Gold Gloves—Part IV: MLB 2B in Puerto Rico Winter Ball (Félix Millán and Davey Johnson)

Félix Millán

Félix Millán won the first of his two GG, with the 1969 Atlanta Braves. By this time, Millán had won a Puerto Rico Winter League batting title (.317 BA in 1968-69) with Caguas, and helped Caguas win the 1967-68 championship over Santurce. He made his Caguas debut at age 20 in 1963-64, but spent most of that winter playing 2B for the Pastora Milkers in Venezuela’s Occidental (Winter) League.  Caguas had Nate Oliver at 2B and plenty of IF depth. Félix “Fellé” Delgado, the scout who signed Millán, made the contacts which enabled the young 2B to play for Pastora, in a good league. Phil Niekro, Millán’s future Atlanta Braves teammate, was a Pastora teammate. Luis Tiant pitched for the Lara Cardinals in the same league.

I enjoyed watching Millán play for Caguas. He choked up on his bat, due to Hub Kittle’s suggestion, when playing for Yakima in 1965, and  rarely struck out—115 times in 2,466 AB in Puerto Rico (21 times/600 AB) and 242 times in 5,791 NL AB (21 times/504 AB). Millán’s MLB debut came with Atlanta in 1966, and he hit a respectable .275 in 37 games for Bobby Bragan, then-Braves manager, who managed in Cuba during the mid-1950s. Bragan liked Millán. So did Luman Harris, Millán’s 1967 manager at Richmond and his manager at Atlanta from 1968 until mid-1972. Harris managed the 1960-61 San Juan Senators (39-25) to a Puerto Rico regular season and playoff series title. Bragan and Harris were Alabama natives who appreciated Millán, the 1967 International League All-Star 2B, and a teammate of league MVP Tommie Aaron, Henry Aaron’s brother. Johnny Bench was that league’s All-Star catcher.

Henry Aaron befriended Millán and let him stay in his Atlanta house instead of a local hotel in 1966. Aaron was Millán’s road roommate, 1966-to-1972, due to this special friendship. My research indicates Henry Aaron felt a special bond toward Millán for reasons, including: Aaron’s 1953-54 winter season with Caguas; his first child was born in Puerto Rico; Millán was a teammate of Tommie Aaron with Richmond; Aaron’s special friendship with Isabela, Puerto Rico native Félix Mantilla when they were minor league teammates with Jacksonville, winter league teammates with Caguas and NL teammates with Milwaukee. Aaron also visited with Millán prior to the January 6, 1976 Puerto Rico Winter League All-Star Game, when Bob Feller threw out the first pitch and Aaron was the symbolic hitter. My Puerto Rico Winter League book includes a photo of Millán, in uniform, next to Aaron, before this All-Star Game.

Millán played in all 162 regular season games for Atlanta in 1969, helping them win the NL West. He hit .333 in the first-ever NLCS, a three-game sweep by the New York Mets. Millán then won his second straight Puerto Rico batting title, hitting .345, becoming the third player in league history to accomplish this, after Perucho Cepeda with Guayama, 1938-39/1939-40, and Willard Brown for Santurce, 1946-47 and 1947-48. In 1968-69 and 1970-71, he was the Puerto Rico League’s year-end All-Star 2B. During the latter season, he drove in a run for the Natives, managed by Roberto Clemente, in their 4-1 All-Star Game win over the Imports. Millán scored 100 runs for the 1970 Atlanta Braves, in posting a .310 BA, his top one at the MLB level.

Millán, limited to 125 games with Atlanta in 1972, won his second GG. A 3x NL All-Star, 1969-to-1971, he started in the 1969 game at RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C., and hitting eighth after Johnny Bench, and ahead of starter Steve Carlton. RF Henry Aaron hit third, and LF Cleon Jones batted sixth. Five of the nine NL starters had played in Puerto Rico: Aaron, Jones and Millán, with Caguas; Bench with San Juan; and Carlton—Ponce Lions. Five of nine AL starters—Reggie Jackson, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Frank Howard and Sal Bando—had also played in Puerto Rico. The NL scored five times in the third, in their eventual 9-3 win, helped by Millán’s two-run double off Oakland’s Blue Moon Odom, scoring Cleon Jones and Bench. Millán was unable to play in the 1970 Classic, but played in the 1971 All-Star Game at Detroit.

