CLEVELAND — Michael Brantley’s first appearance back at Progressive Field tonight will come as the starting left fielder for the American League All-Star team — not the Houston Astros.
“I think it’s gonna be easier,” said Brantley, who spent the first 10 seasons of his big league career with the Indians before signing a free-agent contract with Houston this offseason worth $32 million over two years. “One, because, I get to go out of the same locker room, I’m in the same dugout, go out to the outfield the same way. I already kinda thought about that part. So everything’s going to be great. I’m very excited to go out there and play in front of those fans again.”
It’s a safe bet the hometown crowd will be excited to see him as well. Brantley, a three-time All-Star with the Indians, was a fan favorite, overcoming multiple injuries to return to elite form.
Nicknamed “Dr. Smooth,” Brantley epitomized the moniker, playing on three Central Division championship teams from 2016-18, including an American League title team in ’16.
It would be shocking to hear any boos when he’s announced along with the rest of the AL starters.
“I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” said Brantley, who was sidelined by a shoulder injury during the Indians’ entire World Series run three years ago. “I just know that I’m very appreciative to those fans that supported me throughout my entire career here. I’m gonna make sure they know that. I’m very thankful for that and I’m very appreciative of that.
“Hopefully people know how hard I worked when I was in Cleveland and I know the relationships that I built here are going to last a lifetime.”
Brantley connects regularly with a number of people in the Indians organization, including longtime teammate Carlos Santana, who will join him in the starting lineup tonight. He developed a lasting relationship with Terry Francona, his manager in Cleveland from 2013-18, who praised Brantley’s professionalism and ability the whole way.
“Having him as a manager, being so close and playing alongside one another, I don’t want that relationship to end just ’cause I’m not here,” said Brantley, who finished third in AL MVP voting in 2014 and led the league with 45 doubles in 2015. “We text all the time together, just checking in on each other. I can’t thank him enough for what he’s done for my career.”
Brantley, 32, will see a number of familiar faces today, including shortstop Francisco Lindor, who was selected as a reserve to his fourth straight
All-Star Game and will be on the AL roster with Brantley for the third consecutive season.
“Brantley, I always say, is my dad,” Lindor said. “He’s helped me in my career and we miss him a lot. It doesn’t matter what team he leaves, every team is going to miss him. He’s a great hitter. He’s a great person and he’s a leader.
“I’m looking forward to seeing Michael at my locker. I can’t wait to talk to him. Hopefully he’s going to be right next to me.”
Brantley has remained injury-free and at the top of his game during his debut season with the Astros, batting .324 with 24 doubles, 12 home runs and 46 RBIs in 84 games.
He returns to Cleveland representing an opposing team in Houston, which swept him and the Indians in last year’s ALDS. But it would be hard-pressed to call him the enemy.
“It’s going to be special for me, no matter what,” Brantley said. “To come back to somewhere where you worked so hard and playing in front of these fans that you played in front of for 10 seasons, it’s going to be special.”
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