February 26, 2024

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Michael Brantley, metronome for Cleveland and Houston, has retired

Michael Brantley, metronome for Cleveland and Houston, has retired

HOUSTON — Doubt has crept into the Astros' clubhouse. The World Series hangs in the balance. Then Michael Brantley spoke.

Shoulder surgery kept him off the active roster, but many within the organization insisted he remain with the team during their 2022 postseason run. Brantley pulled the team together after a Game 3 loss that left Houston with a 2-1 deficit. He couldn't contribute on the field, but he became indispensable off it. Brantley addressed his teammates, reminding them of how far they have come and where they intend to go.

The Astros never lost another game, and Brantley won the World Series ring that had always eluded him.

Brantley, 36, is retiringHe made the announcement on Friday, capping the career of the five-time All-Star, one of the most consistent hitters of the past decade and the definition of a consummate professional. Lauded early for his brilliant left-handed swing and discipline in the strike zone, Brantley blossomed from a player who would later be named into one of baseball's most respected players, a man distinguished by his meticulous routine and direction.

“It is with great honor that I announce the end of an amazing journey in baseball. It has been an incredible honor to live out my dreams and wear an American League uniform for the past 15 years.”

After the Astros knocked the Indians out of the 2018 season and the crowd began to dissipate in Cleveland's clubhouse, veteran players flocked to Brantley's corner locker, a double booth usually reserved for the team's captain. Jason Kipnis, Josh Tomlin and Jan Gomez occupied the area's leather chairs. Yonder Alonso sat on the floor near the base of Brantley's setup.

They all knew some or most of them wouldn't come back, including Brantley. The band was breaking up. In Brantley's exit interview the next day with manager Terry Francona and executives Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff, everyone in the room cried. During his decade with the organization, Brantley emerged as a dependable guy, Francona says, who could roll out of bed and take a few hits. He grew into a leader, and was so influential that Francisco Lindor credited him with teaching him how to become a great player.

Everyone in that office on that day in October 2018 thought Brantley would wear a different jersey the following season. No one knew it would be an Astros uniform.

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Houston prioritized a cornerback throughout the winter, but recognized a potential void developing within its clubhouse. Carlos Beltran retired after winning the 2017 World Series, and after one season, Brian McCann left for Atlanta, depriving the club of two of its most trusted veteran leaders.

Finding a player who aligned with the Astros' offensive philosophy and was willing to mentor some players who were still maturing was mandatory. After signing Brantley to a two-year, $30 million deal, former general manager Jeff Luhnow called it “one of our highest priority moves.”

Brantley hit .305/.365/.463 in 394 games as a star, earning two All-Star selections and a permanent place atop one of baseball's most powerful lineups. During Game 6 of the 2019 American League Championship Series, Brantley initiated one of the most memorable defensive plays in franchise history, diving to catch a sinking liner from Aaron Hicks before doubling Aaron Judge at first base to preserve a two-run lead.

Those feats prompted smiles and screams that Brantley rarely allowed the audience to see. He led in relative silence, allowing his teammates to see his detailed procedures while he offered advice drawn from little experience at that club. During Brantley's first spring training, his teammates nicknamed him “Uncle Mike,” a nickname that made its way onto T-shirts, promotional materials and the team's television broadcasts throughout his tenure.

“There are people who have been here who haven't been here who have been incredibly helpful to me personally. I think Mike so far has kind of been the guy,” George Springer said in 2019. “I want to be successful all the time. And when things don't go my way – or our way – it's not for me. This is because I want success for the team. When I fail, I feel like I let the team down. Mike kind of gave a lot of in-depth (advice) about “never let guys down.” Go play the game. There are a lot of games to play. Be yourself and make sure not to let the pitch, toys or bats get into the next phase.

