One day last December, Brant Alyea was about to start work at the crap tables at the Tropicana in Atlantic City when he looked at a newspaper clipping left in his mailbox by his boss, Jim Sattazahn. The clipping was from Baseball Card News, and it listed the sons of former major leaguers now active in professional baseball. Right there in black and white was a Brant Alyea, an outfielder for Medicine Hat in the Toronto chain. "My heart went through my shirt," says Alyea.
There are many sons of former major leaguers playing pro ball, but the saga of the Brant Alyeas, father and son, is a truly remarkable one. Garrabrant Ryerson Alyea III had not seen his son since 1968, when he said goodbye to 15-month-old Brant Jose Alyea Medina and the boy's mother in Managua, Nicaragua. As the years passed, the father went on a journey that took him to Minnesota and the American League playoffs, to Oakland and injury, and out of baseball into bartending, the insurance business and an Atlantic City casino. In the meantime, his son experienced an odyssey of his own—through an earthquake, a revolution and an escape from Managua to North America that was something out of the movie El Norte.
And now, May 12, 1986, Brant Alyea is about to watch his son play in a regular-season game for the first time. They are in the South Carolina crossroads of Florence, where the Blue Jays have a Class A South Atlantic League franchise. The last professional game Brant Alyea had been to took place almost 14 years ago. He doesn't remember exactly when, only that it was in Oakland the first week of September in '72, shortly after he was placed on the disabled list and Charlie Finley obtained Matty Alou to take his place. That afternoon he was told that his season was over and there was no need to hang around. So the next day he flew back to Rhode Island, his off-season home, and in the ensuing weeks he watched on TV as the A's won the pennant and the World Series.
On this evening, Alyea is one of about four dozen people occupying the aluminum folding chairs and splintered wooden bleachers of dusty American Legion Field, down the road from the Piggly Wiggly and the 301 Drive-in (BURGERS, FRIES, GIZZARDS, HOTDOGS). He had gotten off work at the Tropicana at 4 a.m. and driven 10 hours to see the Blue Jays play the Savannah Cardinals. As Florence catcher Greg David throws down to second to begin another night in the South Atlantic League, Alyea turns to his friend Nancy and says, "For nearly 14 years, just the thought of going back to a ballpark made me nauseous. I feel as if I'm starting over."
The 45-year-old admittedly overweight Tropicana floor person of French-Dutch descent and the skinny 19-year-old Hispanic at first base don't seem to have much in common besides a name. But they do share a couple of things. They have both played ball in the same park in Managua, although the name has been changed from Somoza Stadium to Rigoberto Lopez Perez Stadium, in honor of the man who shot Somoza. And somehow the son inherited the American dream of a father he never knew. To chase that dream, he risked his life to come, by way of Canada, to the United States. "I could have been a star in Nicaragua, but it's not the same as playing in the States," the young Alyea was saying before the game. "The real big leagues is here. Two years ago, I never thought that I could be here, getting the chance."
His son steps into the box. "Honest to God, if you could see some tapes I have at home of me hitting, you'd be amazed because we look so much alike," the father says. "He's like me in ways he doesn't even know, but I believe in heredity. I made the same movements with the bat getting ready for the pitch; I had the same stance; I even put my hands on my hips in the field the way he does. I know he's sort of skinny now, but so was I at his age. He's 6-3, 180 now; he'll grow to be 6-4, 200 or 210 pounds. I'm more nervous watching my boy than I was when I played."
Brant Alyea and Auda Medina spent a weekend together at the end of the Nicaraguan Winter League season in February 1966. "When I came back for the next season that November, the boy was one week old," says his father. "I was afraid that I was going to get into some kind of trouble. I didn't know the customs. I told them I was willing to take full responsibility. Pancho Herrera and another local player then told me not to worry, that the only way I could get in trouble was to turn my back—which a lot of American players had done—and disgrace the child and the family. I went and signed the baptismal certificate and gave him my name. I didn't sign it Garrabrant, I didn't want to confuse the poor kid. I just signed it Brant Alyea, and I guess her family wrote in the Jose and Medina. They were so happy that I signed the papers and took away any shame that they threw a party. They were hugging me, toasting me. After Brant was born I got to know Auda better. She'd bring the baby to my hotel and lay him down on the bed. She was a nurse, and he was always immaculate, beautifully behaved. She did a great job.
