Brantley, ‘Dr. Smooth,’ calls it a career after 15 seasons

January 5th, 2024

The Houston Astros squeezed into a joyful huddle on the dais, newly crowned as 2022 World Series champions, and the Commissioner’s Trophy very quickly made its way into ’s hands. His teammates made certain of that.

The smiles around Brantley told the story: After 1,430 Major League games, he had earned his World Series ring.

Brantley hadn’t played after June 26 of that season because of a fourth surgery on his right shoulder, but his teammates wanted him at the center of the celebration. They knew the magnitude of his contributions to what they’d achieved. Brantley had remained the conscience of the clubhouse, a trusted confidante for players who sought advice on hitting or any subject at all.

“That was the most special part for me,” Brantley recalled on Thursday in a telephone interview with “My teammates putting me front and center, telling me to raise the trophy up -- I still get goosebumps thinking about it. I’m always going to remember that.”

Brantley became a World Series champion that night in a fashion that affirmed his widely acknowledged status as one of the most respected players of his generation. It is difficult to imagine a more satisfying legacy.

Now Brantley heads into retirement with gratitude about his journey -- and excitement about what lies ahead -- following a decorated career in which he batted .298 over 10 seasons in Cleveland and five in Houston.

“I have young kids, and now it’s time to be a dad, first and foremost,” the five-time All-Star outfielder said this week in discussing his decision to retire. “It’s time for me to be home 24/7, watch my kids grow up and not miss important milestones.”

In fact, he won’t just be watching. He’s already signed up to coach Little League for Michael III, 8, and Maxwell, 6, the youngest of Michael and Melissa Brantley’s four children.

Brantley laughed when noting the difference in his sons’ reactions to the start of his coaching career: Michael is “just OK with it,” while Maxwell “absolutely loves it.”

Maxwell acquired the nickname “Shadow” around Minute Maid Park in recent years because of how closely he follows his dad around. In that way, Brantley is retiring at the perfect time: He played long enough that his children have memories of him playing, but he’s retiring in time to enjoy a lengthy Little League coaching career.

“I loved having them around the locker room with me, playing on the field, and watching me work and train in the offseason, to have that baseball gene instilled in them,” Brantley said. “They were able to travel to different Major League stadiums, which is something I remember doing with my own father. It means a lot that we shared those same experiences.”

Mickey Brantley was in the second of his four seasons with the Seattle Mariners when Michael was born in 1987. Michael said their father-son hitting sessions over the years are the basis of his baseball knowledge, education that continued through his last Major League at-bats. When the Astros visited Seattle during the final week of the 2023 regular season with a postseason berth at stake, Mickey was there to observe.

Michael needed his dad’s feedback. After an arduous rehabilitation from the 2022 shoulder surgery, he went 14 months without appearing in a Major League game. He was in a sprint to prepare for the postseason -- and he knew that retirement likely beckoned whenever the Astros played their last game.

“I didn’t have too many games under my belt, and I was trying to iron out my swing,” he recalled. “I had him come in to help me tune up.”

It worked. After the achy shoulder forced Brantley to miss eight consecutive games, he returned to the lineup on Sept. 27. The Astros’ lead over the Mariners was down to a half-game, and Dusty Baker wanted Brantley’s steady left-handed bat in the lineup against rookie right-hander Bryce Miller.

Brantley rewarded his manager’s trust, delivering four hits in a performance that reminded the baseball world why he has one of the sport’s great nicknames: Dr. Smooth. The Astros won, 8-3, and went on to clinch the division a few days later.

Even though the 2023 Astros fell one victory shy of a third straight World Series appearance, Brantley delivered an indelible moment during his final postseason: In the clinching Game 4 of the Division Series against the Twins, he homered off Minnesota starter Joe Ryan.

After more than a year away from Major League competition, Brantley showed he could still deliver in October.

“It was huge,” he said. “At the time, you’re in the moment and trying to win a game to advance. I didn’t want to celebrate right then, but inside it felt so good to contribute. José Abreu hit a huge homer for us to solidify the win. Just having that opportunity meant a lot to me. I still thank my teammates, the coaching staff and our medical staff for putting me in the position to help the team again.”

After the Astros’ season ended with a Game 7 loss to Texas in the American League Championship Series, Brantley addressed his teammates, thanking them for their hard work and support through his five seasons in Houston.

He didn’t verbalize it during that private meeting, but Brantley knew it was very possible that he’d played his final Major League game.

“I didn’t have that much thinking to do,” he said this week. “I had been talking with my family about it a lot during the year. It was a long season for me. My family was with me for the playoffs. That night, there were just a lot of hugs. I am so grateful for the opportunity to play baseball and live the dream I’ve had.”

Brantley had arrived in Houston after the 2018 season, with encouragement from friends George Springer and Joe Smith, because he wanted a chance to win every season. He certainly had that, helping the Astros reach the postseason each year of his tenure.

Brantley has been an October fixture over the past decade. He was part of four postseason teams in Cleveland, although he missed playing in the 2016 World Series run while recovering from shoulder surgery. He returned to make All-Star appearances in ’17 and ’18, his final two seasons with Cleveland.

Brantley is thankful for his decade in Cleveland, which included his 2009 MLB debut -- after arriving in the CC Sabathia blockbuster -- and first All-Star Game appearance in 2014, when he worked up the courage to ask for a photo with Derek Jeter. “He signed it for me,” Brantley said. “I have that picture hanging in my office.”

Along the way, Brantley played for two managers -- Terry Francona and Baker -- who are regarded as certain Hall of Famers following their respective retirements in 2023. Brantley sees a lot of similarities in how the two supported their players while helping them compete at the highest level.

Now Brantley will have the chance to coach teams of his own -- featuring the aspiring ballplayers who were with him in the proudest, most personal moments with the Commissioner’s Trophy on Nov. 5, 2022.

“I had my family with me that night, celebrating with the trophy in our dugout,” Brantley recalled. “I would never touch the trophy until we won it. To have that moment with my family was so special.”