It is almost impossible to measure the respect Brantley has generated within the organization. That he signed three separate free agent contracts is proof of that. Dusty Baker spoke of him with respect and reverence to a few players and insisted that his 24-year-old son Darren learn to hit from Brantley. Springer and Kyle Tucker both credited Brantley with helping them rise among the sport's elite.

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“Professional in every way,” said reliever Joe Smith, who played with Brantley in both Cleveland and Houston. “My favorite teammate ever. We were together for 10 seasons. It's a hell of a guy to be with him for that long.”

Brantley learned the craft from his father, Mickey, who was an outfielder for the Mariners in the late 1980s and who eventually coached in the major leagues. Throughout Brantley's career, the two dissected his swing mechanics. Even in Brantley's final seasons, Mickey would head to the field to watch his son take batting practice.

Some called Brantley “Junior” because he shared his father's name and passion for hitting. Others in Cleveland referred to him as “Dr. Smooth” because of his fluid movement when putting the pitch in the gap.

Brantley spent 15 seasons in the major leagues, none of which were with the team that drafted him. That's because CC Sabathia dragged the Brewers to the playoffs in 2008, two months after Cleveland dealt him to Milwaukee for four unproven players. The centerpiece of the game was Matt Laporta, a solid starter who flopped once he reached the big leagues. Shooters Zach Jackson and Rob Bryson didn't accomplish much with Cleveland. The field of fourth-place starters has been narrowed to two candidates, but the final ranking hinges on whether the Brewers advance to the postseason.

Had Sabathia not carried his new team to the NLDS, Cleveland would have settled for outfielder Taylor Greene, who eventually reached 154 major league games as a major leaguer and would have cemented Mark Shapiro's big-time nightmare as head of the Indians' front office.

Instead, the club acquired Brantley, who was a cornerstone of the team's lineup for much of the next decade. At his best, Brantley was a double-double machine, walking as often as he hit the ball and making downfield assists while mastering the art of throwing the ball barehanded off the 19-foot wall in Progressive Field, spinning around and completing the layup. Determine the throw to second base.

He blossomed into an MVP finalist in 2014, when he slashed .327/.385/.506 and tallied 20 homers, 45 doubles, 23 stolen bases and a career-best 200 hits. When Cleveland traded away Nick Swisher and Michael Bourne in August 2015, Brantley stepped into a leadership role. That made it doubly painful when he was relegated to the crowd on the team's run to the World Series a year later.

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Due to shoulder surgery, Brantley appeared in just 11 games in 2016 and was forced to watch his teammates' playoff game from a distance. Michael Martinez, a late-game defensive replacement in left field, reached the final out in the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series. If Brantley had been healthy, Martinez — or anyone else — wouldn't be playing left field.

Brantley suffered an ankle injury in August 2017 that sidelined him until the final weekend of the season. He was not 100 percent ready for the qualifiers, and only entered the starting lineup in the third match, after Edwin Encarnacion suffered an ankle injury.

He finally reached a postseason opportunity in one piece in 2018, but the Astros made quick work of Cleveland in Brantley's final days with the franchise.
Brantley's clubs reached the playoffs in each of his last eight years. A shoulder injury limited him to 79 games over the last two seasons. He couldn't play during the 2022 World Series, but the man known for his stoic, uncompromising demeanor still energized his team's swing between Games 3 and 4.

“He's a teammate who cares more about others than himself,” catcher Martin Maldonado said. The athlete this week. “He's the reason we won the (2022) World Series. He (led) the best team meeting I've ever heard. When he got hurt, he was always in the dugout trying to help others.”

Publicly, Brantley has never broken out of character, deliberately resorting in interviews to his endless supply of clichés. In particular, he became essential to the Cleveland operation and to the emerging Houston dynasty.

After an arduous rehabilitation process filled with setbacks, Brantley contributed to the Astros' 2023 postseason run. When he finished one win away from the flag, Brantley told his teammates of his intention to retire – a final message within the club where his legacy is cemented.

(Top image: Tim Warner/Getty Images)