"I tried to help, but there was political trouble in January 1967, and I had to get out before I could get my stuff. I went back the next fall on my way to Venezuela and saw them again and kept sending a little money to help out, but after '68, I couldn't get into the country. The earthquake hit in December 1972 and I couldn't find them again. I learned later that she'd written me, but my [second] wife threw the letters away. I heard from Pancho Herrera—who is Brant's godfather—in 1976. He told me he'd seen Brant, that he was big and always playing ball. That was the last I heard."
Two summers ago, Alyea was having a post-golf drink with his bosses, Sattazahn and Bobby Kesel. On the NBC Nightly News was a report from Nicaragua. "My boy could be one in the middle of all that," Alyea told his friends. "I guess I'll never know."
Toronto scout Wayne Morgan was at the World Youth Baseball Tournament in Kindersley, Saskatchewan, in July 1984. When he saw in the program that a Brant Alyea was playing for Nicaragua, his curiosity was naturally piqued. Then when he saw the angular 17-year-old outfielder swing the bat, he suggested that the Blue Jays follow up on him, just in case he was related to the former player and might be able to get out of Nicaragua.
Pat Gillick, Toronto's general manager, sent Morgan to an October tournament in Cuba to take another look at the young Alyea, but Alyea wasn't there, so Morgan nosed around until he found a player he thought he could trust. He gave the player an information card to take back to Alyea. "I doubted we'd ever hear from him," says Morgan.
Brant Jose Alyea Medina, who went by just Brant Alyea, was climbing the baseball ladder in Nicaragua. His mother and her three daughters by her subsequent marriage had left for Margarita Island, off Venezuela, in 1980, but he stayed. "No men could leave," he says. So he lived with his grandmother Amada and aunt Bida in Managua. "The fighting was something I learned to live with," he says. "I was scared at times. I saw a couple of friends killed in crossfire in the street. One time I was in my house and got down on my knees to fix something on the floor. As I was down there, bullets went right over where I'd been standing.
"But I didn't get involved in politics. Of course, if I hadn't been a ballplayer, I'd have had to go right into the army. Most of my friends weren't players, so they went, and a lot of them have been killed. But I always knew that my father was a ballplayer and that I'd be a ballplayer, and ballplayers in Nicaragua get treated very well."
Alyea played on all levels as he grew up, eventually making national junior teams that took him to Venezuela, Honduras and several other countries besides Cuba and Canada. Alyea says that he and friends talked a lot about American baseball. "Through 1980, we got the All-Star Game and World Series on television, and we followed [Nicaraguans] Dennis Martinez, Albert Williams and David Green even after the government had changed. Ballplayers talked about what it would be like to go to the U.S. and play. We just didn't talk about it where we could be heard."
Two months after the Cuban tournament, Brant Jose Alyea Medina's player information card arrived at Wayne Morgan's home in California. Toronto wasted no time. Gillick put Epy Guerrero, the legendary Dominican scout who has signed players all through Latin America, on the case.
The Nicaraguan government discourages scouts from coming into the country. But Guerrero had been in Nicaragua as the trainer of the Dominican national team in 1973, "and I knew officials who remembered me as a friend of their baseball. I told them that I was coming in to help with some clinics, and got a visa. I went in at the end of January, but I had to be careful. If they caught me, I'd end up in jail for sure. I had a meeting and lunch at a hotel with Alyea, his grandmother and aunt, then I had to go to the house, which was about two miles away. They told me I shouldn't go, but I had no choice." Guerrero's brother-in-law, a retired Dominican general, had gotten Epy a camouflage outfit and Sandinista-style beret, and thus disguised, he hopped a cab for the Medina home. They agreed upon a $6,000 bonus, and Guerrero told them he would get Alyea to Canada. "No problem," he said.
Escape would not have been possible had Alyea not politely written a thank-you note to Dennis Hyland and his family in Mantario, Saskatchewan. Alyea had stayed in their house during the 1984 tournament. That began an exchange of letters that gave Gillick and the Blue Jays their avenue to Alyea. Gillick sent the cash for the plane ticket and a bank check to the Hylands. "By then, we figured they had sent Alyea so many letters that maybe it would sneak through," Morgan says. "We were lucky. It did."