Atlanta traded Millán and LHP to the New York Mets for pitchers Gary Gentry and Danny Frisella after the 1972 season. Millán’s five-year tenure with the Mets, 1973-to-1977, included being selected the 1973 team MVP, for helping them win the NL East and NL pennant. Millán struck out 22 times in 638 AB during 1973. His 185 hits were a Mets single-season record at the time. But Millán did commit a costly error in game one of the 1973 World Series versus Oakland, a miscue which allowed two A’s runs to score, in a 2-1 Oakland win. The Mets outscored Oakland, 24-21, in this series, won by the A’s in seven games. Millán’s teammates included Tom Seaver and Willie Mays, in Mays’s final MLB season.

The disappointment of the Fall Classic was minimized when Caguas won the February 1974 Caribbean Series, in Hermosillo, Mexico. Millán mentioned how special the team chemistry was: ‘That’s why we won. We were a family who came together toward season’s end.” Héctor Barea, the team’s public relations official, concurred—“Gary Carter and Jim Essian caught; Guillermo Montañez played first; Félix Millán and Pedro García shared second; Mike Schmidt defended third and Rudy Meoli was at short. Jay Johnstone, Jerry Morales and Otto Vélez were a fine OF. Craig Swan, Eduardo Figueroa, John Montague and Volanta Rodríguez came through on the mound. Bombo Rivera, Sixto Lezcano and Willie Hernández were on that team.”

Back in the States, Millán had another banner season in 1975, playing all 162 games with 191 hits, most in team history at the time. On July 21, 1975, he hit four singles, but was erased each time after Joe Torre hit into a double play! Torre, in a post-game interview, thanked Millán “for making this possible.” Millán’s last MLB game was against Pittsburgh, August 12, 1977, when he was seriously injured in an altercation with Pirates catcher Ed Ott, after Ott slid in hard to break up a double play. Millan’s 12-year MLB stats: 1,480 games, 5,791 AB, 699 runs, 1,617 hits, 229 doubles, 38 triples, 22 HR, 403 RBIs and a .279/.322/.343/.665 slash line. His 318 walks exceeded his 242 strikeouts. Millán stole 67 bases. He was hit by 63 pitches, leading the NL with 12 in 1975. Millán led the NL with 24 sacrifice hits in 1974, one-fifth of his total (121).

Other highlights in Puerto Rico included 1976-77 and 1978-79 league titles with Caguas. Millán hit .322 in 1976-77, sixth best in the league. Caguas hit .307 as a team, the best single-season team BA in league history, led by Sixto Lezcano, José “Cheo” Cruz and others. Millán was the best hitter (11 for 24), batting .458 in the best-of-nine finals versus Bayamón.  Caguas scored 55 runs in six games, a .341/.420/.541/.961 slash line. But Caguas underperformed in the February 1977 Caribbean Series held in Santo Domingo, finishing last at 1-5,  behind host Licey Tigers (6-0), Magallanes (3-3) and Mexico’s Mazatlán Deer (2-4). Caguas hit .253 overall with five HR. They were outscored, 33-19. Millán was the only Caguas player on the All-Star team. Licey’s Rico Carty was series MVP with five HR/10 RBIs.

Millán replaced Jim Davenport as Caguas’s 1978-79 manager, in leading them to the 1979 Caribbean Series in Puerto Rico, won by Venezuela’s Magallanes Navigators. Caguas at 2-4 finished third, behind the Navigators (5-1) and Aguilas Cibaeñas from the Dominican Republic (4-2), but ahead of the 1-5 Mayos de Navojoa from Mexico. The only series All-Stars for Caguas were DH Tony Pérez, a Santurce reinforcement, and LHP Sheldon Burnside, a Mayagüez reinforcement. Rickey Henderson, a relatively unknown 20-year old LF with the Mayos de Navojoa, was named to this All-Star team. Millán was named to the Caguas team of the 1970s by Héctor Barea. It included Gary Carter and John Wockenfuss as catchers, 1B Guillermo Montañez and Nate Colbert, 2B Millán, 3B Mike Schmidt; SS Julio César González; OF Jerry Morales, Bob Oliver, Jay Johnstone, Sixto Lezcano and José “Cheo” Cruz; pitchers Eduardo Figueroa, Eduardo Rodríguez and Scott McGregor. I would add Dennis Martínez to this team.

