Grandmother forever in Brantley's heart

Tribe outfielder welcomes MLB's cancer awareness initiatives

Grandmother forever in Brantley's heart

SAN DIEGO -- The baseball bounced up the middle, skipping to the left of Rays pitcher Alex Colome, but taking its sweet time to roll through the infield for a sure single. Michael Brantley had been waiting a few days for this hit, so naturally the ball teased him during its journey to the outfield grass.

When Brantley knew for certain that he had collected that single on Sept. 27, giving him an even 200 hits on the season, it was a load off the shoulders for the Indians outfielder. It was also an emotional moment for Brantley, who ran through first base, touched both hands to his mouth and blew a kiss to the sky.

That kiss was sent to his grandmother, Joan Ann Hommel, who passed away two years ago after a battle with cancer.

"I just felt like she was with me all season. She kept pushing me," Brantley said. "I just felt like every step, every swing, every time I was on the field, I had almost like an angel watching over me. It's a weird feeling. I don't know how to really describe it. I prayed before every game and I felt like something was different.

"I felt like she was there, just like she said she would be always. I just wanted to give a little gesture to say thank you."

Brantley thinks about his grandmother often, and memories of Hommel were fresh in his mind again this week.

On Monday at the Winter Meetings, members of the public-relations staffs for all 30 Major League teams joined together, discussing MLB's partnership with LUNGevity to help raise awareness and money for cancer research and treatment. Each team has put unique experiences up for auction and the proceeds will benefit the non-profit organization.

The Indians have two items available in the auction, which runs through 11 p.m. ET on Thursday.

"I love what MLB's doing," Brantley said. "We've got to raise awareness. We need to keep pushing to find a cure or do whatever we can to help create a better process. Cancer affects so many people and it touches so many peoples' lives."

It is an issue that is very personal for Brantley, because Hommel passed away due to complications from lung cancer on Feb. 5, 2012, at the age of 71. During that offseason two years ago, Brantley was at her side for chemotherapy, giving her the kind of support that she provided for him while he was growing up in Florida.

That experience was eye-opening for Brantley.

"I learned how tough she was," he said. "She was a small little lady, but she never gave up. She never missed one treatment. She never said she was going to stop. She said she was always going to keep fighting. Watching your grandmother, a person you look up to, going through so much pain, it's tough. At the same time, she always stayed positive and was always fighting to keep going."

To say that Brantley and his grandmother were close would not do their relationship justice.

Hommel lived two streets away from Brantley's parents' home when he was a kid growing up in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where he still resides with his wife and children in the offseason. When his dad, former big leaguer Mickey Brantley, was on the road playing ball, Michael would spend a lot of time at his grandmother's house.

Brantley could hop on his bike and ride over to visit his grandparents and Joan usually had something in the stove.

"I miss her cooking so much," Brantley said, "just as much as I miss her."

Brantley laughed when recalling his grandmother cheering him on during his Little League games.

"She called me, 'big guy,'" Brantley said. "From the time I can remember, she always called me, 'big guy.'"

Brantley said Hommel taught him how to be respectful to those around him, imparted advice on how to treat women and shared countless stories that have stayed with him throughout his life. And, as her big guy kept growing up, she watched his games on TV and would leave Brantley voicemails to tell him how proud she was of the man and ballplayer he had become.

These were all reasons for Brantley wanting to be there for her when she was fighting cancer.

Asked if one memory of Hommel stands out for him, Brantley was quiet for a moment before speaking.

"Yeah, but I don't know if I want to talk about it," he said. "The last words she said to me. That's my strongest memory of her. Her last words. It's something I've never really told anybody."

After giving it some thought, Brantley felt compelled to share that private moment.

"Growing up with my grandmother, any difficult time that I had, I always ran for her advice," Brantley said. "When we put her in hospice, every day we'd go in there for the hour that we were allowed and we would talk to her and kind of check in on her. The day before she passed, she pulled me in the room one-on-one, by myself, and she said to me, 'Big guy, just remember, you can always talk to me. I will always be there.'

"Those were the last words she said to me. It's something I always kept to myself, in my heart. Any time -- good or bad, ups and downs -- I feel like she's still there and I can still talk to her."

Brantley felt like she was there for him for his 200th hit last season. The least he could do was blow her a kiss.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.