There’s a maxim as old as the game which says a baseball team is built up the middle. The player responsible for the most territory in the middle of the diamond is the center fielder. The Tigers have had many excellent fly chasers in the middle of the “pasture,” and maybe none have ever been as beloved as Curtis Granderson and Chet Lemon.
Both Granderson and Lemon patrolled center for Detroit teams that won the pennant. Both played in the World Series wearing the Old English D. Both were known for an infectious smile and aggressive style of play. Both earned the admiration of baseball fans in the Motor City.
Chet Lemon: Ol’ Dusty Butt
“He’s the best defensive center fielder I’ve ever seen.” — Sparky Anderson
There were many, many players to root for on the 1984 Tigers, a team that strutted out to a record-setting start and left the rest of the league in its dust.
Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell were teamed as the All-Star double play duo. Then there was slugging catcher Lance Parrish, and ace starting pitcher Jack Morris. The latter and Trammell, are enshrined in Cooperstown. Don’t forget Kirk Gibson, Darrell Evans, Larry Herndon, Dan Petry, and MVP, Cy Young Award winner Willie Hernandez. The team was stacked.
Tiger Stadium had the largest center field in baseball. The fence stood 440 feet from home plate. It was so deep that the flag pole was in fair territory. The man charged with monitoring that expansive area was Chester Earl Lemon.
In 1984, Lemon had a typical Chet Lemon season: .287, 34 doubles, 20 home runs, 76 RBI, and a .495 slugging percentage. But most importantly for the Tigers, Lemon was obsessive in his pursuit of the baseball.
“I know when a ball is hit [out there], Chet will get it,” said teammate and pitcher Milt Wilcox.
Lemon never won a Gold Glove. That’s probably the worst case of injustice in the history of that award. There was always someone else in the league that had a better defensive reputation: Fred Lynn, Dwayne Murphy, Gary Pettis. And thus, Chet was snubbed a few times. But he deserved a few of the trophies.
Perhaps the most idiosyncratic part of Lemon’s game was his baserunning. Tiger fans will remember that Chet loved to dive headfirst into first base. That’s a dopey play. But it looks like hustle. And the fans loved Chet for it.
Lemon was a poor baserunner, despite the instincts he had as an outfielder. Typically, he was thrown out a half dozen times a year for some mistake on the paths. But his style of running earned him one of the most colorful nicknames on the 1980s Tigers. Observing Chet’s habit of dirtying his uniform, Sparky Anderson called his center fielder, “Ol’ Dusty Butt” or “Dusty Pants.”
Lemon started as a shortstop, where he did nothing to engender confidence in his ability to throw the ball across the diamond. He was fast and his arm was strong but erratic. The organization he was with, the A’s, did not have the imagination to see him as anything but an infielder, but a scout for the White Sox loved his wheels (teammates called him “Jet”) and urged Chicago to trade for him. In one of his first spring training games with the Sox, Lemon was playing third, and a grounder was hit to his left. He scrambled after it and ended up nearly in front of the second baseman as his momentum carried him to first. When he returned to the dugout, Chicago manager Chuck Tanner put his arm around Lemon’s shoulder and said, “Son, I want you to start taking 100 fly balls a day because if you stay an infielder you’re gonna kill somebody.”
Lemon still holds the American League record for most putouts by an outfielder, with 509 in 1977. Lemon had thick, strong legs and a short upper body, he looked like a wind-em-up, fly-catching toy in center field. He seemed to know precisely where to run when a baseball was hit off the bat, and he caught it on his left shoulder, one-handed with a weather-beaten glove he used his entire career. He rarely had to dive because his instincts were spot-on and he took the shortest path to the ball.
Curtis Granderson: Everyone’s Favorite Teammate
“Our lineup starts with Grandy’s energy, and he’s a team leader even at his young age.” — Jim Leyland
When the Tigers drafted Granderson with their third round pick in the 2002 Major League Draft, their scouting department projected the 21-year old might become a Gold Glove outfielder one day. But they weren’t expecting the young player out of University of Illinois at Chicago to grow into a power hitter.
In September 2004, Granderson was summoned to the big leagues and made his debut in center field at Comerica Park. That evening he batted ninth. But it wasn’t until the 2006 season that the lefthanded hitter made his way into the lineup for good.
In 2006, Granderson snatched the center field job, a role previously held by Nook Logan (yes, really). His play, as much as anyone’s, propelled the team to a surprising 24-win improvement and the pennant. That year, Grandy hit .260 with 31 doubles, nine triples, 19 home runs, and 68 RBI. He typically batted leadoff.
Granderson had giraffe-like legs, a very long swing, and struck out a lot. Defensively he was known for his ability (or necessity) to dive for balls and his accurate throwing arm, otherwise he was a fairly average defender. His most marketable asset became his ability to pull the ball, which he used expertly as a member of the Yankees, clobbering home runs down the short right field line. He hit 30 home runs in a season for three teams: the Tigers, Yankees, and Mets.
Granderson is one of only seven players to hit 20 doubles, triples, and home runs in the same season. Of those seven, only four (Granderson, Willie Mays, Jimmy Rollins, and Wildfire Schulte) also stole 20 bases in that same season.
Possibly the most admirable star of the 21st century, Granderson was only 27 when he was asked by Major League Baseball to serve as ambassador to Asia on a goodwill tour. He’s now a lovable, smiling television baseball analyst following his retirement as a player.