The check was used to pay off an official who gave Alyea the passport he had used for previous baseball trips. Guerrero arranged to get a Mexican visa for Alyea and had Hyland send it.
All that was left was to get onto a flight to Mexico City on June 17, 1985. "I got pretty nervous at the airport," Alyea remembers. "They kept asking me questions like, 'Why are you going ahead of your teammates?' I told them I was going to Venezuela to see my mother. Then I had to explain why my visa was only good for Mexico. I said, 'I'm getting the Venezuela visa in Mexico from my cousin,' and they believed me. Then there was an officer in the police who'd coached me as a kid who was wandering around. Every time he'd go by, I'd put the newspaper up in front of my face. I made it."
In Mexico City he was met by Guerrero, who hid him for two days. Alyea obtained a Canadian visa and Guerrero put him on an Air Japan flight to Tokyo that stopped in Vancouver. There, he was greeted by Blue Jays scout Ozzie Chavarria. After a night's sleep and a couple of meals, Brant Alyea was on a flight to Calgary to join the Medicine Hat Blue Jays of the Pioneer League.
The older Alyea wasn't Dale Murphy, although he had Murphy's power. He played six seasons, hit 38 homers, knocked in 148 runs and batted .247. In 1970 with the Twins he hit .291 with 16 homers and 61 RBIs—seven of which came on Opening Day—in 258 at bats. "I wasn't a big star in the States, but I was in winter ball," he says with a laugh. He led Nicaragua in home runs in 1965-66 and nearly broke the Venezuelan homer record in 1968-69 with 18 in 50 games. He came up with the Senators, moved on to the Twins, then got into a contract hassle with Calvin Griffith, who put him on the Portland roster. Finley drafted him from Portland in November 1971, traded him to St. Louis the next spring, then got him back for the stretch run on Aug. 8. Six days later, Alyea tore a groin muscle rounding first on a double off Jim Palmer. He was sold to Texas, but his injury was so troublesome he didn't make the team. He was through at 32.
"For three years I didn't want to talk to anybody in baseball. It was a difficult adjustment for me." Alyea tended bar in Washington, D.C., for a while, and in 1977, he and his third wife moved to Hampton Falls, N.H., where he worked for Boston Mutual Life Insurance. Eventually, that marriage fell apart. "I wasn't very good at marriage," he concedes.
Alyea wound up in Atlantic City. "I figured something had to be happening there. I wasn't a big gambler, but it sounded like some fun." He went to casino school to learn to deal blackjack and run crap games. "It was tough and sometimes embarrassing to be at school at the age of 40 with all those 20-year-olds," he says. "I'm not a big enough name to live off what I did in baseball. I was just another working guy." He started out in 1981 at $22,000 and has risen to the $40,000-a-year position of floor person.
In the Tropicana casino, the 6'5", 250-pound Alyea towers above the customers. "All I try to do is minimize any trouble," he says. "The hours are tough [lobster shifts five nights a week], but it's O.K." He lives in a rented duplex, and once in a great while sees former players. "Guys in the casino would get Phillies tickets and ask me if I'd go, but I didn't want anything to do with baseball."
When Blue Jay executive Gord Ash met the kid's plane in Calgary, Alyea had only a duffel bag and a scrapbook. Stuck inside the scrapbook was a tattered picture of his father, selecting a bat in the Senators dugout, with manager Ted Williams in the background (page 66).
"I had hoped to get in touch with him," says the son. "But I didn't know how to do it." He spoke virtually no English, so the three-hour drive with Ash from Calgary to Medicine Hat was quiet. In Medicine Hat, Alyea was frightened and lonely. "It was cold. And the food; I had diarrhea for three weeks." Money was scarce, too, because Alyea sent most of his money to his mother in Venezuela for a down payment on a house, while the rest went to his grandmother.
"Then I started worrying about what would happen if I didn't make it in baseball. If I got released, I had nowhere to turn. I kept worrying that I'd be sent back to Nicaragua, in which case I'd probably end up either in jail or in the army." His fears did not affect his hitting, for in 51 games in Medicine Hat, Alyea batted .337. He went to the Florida Instructional League, then to Venezuela to play in a rookie league team, batting .351. There he learned how popular his father had been. "They'd yell, 'You can't be Brant Alyea. You're too skinny.' "
Young Alyea was in Venezuela when his father read the clipping from Baseball Card News. The next morning the elder Alyea called the Blue Jays' office and finally reached Ash. "They were flat to me," Alyea says. "I asked for an address in Venezuela, and Ash said they didn't have one. I was pretty upset."