Millán’s three years of pro baseball in Japan, 1978-to-1980, featured a 1979 Central League batting crown (.346) with the Yokohama Taiyo Whales. Millán was the first foreigner to win a Japanese batting title. He received the Best Nine Award in Japan, awarded annually to the best player at each position in both the Central League and Pacific League, by journalists. His quiet demeanor and dedication to the game helped him fit into the culture of Japanese baseball, per Jane Allen Quevedo, who wrote Millán’s SABR bio.

The 1986-87 Caguas Criollos benefited from Millán as their GM. He helped sign manager Tim Foli as well as Ellis Burks, the Boston Red Sox prospect, born in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Burks hit .291 with seven HR and 30 RBIs, for the 31-23 Criollos. Roberto Alomar produced at 2B. Caguas defeated Ponce in the league finals, after finishing second in the regular season and first in the four-team round robin. Millán, after three games of the February 1987 Caribbean Series, fired manager Tim Foli, replacing him with coach Ramón Avilés. Caguas won their next four games to win this series with a 5-2 record. Roberto Alomar opined: “Tim Foli was an aggressive type who taught me quite a bit.” Burks left for the States pre-Caribbean Series. He noted Foli was a very aggressive manager. Ramón Avilés and fellow coach Jerry Morales helped Burks a lot. So did Félix Millán. When I conversed with Foli, in Baltimore [Foli was a 1993 Milwaukee Brewers coach], he mentioned “Millán and I both wanted to win.” Foli played in Puerto Rico for the 1971-72 San Juan Senators and 1974-75 Bayamón Cowboys. He had the potential to be a good MLB manager, per Ramón Avilés.

Millán’s final appearance as a player was with the 1989 St. Lucie Legends of the Senior Professional Baseball Association, in Florida. He hit .269 for those Legends. In January 1993 Meridian, Mississippi native Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd spoke with me prior to a round robin playoff game in Puerto Rico. He was pitching for San Juan during his comeback and was impressed with the Puerto Rico Winter League—players with big league time, Triple-A and a mixture of Double-A players. Boyd’s agent talked to Félix Millán, San Juan’s GM at the time. Boyd mentioned his agent and Millán knew each other “from way back,” adding, “I’d like to say to everyone that wished me a lot of luck that it’s been a great time in Puerto Rico.”

The last time I saw and spoke with Félix Millán was December 1, 1993, right before the Cuba-

San Juan exhibition game at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. During a brief shower, Millán gave me a baseball to be signed by several Cuban players. I had a press pass, and had taken shelter in team Cuba’s dugout. Millán gave me a nice smile when I returned the signed baseball to him. Félix Millán’s Puerto Rico stats: 321 runs, 706 hits, 101 doubles, 16 triples, 10 HR, 180 RBIs, 41 SB, 153 walks and a slash line of .289/.331/.355/.686.

Davey Johnson’s first encounter with Félix Millán came during the 1967-68 Puerto Rico season. Johnson reinforced the Santurce Crabbers, managed by Earl Weaver. Pitchers Jim Hardin and Dave Leonhard came down as did Paul Blair and Larry Haney. But it was a bittersweet season. CF Blair tore the ligaments in his right ankle on December 26, 1967 and was lost for the season. Davey Johnson stayed healthy for the first-place (47-22) Crabbers, hitting .271 with six HR and 30 RBIs. Orlando Cepeda, the 1967 NL MVP, was activated just before Thanksgiving. Santurce’s home attendance was 144,707, about 4,130/game, about 1,000 more per game than their 1966-67 championship season under Earl Weaver.

