A Brant Alyea, as any Smith girl worth her weight in pretension knows, is a perfect after-dinner drink, like Courvoisier. She would, however, be wrong. It is the name of a ballplayer, one who is only slightly less well known than another ballplayer, James Evan Perry Jr., whose fame derives mostly from the fact that he is the brother of Gaylord, the San Francisco Giants' pitcher people accuse of using a baseball as a cuspidor. They play for Calvin R. Griffith, and he is known, widely. He is the owner of the Minnesota Twins, and he tempted the Fates doubly, first by firing winning Manager Billy Martin at the end of last season, then by trading away to Cleveland good Centerfielder Ted Uhlaender, power-hitting prospect Graig Nettles, former Cy Young winner Dean Chance and reliever Bob Miller for 20-game loser Luis Tiant and Stan Williams.
Detractors claimed these could turn out to be the two worst moves in recent American League annals. So far they have been anything but. With Harmon Killebrew (who is famous among Civil War buffs as the great-grandson of Clayton Killebrew, the strongest man ever to wear a Union uniform), Alyea, Perry, Tiant and Williams doing big things, Griffith's "folly" has turned into spectacular success. Much to the sorrow of American League President Joe Cronin and others who had hoped for tighter competition this year in the Western Division, the Twins might already have won the title.
At the end of last week Tiant had the best record (4-0) of any American League pitcher; Williams had won two games and saved another. Alyea was atop the league in runs batted in and Jim Perry was a four-game winner. They were not the only Twins producing. Little Cesar Tovar had the league lead in triples and Jim Kaat, who has averaged 15 victories a season since 1961, is back after a thigh operation and looks like the best left-handed pitcher in the league with a record of 4-1 and an earned-run average of 2.40. And Tony Oliva looks better than he ever has.
This was supposed to be the season when the young Oakland Athletics would rise to challenge the Twins and create some sorely needed excitement. The Athletics, however, were 4½ games behind Minnesota at the end of last week, and the Twins are not the type of team anyone can spot 4½ games. Surprisingly, the California Angels were the real challengers, but the suspicion is that they were pushed out of the gate by nothing more than a very easy early schedule.
And still to be reckoned with are Twins Rod Carew, the top AL hitter in 1969 with a .332 average, who has been injured, Rich Reese, a .322 hitter in 1969, now mired in a slump, and Dave Boswell, a 20-game winner, who has yet to win.
Inexplicably, Minnesota has always had the reputation of being conservative when it came to trades. In 1964 the Twins made what seemed like a very minor deal when they gave Cincinnati Pitcher Gerry Arrigo for something called a Cesar Tovar. Tovar dropped a pop fly on opening day with two outs in the ninth inning to let in the tying run, then won the game with a hit in the 11th. Since then, he has become the game's most versatile player as well as one of its better leadoff hitters, base stealers and batting-practice pitchers. Two years ago Minnesota swung a big deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, giving up shortstop—and onetime MVP—Zoilo Versalles and Jim (Mudcat) Grant for Miller and Ron Perranoski. Last year Perranoski saved 31 games for the Twins and won nine others. One of the Twins' most dangerous moves came last season when they sent Jim Merritt to Cincinnati for Shortstop Leo Cardenas. The Reds got 17 wins out of Merritt, but the Twins solved the shortstop problem that had plagued them since Versalles' fine year in 1965.
Outside of the Tovar deal, though, the most surprising trade may be the one for Alyea of Washington. Garra-brant Ryerson Alyea as a name certainly does not have that clear and imposing ring of, say, George Herman Ruth, Harmon Clayton Killebrew, Henry Benjamin Greenberg, Roger Eugene Maris or even Atanasio Rigal Perez, but Alyea has always been known as a potential home-run hitter who never seemed able to tie his streaks together. Born in Passaic, N.J. 29 years ago and now living in Rutherford, he came up to the Washington Senators in 1965 as a $12,000 draft selection from the Cincinnati Reds. He had struck out once every three times at bat in the minors and was often accused of taking beautiful fly balls and turning them into memorable doubles and triples. But he did the same thing with beautiful pitches. His trouble in Washington was that both Frank Howard and Mike Epstein could play only left field and first base, and Alyea's position was in left. Thus he mostly sat and pinch-hit.
But there were definite signs of improvement in 1969, when Ted Williams became his manager. Alyea's philosophy about batting was to "hit hard and hope." and Williams wanted things a little more scientific than that. Through May of last year Alyea was Washington's leading hitter with a .333 average, and he hit some tremendous homers before the combination of Howard and Epstein benched him once more.
Opening in left this season for Minnesota, Alyea hit two three-run homers, batted in seven runs and went four for four. Eight days later he hit a grand-slam homer off California's Andy Messersmith, one of the American League's best pitchers. In Washington, now, followers are of two persuasions about Alyea's departure. Some wonder if an important piece of property might not have slipped away; others recall that last year he also started quickly, with five homers in his first 46 at bats.
Alyea believes that he has been helped considerably by the influence of Ted Williams and Killebrew. "You can't help but learn when you play for that man," he says of Williams. "His theories of hitting are dynamic. He makes you believe you're a better hitter, and suddenly you are. I just hope I absorbed half of what I heard on that Washington bench. Harmon has also helped me a great deal in making my swing more compact. I choke up about two inches so my stroke is shorter and the ball still goes as far as before, when I was down at the bottom of the bat."
Alyea and Killebrew give the Twins an amazing amount of right-handed thunder and lightning to contend with in a home park made for righties, and it is doubtful that managers are going to throw lefthanders at the Twins very often. If Alyea stays hot the West might be a very cool division this summer. And fall is not really that far away.