Kim said), they purchased tickets for all five nights off Ticketmaster’s website the day they went on sale.

Sweat drips down Jeff’s face as he sits down for the intermission. “It’s hot up here, but it was even hotter last night down lower,” he said. “Last night we got here at 7 and we got to pick where we wanted to sit in the balcony, so we were right up front. Tonight we got here a little later, around 7:20 or 7:30, and the only seats we could get were in the last row.”

Although the view from the top isn’t as intimate as from the front of the stage, the seats in the balcony gave them the option of sitting down or getting up and dancing when they wanted. And they weren’t complaining.

“Where else can you pay $35 and hear this kind of great music for a night?” Kim said.

Hell is Chrome Clip

Handshake Drugs Clip

Muzzle of Bees Clip

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Roses are Red and Sometimes Blue

Roses are Red and Sometimes Blue
Milan David Richardson
Scott Bolohan
February 5, 2008

On a cold Saturday morning Rose Hannigan walks into a neighborhood coffee shop to warm herself before embarking on a search for cans, coins, and Valentine camaraderie.

Homeless, Hannigan is known in the Lakeview area for her personable nature, ruby red jogging pants, and chatting up customers from a corner chair at Argo Tea. “I saved my coins for three days last year to get these pants,” she told one man while fumbling through her red mesh pockets for a Tootsie Roll, the start to a plethora of discarded chocolates she hopes to find post-Valentine’s Day.

“I love Valentine’s Day and here they have it in a cup,” Hannigan said. “ValenTea,” a hibiscus flower and pomegranate February promotional beverage by Argo Tea (see video at the bottom of the page), has fast become a favorite amongst regulars and people like Hannigan who struggles to stay warm.

Argo Tea manager Alex Langenfeld admits to breaking the rules every now and then by offering hot tea to local homeless right before closing for the night. “It's just hot water but it makes the difference in them feeling warm for that evening,” Langenfeld said. It's a sentiment people like Hannigan seem to appreciate during the “love month” that for some brings negative thoughts.

While most girls her age are preparing gowns for senior prom, 19-year-old Hannigan prudently organizes a Red Eye newspaper into her jacket to keep herself warm for another day. “Its not easy, but I get by,” Hannigan said. “People help me out if they can around the holidays. I think it makes them feel better about me having to sleep out in the cold over Valentine’s Day,” a feeling some Chicago residents understand very well.

Hannigan is one of 26,000 homeless youths living in Illinois according to the Lakeview Action Coalition. Not-for-profit, non-denominational groups such as The Night Ministry on Chicago's North Side, are working extra hard to tend to the needs of those without shelter. “Since 1976, The Night Ministry has served Chicago’s most vulnerable youth and adults," Night Ministry Coordinator for Public and Media Relations Kari McLean said. "We accept people where they are regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual/gender orientation, or social status.”

The group distributes warm meals and clothes to the less fortunate, providing Hannigan and many others the necessities to make it through another day. "During winter, we see a lot of people with frostbite," Mark Bradley, Night Ministry Director of Outreach & Health Ministry said. "We give out a lot of coats and gloves. People are driven into the shelters or they'll die from exposure."

Bradley said that about 200 people a day visit the shelter in the winter, but their youth housing programs turn away two or three youths every day because of only 32 beds available.

At The Night Ministry, they don’t forget about Valentine’s Day either. McLean said they were planning a youth Valentine’s dance a few days before Valentines Day and the Youth Outreach Team will have some Valentine's goodies at their street outreach program Valentine's night.

Hannigan may not be struck by Cupid’s arrow this year, but with places like Argo Tea and The Night Ministry out there, she can still be shown some love this Valentine’s Day.