He is what baseball people call a sweet ballplayer. He can hit, he can hit and run, bunt for a hit, sacrifice and finagle a base on balls. He can run and slide and he can scramble back up and run some more.
Of course, he is good with the glove too. slick, in fact. That is why he is usually an infielder. Put a sweet player anywhere else but second base, shortstop or third and you waste him. Phil Rizzuto was a sweet ballplayer. So were Pee Wee Reese, Billy Cox and Bobby Richardson. So is Felix Millan.
Felix who? Felix Millan of the Atlanta Braves—and you pronounce it Mee-on, as in "me on base." Anyone checking the top four or five hitters in the National League lately probably figures the name is a misprint. But Millan has been there all along, with a .300 average in this year of the pitcher. Inevitably he has been mistaken for Felix Mantilla, the ex-Brave, Red Sox, Met and Astro, but any resemblance between the two ends with the first initial of the second name. Felix Millan is a sweet ballplayer at 24; Felix Mantilla never was—but then, few ever are.
"He's the type player," says Atlanta Manager Luman Harris, "that you never realize is around until the game is over. Then you look up and he's got two hits, an RBI, a stolen base and he's been in on two double plays!"
Lum Harris knows all about Felix Millan. Harris managed the Braves' Richmond farm club last year—the team Millan led to the International League pennant with a .310 average, winning the minor league player of the year award along the way. Last winter, after he was named manager of the 1968 Braves, Harris announced to the astonishment of quite a few people that Millan was going to be his second baseman, Woody Woodward or no Woody Woodward. "Millan is going to replace Bill Mazeroski as the best second baseman in this league," Harris said, "and I don't mean that as a knock against Maz. But Maz is 31 years old and Felix already has as much range as Maz ever had."
Harris has not had to wait long to see his prediction become fact. Millan right now is the most valuable second baseman in the league, if not in all of baseball. By tightening the Braves' defense through the middle and adding consistent hitting high in the lineup, Millan has almost by himself lifted a team that, despite its power and talent, had been moping along to various undistinguished finishes for the past seven years. But this season, with a lineup full of injuries and the kind of off year that just doesn't happen to a fine player like Henry Aaron—but did—the Braves are running a strong, determined second to the St. Louis Cardinals.
They were running determinedly for the cellar after Millan was plunked on the night of June 19 in Atlanta by Clay Carroll, a former teammate at Richmond who now pitches for Cincinnati. The Braves were in second place, 5½ games back of St. Louis, and Millan was in something of a tear. By the eighth inning he was 4 for 4 and going for his fifth hit when Carroll came fast and high and inside and nailed Millan's left hand to the bat. Millan missed 17 games, and the Braves dropped nine of those, skidding to fourth. 9½ games behind the Cards. "That was the first time we'd played under .500 ball all year," said Coach Jim Busby. "Without Felix in there we just weren't the same club."
Returning against Houston on July 5, Millan promptly made an error that cost Atlanta the game. He more than made up for that the next day. In the first game of a doubleheader he got two hits, drove in two runs and scored once in a 5-0 win. In the second game, with the score tied 1-1 in the last of the ninth and men on first and second, Millan drove the ball up the alley in right center for a double and the winning run. Since Millan returned, Atlanta has won six of seven games.
"It's amazing," says Joe Torre, himself the victim of an errant pitch that sidelined him 30 days. "Kit's only a rookie, but it seems like every rally we have, he's either starting it, in the middle of it or putting the finishing touch to it."
These are happy days for Felix Bernardo Millan, as anyone can plainly see. He is almost always grinning, like a man who is getting away with something, which, in a sense, he is. "My father, he work in a sugarcane factory back home in Puerto Rico," Millan says. "But there are five brothers and three sisters besides me. We are a poor family. I graduate from high school, but all I really want to do is play baizball."
Scouts from Detroit, the Braves and Kansas City, impressed by Millan's short stroke with a bat and his finesse in the field, all offered contracts. He signed with the A's, batted .291 his first year with their Daytona farm club and felt very good about it. Then the Braves told him they planned to draft him.
"At first I was sorry to hear it," Millan says. "I thought I play good enough to stay with Kansas City. But now I am happy. That Kansas City, she have many good, young players, and I am getting my chance here."
Millan would have earned his chance anywhere. An inch under six feet and weighing 172 pounds, he is tough and wiry, and his arm is strong. And he has reflexes. "The most fantastic thing about him," says Harris, "is his quickness. I can name you about five balls hit to him this year that took bad hops at the last possible second. His hands were down there to field the ball—and then suddenly he was jumping in the air, catching the ball above his head."
If there was any question about Millan, it was his hitting. He allayed all doubts quickly enough by batting .306 in 41 games when he first got to Richmond in 1966 and .275 with the Braves that September. Last year he was well on his way to winning the Atlanta second-base job in May when he stretched an Achilles' tendon. After letting him sit on the bench for a month, the Braves sent him to Richmond to play himself back into shape.
But even Harris admits he never expected a .300 hitter. "The way he can field I'd have been satisfied if he hit .250," he said. Millan would not have been. "Before I left Puerto Rico last spring," he recalls, "I tell my father that I will be the most hustlingest ballplayer in camp. I hustle all the time. I do not believe I have the job won at all, even though everyone say I do. But now I want to keep it. The crowds, the big ones, they use to scare me. But now I love to play before the big crowds."
The way .300 hitters are disappearing this year, Millan would be remarkable if he stayed above that mark. Still, Bushy thinks he might, as long as he keeps his stroke. "It's a perfect suing," Busby says. "It's a compact snap, and he's smart enough to control it with a heavy, bottle-handled bat. He's as liable to kick up chalk down the right-field line as he is to drill it inside third base. And he can bunt. Ohhh, is he a beauty."
One sweet ballplayer, the Braves' Felix Millan.
WITH CONTROLLED SWING, Millan whips bottle-handled bat in compact arc at the ball.