Johnson hit well (.333 BA) in the team’s semi-final series win over Ponce and hit .250 in the finals, won by Caguas in six games. The sixth/last game was a 17-2 win by Caguas at Bithorn Stadium. Ted Savage robbed Cepeda of a three-run homer. And Johnny Briggs took away another three-run homer by Cepeda. “I remember the beer that was thrown in my face at Bithorn,” recalled Savage. “Those Santurce fans were not pleased.” The agony was compounded by a two-hour rain delay. Julio Navarro was the winning pitcher and relief ace Tom Timmerman pitched the final three frames. “It meant a lot,” said Navarro. “They [Santurce] were the defending champions and a very strong team. We, too, had a fine team with the league’s best reliever, Tom Timmerman, plus Grant Jackson, Tom Burgmeier, Cleon, Jones, José Pagán, Jerry Morales, Guillermo Montañez, Félix Millán…”

Who was Davey Johnson? He earned his first World Series ring at 2B for the 1966 Baltimore Orioles, after hitting .286 in the World Series versus the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was born in San Antonio, Texas, and signed with the Orioles for a $25,000 bonus, in 1962, after two years at Texas A & M. He impressed skipper Earl Weaver with Double-A Elmira, hitting .326 in 1963, before moving up to Triple-A Rochester, a team he played with, on-and-off, from 1963-to-1965. Hank Bauer, the Orioles manager, gave Johnson the 2B job in 1966. Harry Dalton, the Orioles GM, was quoted in Johnson’s SABR bio by Mark Armour: “We feel that this boy [Johnson] is going to be a big hitter among big-league second basemen. He has done everything now that we have asked him to do. He has the intelligence to apply himself.” Johnson, a wizard in math, later earned his degree in mathematics from Trinity College, San Antonio, in the off-season. He also took graduate level computer classes at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Johnson was the batter with the final hit off Sandy Koufax, a single in game three of the 1966 World Series.

Johnson, a 1968 AL All-Star, won three straight AL GG from 1969-to-1971, with Baltimore. His intellect was well above average as evidenced by his feeding various batting orders into a computer at Trinity College in 1969, to see what the optimal Baltimore line-up would be, per his SABR bio. Dave McNally recalled the time Johnson visited him on the pitcher’s mound to explain to him (McNally) the “unfavorable change deviation theory.” Johnson suggested the LHP aim for the middle of the plate so he could miss his spot and hit a corner (from Armour’s SABR bio). Davey Johnson was a 3x AL All-Star, 1968-to-1970. His best season for Baltimore

was 1971: .282 BA, 18 HR, and 72 RBIs. Those Orioles lost a memorable World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates, led by Roberto Clemente, after winning the 1970 Fall Classic versus Cincinnati. Johnson played in four World Series with Baltimore, including the 1969 event won by the New York Mets. Johnson made the final out, when his fly ball was caught by LF Cleon Jones, the same ballplayer who played for Caguas against Johnson’s 1967-68 Santurce club.

On November 30, 1972, Johnson was traded to the Atlanta Braves in a six-player deal. Johnson hit 43 HR for the 1973 Braves, with one of them as a pinch-hitter. His 42 HR as a NL 2B tied a 51-year NL record of 42 HR hit by Rogers Hornsby for the 1922 St. Louis Cardinals.  Ryne Sandberg hit 40 HR as a 2B for the 1990 Chicago Cubs. Mississippi native Brian Dozier has the AL record for 2B with 40 HR for the 2016 Minnesota Twins. Dozier also hit two more as a DH. His 40 HR as a 2B in the AL tops the 39 hit by Alfonso Soriano for the 2003 New York Yankees. Davey Johnson (43), Darrell Evans (41) and Henry Aaron (40) were the first three MLB teammates to hit 40 or more HR the same season! Johnson, a NL All-Star, credited Aaron for helping him become a better hitter, but Aaron declined to take credit, stating: “Dave’s a smart hitter. He knows what he’s doing up there,” per Johnson’s SABR bio by Mark Armour.

