There are very few players in sports who I would say “deserve” anything. They would probably agree — everyone plays with a chip on their shoulder. Everything is earned, nothing is deserved, and all that.
But damnit, Michael Brantley deserved to win this World Series. After everything he’s been through with various injuries, all he did for Cleveland during his decade with the organization, and infamously being the final out in the 2019 World Series loss — he deserves this.
Brantley joined the Astros in 2019, arguably the worst possible time. They had already won their World Series in 2017, and if Cleveland wasn’t going to sign him I can’t blame him for trying to hop on with another (at the time) well-respected and winning organization. But then in 2020, the Astros’ banging scheme came to light, and Brantley was lumped in with the cheaters. After World Series losses with Cleveland in 2016 and Houston in 2019 and 2021, it was starting to look like his legacy would be the guy who always came so close but never won it all.
So when the Astros shared an image of Brantley (now dubbed “Uncle Mike”) celebrating his long-overdue World Series win with his teammates it legitimately made me tear up a bit.
That smile — the one that came long before Francisco Lindor — was beaming as bright as it ever did in Cleveland. Even if it’s in the wrong uniform, it’s good to see it hoisting a World Series trophy.
Brantley hasn’t played since a shoulder injury sidelined him on June 26. He underwent surgery in August to repair it and ended up missing the Astros’ entire playoff run, but you can see it just in the way the Astros players and their fans celebrate with him — he had an impact on that team. Because that’s just what he does, whether he’s on or off the field.
As Jeff Passan wrote on ESPN after the Astros’ win, it was Brantley that rallied the Houston batters after they were blown out by the Phillies, 7-0, and found themselves trailing in the World Series. Speaking at a players-only meeting following Game 3, he brought a blunt assessment of their odds if the offense didn’t pick it up, noting the multiple heartbreaks he’s had in the World Series and his desire to avoid having to give more “sad hugs”.
Did it work? Ask Trey Mancini and it sure as hell sounds like it did.
“We were all ready to run through a brick wall,” Astros first baseman Trey Mancini said. “He’s somebody I’ve admired immensely throughout my career. I mean, the model of consistency. His words carry a ton of weight. It meant a lot to us. It turned the series around.”
In a lot of ways, the culture that the 2022 Guardians were built on was started by Brantley and others way back in early- to mid-2010s. Even before Cleveland went to the World Series in 2016, Brantley was building up his teammates and entrenching himself in the lore of the city forever.
Remember, it was Brantley who helped a young shortstop named Francisco calm down when things seemed like they were getting overwhelming. Lindor then took what he learned from his teammate and helped Oscar Mercado when he found himself in a similar situation in 2019.
The impact that Brantley had on manager Terry Francona was equally tremendous. Cleveland’s skipper detailed a teary-eyed goodbye in 2018 when he had to let Brantley know that the team wasn’t signing him. At that point, Brantley had been with the organization since 2009 and hadn’t taken a major-league at-bat in any other uniform. But Brantley had missed a lot of time in the years leading up to that offseason, and the penny-pinching Cleveland front office wasn’t ready to risk a bunch of money on him staying healthy. So he left and eventually signed with the Astros in pursuit of a World Series.
Everyone was emotional when Brantley returned to Cleveland for the first time in a different uniform in 2019. Cleveland players left their own messages for him in the outfield, and Francona was pretty sure he was going to cry when he stepped in the box, and had nothing but fond memories of the outfielder’s time in Cleveland.
“I was texting with him earlier,” Francona said. “I’m like, ‘Man, when you get in that box, I may start crying.’ You know what, I mean I obviously hope he doesn’t beat us because we’re playing them, but changing uniforms doesn’t take away the affection or the respect that we have had and will have for him. Man, we were so blessed to have him here for as long as we did.”
Three years later, he finally has his championship.
Brantley is now 35 with another shoulder surgery under his belt. The days of being a full-time outfielder are long gone, but the man can still hit and draw a walk like nobody’s business. Even if he defies father time and stays an effective hitter into his 40s, there is no guarantee he’ll ever be in a position to win a World Series again, so I’m glad he finally gets that euphoria of winning it all. He deserves it.