CHICAGO -- For almost a decade now, Mike Dee has listened to Chicago media and fans criticize the Cubs and White Sox for whiffing on a truly homegrown treasure. He says that the knock hasn't been founded, that the local teams knew all about Curtis Granderson when he was hitting .483 for the University of Illinois-Chicago Flames, who will soon play their games in Curtis Granderson Stadium.
"It was a scout convention every time he played," said Dee, the Flames' coach who had just been hired when Granderson put away a basketball and dedicated himself to being a full-time baseball player. "Everybody saw him. People questioned his size, and there were [other] questions. I give the Tigers credit."
While other teams broke down Granderson's baseball tools, there was a broader discussion in the Detroit Draft room.
"The scout who signed him [Jerome Cochran] was an ex-cop and he was around us all the time,'' Dee said. "I think he had great insights into who Curtis was as a person, and I think he pushed really hard. He knew the Tigers were getting something more than a talented player, and that was a selling point.''
The 80th player overall selected in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, Granderson has been a three-time All-Star with the Tigers and the Yankees. He was fourth in the American League MVP Award voting in '11, when he became the first player in the Major Leagues to deliver at least 40 home runs, 10 triples and 25 stolen bases.
But in Granderson's best years and his down ones, he's always delivered a lot more than statistics. That's why it's so intriguing to think about Granderson coming home to Chicago, just as it was when the Tigers began shopping him at the General Managers Meetings in 2009.
Granderson could join Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu to help the White Sox become competitive again. He could give the Cubs the type of veteran that agent Scott Boras has said they need -- a highly respected player to serve as a sounding board and mentor for the wave of talent headed to Wrigley Field from a farm system that has been Theo Epstein's priority.
Given Granderson's standing as a free agent and his commitment to his hometown -- where he's maintained his offseason home, helped open a popular restaurant (the Fifty/50 in Ukrainian Village) and worked to find creative ways to reduce the drop-out rate and violence in troubled neighborhoods -- those are impossible scenarios to ignore.
Granderson recently told MLB Network Radio that fans are always asking him if he's coming home.
"I'm excited that there is interest and there's buzz and people are willing and excited to see what I'm going to do,'' Granderson said. "But the process is here, it's underway, and [I'm] just excited to see how it is all going to happen.
"I've enjoyed my time with New York -- and we've got to see what's going to happen there first -- but I'm open for everything. Let's just see how it is all going to end up happening and see what happens with the Yankees first."
Granderson is one of 13 players who received a qualifying offer. He has until Monday at 5 p.m. ET to decide to accept or reject a one-year, $14.1 million deal with the Yankees, knowing that his leverage on the free-agent market might suffer because teams would lose a first- or second-round pick to sign him.
With his 33rd birthday approaching in March, Granderson's value had already taken one hit. He twice broke bones when he was plunked with pitches last season -- the right forearm after being hit by J.A. Happ in Spring Training, the left little finger after being hit by Cesar Ramos on May 24, in his eighth game of the season -- and was limited to 61 games. He batted a career-low .229 and saw his WAR slide from 5.1 in 2011 to only 1.1 this past season.
But if you think Granderson is down for the count, that the frustrating 2013 campaign was more than an outlier, you probably don't know Granderson and all he has to offer. Dee does, and he expects Granderson to be one of the most significant signings this winter. It would be cool, Dee admits, if his former player did wind up with one of the Chicago teams.
"I know the impact he could have on a lot of kids here,'' Dee said. "The question is always, which team -- [the White Sox or Cubs]? I never touch that. I'm happy he's in the position he's in. Somebody's going to get a good player. He'll do a lot of good stuff for whoever decides they want him. He's working his way through this the right way.''
With his intelligence, a strong set of parents and high levels of curiosity and compassion, Granderson has always done things the right way.
"It's hard to explain,'' Dee said. "When I say certain things people make the presumption I'm saying them because he's a great player, because he does things for our school. But that's not it. Curtis is a great human being, a flat-out great human being, and I was saying that before he gave us money. I was saying it when he was a player [for us]. He cares about other people, cares about people who haven't been given the same opportunities he's been given in life.
"He has a real consciousness about that. I don't know if I've ever had a player I respected more as a human being.''
Since Illinois-Chicago announced a $5 million donation from Granderson last February, Dee has worked to clear up a misunderstanding about the project. Yes, Granderson's donation will fund most of the $7 million stadium that the Flames will move into in 2015, but Granderson wouldn't have been interested, Dee said, if the project was only going to help a college baseball program.
Dee said there will be three other artificially turfed diamonds surrounding the centerpiece stadium, with its great view of the Chicago skyline, and that the plan is for them to be in use whenever weather allows for T-ball and Little League teams, along with public high schools and elite youth teams. The next phase of the project includes a 50,000-square foot indoor facility to keep kids thinking baseball in the winters.
The idea is to get boys from low-income neighborhoods onto a college campus so they can see education as a way to improve their lives. It's a timely endeavor, as violence has become an epidemic in some areas of Chicago.
"We all watch the news, know what's going on,'' Dee said. "The statistics are staggering. We all know what the murder rate is, but I was talking to a friend of mine who is a cop, and he said that last year about 3,000 people were shot in the city who didn't die. He said that if 3,000 were shot and didn't die, and 500 died. How many got shot at and not hit?''
Dee related a story he had been told recently by one of Granderson's long-time friends who heads an after-school program for children on the West Side. Dee said she asked the children to write about what they wanted to be at age 25, and that the most common answer was "alive.''
Unlike many of those kids, Granderson and Dee come from families that gave them the expectation that they were going to go to college. The idea of the facility that Granderson is helping to build is to expose others to an academic setting.
"So many kids have never been on a college campus,'' Dee said. "They don't know what it feels like, looks like, tastes like. If we get them on a campus, maybe we can begin those internal discussions in their heads -- 'This is cool, this is what a dorm room looks like, this is what a cafeteria looks like.' All those things demystify what it is, what it's really about.''
No matter where Granderson lands this winter, he'll play a role in his hometown. He could easily wind up back in New York with either the Yankees or the Mets, who figure to be two of the most aggressive teams this winter, or he could return to the Tigers, who are looking for a left fielder. But wouldn't it be neat if he figures prominently in the retooling of one of Chicago's two teams?
Because their first-round picks are protected, signing Granderson would cost them a second-round pick and probably $14-15 million a year for four or five years, using Nick Swisher's year-old agreement with the Indians for comparison's sake. Both teams have plenty of payroll flexibility, especially with money from national television contracts essentially doubling next season.
"I think earlier in his career he would have been nervous about coming back to Chicago,'' Dee said. "I don't think that's the case anymore. He's very calm about this. He's going to think it through and make a decision on what is the best fit for him, where can he help a ballclub. I do think he's much more comfortable with the idea of coming back here, but he's got to see what opportunities are out there.''
Hopefully that will include one or two that will not require a moving allowance.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.