Ash and Gillick had their reasons for the cold shoulder. Gillick says he had tried last summer to locate the father, but ran into a dead end. "All we heard was that he was in Atlantic City, and to be honest, you have to be cautious about that," Ash maintains. "We heard he had been a recluse. We didn't know what his marriage status was. We had to be cautious for a lot of reasons."
So Alyea waited until spring training, and in mid-March, figuring the minor leaguers would all have reported, he called the Toronto minor league complex and asked for young Brant. "Who's calling?" the clubhouse attendant asked.
And so, in an awkward, halting conversation in English and Spanish, the father made contact with the son he hadn't seen in more than 18 years. They exchanged telephone numbers. The next day, the father cleared it with Sattazahn and Kesel to take off the first 12 days of April. He flew to Florida on Easter Sunday and then went to the Ramada Inn Countryside in Dunedin. "He was standing there outside the door, waiting," the elder Alyea recalls. "I guess he knew me from pictures, but, anyway, he simply said, 'Dad?' When I nodded, he walked up and we embraced. Now that I look back on it, I guess I'm surprised at how natural it all seemed. He was overjoyed, and later he told me that for the first time since he arrived in North America, he felt he belonged."
They walked into the lobby of the Ramada, where several Latin players were sitting together. "This is my father," the son announced, in English. For 10 days the father went to the minor league complex and watched workouts and exhibitions and intrasquad games. Ten nights in a row he took his son to dinner.
"Some kids don't know who their father is, but I always knew," says the son. "I always hoped I'd find him. To be in a strange country, unable to go home again, and to know I have a place and a family to turn to. My life is completely changed. I feel very lucky."
When young Alyea went up to South Carolina to open the season, his first road trip took him to Spartanburg. It turns out that Brant Jose Alyea Medina has more family in the U.S. than he ever dreamed possible. Garrabrant Ryerson Alyea Jr., the father of the big leaguer, lives in the western North Carolina town of Columbus, and various cousins of his live in the area, too. Grandfather, his wife and several relatives met the kid in Spartanburg.
Father and son talk on the phone every weekend. "I don't want him to worry," says the father. "I just want him to concentrate on baseball. I'm thrilled to be able to help. Some other things in my life didn't work out so well, so this is like a dream. I'll be there whenever he needs me."
There have been times this season when the kid has gotten frustrated. His team is at the bottom of the standings. Alyea is also hitting under .300 for what he says is the first time in his life, although he has seven homers and a team-high 43 RBIs. He has a quick, short stroke, and exceptional hand-eye coordination. Because the Toronto organization is loaded with outfielders, he has been moved to first base. "I know one thing," Florence manager Hector Torres told the father. "The kid's going to be a lot better hitter than his old man." The father said, "I sure hope so," and smiled.
"I've had two of the biggest thrills of my life in the last couple of months," the father is saying. "Being reunited with Brant, then hearing the P.A. announcer say, 'Brant Alyea, first base.' It brought tears to my eyes. I'd completely lost interest in baseball, didn't want any part of it. Now I'm excited about his games."
The father hopes his son can become a U.S. citizen. Brant is undecided between making his home here or in Venezuela, where his mother is, but if he decides to apply for U.S. citizenship, the Immigration and Naturalization Service might waive the five-year requirement because of his father's sponsorship. In the meantime, young Alyea is coming to like the U.S. more and more every day. "To have my family here, that would be the best thing," says Brant. "Here you can say and do whatever you feel. I didn't have that in Nicaragua. That is what I enjoy the most, the freedom."
The young Alyea arrived in North America carrying several mementos from Dad's career.
Auda Medina now lives in Venezuela.
Alyea, who oversees the crap tables at the Tropicana, found his son the hard way.
Guerrero wore this Sandinista-like getup to spirit young Brant out of the country.
Brant gets a taste of the land of plenty, shopping for produce in the local Piggly Wiggly.
Letters from the Hylands contributed to the escape.
Here's a recent letter from Brant to Dennis Hyland.
Brant, already a fine first baseman, may surpass his dad at bat.