Johnson played with Atlanta in 1974, but left for Japan after one at-bat Braves AB in 1975. He was with the Yomiuri Giants (Japan Central League) for two seasons, hitting .197 with 13 homers in 1975; then, doubling his output to 26 HR in 1976. Johnson’s most famous teammate was Sadaharu Oh, who eventually hit 868 HR in his 22-year career with Yomiuri. Johnson returned to the States to finish his MLB career with the 1977-78 Philadelphia Phillies and 1978 Chicago Cubs. His 13-year MLB slash line was .261/.340/.404/.744, with 136 HR and 609 RBIs.

The best was yet to come. Johnson managed the Miami Amigos to a 51-21, .708 PCT, in the six-team Inter-American League. League play began April 11, 1979, and ended June 30, 1979. Two clubs—Panamá Banqueros, managed by Willy Miranda, and the Puerto Rico Boricuas, managed by José “Palillo” Santiago—disbanded on June 17. Miami had a 10-game lead over the 37-27 Caracas Metropolitanos, when play ended. The other two teams were the Santo Domingo Azucareros and Petroleros de Zulia. Roberto “Bobby” Maduro was founder of this league.

Johnson’s success in putting together a 1979 team from scratch got noticed. The New York Mets hired him to manage their Double-A affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi, the Jackson Mets. Those Mets won the 1981 Texas League championship. Johnson experienced success managing the 1983 Tidewater (Triple-A) Tides, who won the league playoffs with a series win over the Richmond Braves, behind the pitching of Dwight Gooden, a post-season addition. Tidewater also won the Triple-A World Series, a round robin event, with Johnson at the helm.

Davey Johnson won 90 plus games each of the first five years he managed the New York Mets, 1984-to-1988, including the memorable 1986 season—108-54, with a World Series win over Boston. He experienced success managing the Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals. His seven years with the New York Mets showed a 595-417, .588 PCT. Cincinnati was 204-72, .543, under Johnson, 1993-to-1995. He replaced Tony (Tany) Pérez—his former 1967-68 Santurce teammate—as the Reds manager in May 1993. His 1996-1997 Orioles were 186-138, .574. The 1999-2000 Los Angeles Dodgers were a combined 163-161, .503. And the 2011-2013 Washington Nationals had a 224-183, .550 record. Overall, Johnson was 1,372-1,071 in 17 seasons (including several partial seasons), winning 56.2 percent of his games. He had an overall winning record for all his MLB clubs.

The talented Johnson managed Team USA to a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics, hosted by China. Johnson was chosen to manage Team USA in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Reggie Smith and Mike Schmidt were two of his coaches. This team finished fourth, after losing to Venezuela for third-place. Team USA was a combined 4-2 in the first two rounds, including an 11-1 loss to Puerto Rico. They rebounded to defeat Puerto Rico, 6-5, in the second round, to advance to the Final Four. Puerto Rico (4-2) and Cuba (4-2) finished fifth and sixth, respectively.

These three 2B—Charlie Neal, Félix Millán and Davey Johnson—combined for six GG awards, 10 MLB All-Star selections and four World Series titles (three for Johnson and one for Neal). Millán won a 1974 Caribbean Series as a player and a 1987 Caribbean Series as a GM, and also managed in the 1979 Caribbean Series, all special achievements. All three players were connected to the same MLB clubs: Millán to the Braves and Mets; Johnson to these same teams as a player (Atlanta) and manager (New York Mets). Charlie Neal played for the Dodgers, Mets and Reds—same teams Johnson was associated with at one time or another. Neal and Millán are held in high esteem by Caguas fans for their exploits. Santurce fans are proud of Davey Johnson’s accomplishments throughout his fine playing and managing career.

All three 2B had Hall of Fame teammates in Puerto Rico. Neal played with Henry Aaron in 1953-54; Tom Lasorda (1956-57); and Sandy Koufax, 1956-57, with Caguas. Jim Bunning managed Félix Millan with Caguas (1974-75 and 1975-76). Millán was a Caguas teammate of Ferguson Jenkins (1964-65 and 1965-66); Mike Schmidt (1972-73 and 1973-74); Gary Carter (1973-74 and 1974-75); and Eddie Murray (1976-77, 1977-78 and 1978-79). Davey Johnson played under Earl Weaver with Santurce (1967-68), and was a teammate of Orlando Cepeda and Tony (Tany) Pérez, in 1967-68.

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