Talk about landing on your feet.
The Indians’ best left fielder since Albert Belle did better than that. He landed on his feet, he landed on a first-place team, and Tuesday night at Progressive Field — just to drive the painful point home more painfully still — he landed back in Cleveland as the best left fielder in the American League.
Tuesday night Indians fans said hello to old friend Michael Brantley, of the — ouch! — Houston Astros.
Hey, it’s not like the Indians could use an outfielder, right?
OK, let’s get this out of the way up front.
Brantley’s slash line at the All-Star break: .324/.383/.511.
All the Indians’ left fielders combined: .255/.315/.399.
Brantley is second in the American League in hitting with that .324 average. For the Indians, six players have started in left field. One is hitting .211, another, before he was released, .210, one of them is an infielder.
You get the point.
“It’s very special,” said Brantley of his first trip back to the city in which he spent the first 10 years of his career.
“Flying in, seeing the buildings, being back in Cleveland for the first time in a different uniform, I’ve got butterflies,” he said Monday. “I’m real excited to see the clubbies, the field staff, the people that work around the ballpark. Just to say hello to them. I miss them. I look forward to seeing everybody.”
In the second inning he reminded his old fans what they’re missing when he belted a double to left-center field off Clayton Kershaw, driving in the American League’s first run.
This was Brantley’s fourth All-Star selection. The first three came with the Indians. The fourth could have, but the Indians allowed him to leave, apparently uncontested, as a free agent after last season.
Not surprisingly, it didn’t take him long to find another job. He signed a two-year $32 million deal with the Astros.
Given Brantley’s familiarity and comfort with the Cleveland organization, one would assume he would have accepted the same offer from the Indians. But the Indians, who at the end of this season will have paid Danny Salazar $9.5 million over the last two years, decided to let their All-Star left fielder leave uncontested.
Two years at $16 million per year is not an outrageous contract, especially for what Brantley meant to the Indians both on the field and in the clubhouse. He was their best hitter and one of the leaders of the team.
Asked if he thought at the time there was a chance he would be back with the Indians in 2019, Brantley tried to keep the ball in the middle of the fairway.
“I didn’t want to rule out anything,” he said. “My goal in the offseason was to make the best decision for me and my family. I am very appreciative for what the Indians did for me in my career. I don’t want to get into the details with what happened this offseason. I would have loved to be back with the Indians, but I like being in Houston. They welcomed me with open arms.”
Of all the payroll-slashing, cost-cutting moves made by the Indians’ bean counters at the end of last season, this was the one that hurt the most. Brantley hitting second or third would have brought some much-needed depth to the lineup.
To their credit, the Indians, under Terry Francona, have grinded their way through an injury-riddled first half to cut division-leading Minnesota’s lead to 5ﾽ games. But regardless of how this season turns out, it’s almost certain that it would have played out even better with Brantley, who’s in the midst of a career year.
But he’s doing it in Houston, where his younger teammates wasted no time in nicknaming him “Uncle Michael.”
He’s the veteran leader, a role he assumed his last few years in Cleveland, where he became the poster boy for professionalism, for always saying and doing the right thing, and for playing the game the right way.
Uncle Michael enjoys the role of baseball elder statesman.
“If (the younger players) come to you with questions, it means you’re doing something right. You’re doing things the right way,” he said. “Yeah, I’m a little bit older. I’ve been around for a while. So I guess I’ve been doing things right for a long time. They respect that, and I appreciate it. I’m always going to be there for my teammates.”
During the player introductions prior to the All-Star Game he got a loud cheer from his former fans. They repeated it when he took the field in the top of the first inning, when he came to the plate in the second inning, and when he ended that at bat by belting that a vintage Brantley RBI double.
An inning later he left the game — and, in the morning, Cleveland.
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