Brant Alyea had been interviewed on the phone a couple of times, and as the second conversation was concluding he had a question: “If I came back to Minnesota, would anyone remember who I was?’’
The earliest generations of Twins fans never had forgotten, but the answer was: “Thanks to Chris Colabello, more Minnesotans are aware of the Alyea legend than in several decades.’’
Alyea, now 73 and living in retirement near Philadelphia, was pleased to hear this. “What’s the kid’s name … Colabello?’’ Alyea said. “Good for him. I hope he can keep it going.’’
Colabello turned 30 last October, so baseball’s time-honored “kid’’ doesn’t actually apply — nor did it with Alyea, when he exploded across our sports scene as a 29-year-old journeyman in 1970.
Alyea’s name started coming up last month, as Colabello was driving in 27 runs in 23 games, and the question was being asked: “Are there any out-of-nowhere comparables in Twins history?’’
There are two, Alyea in 1970 and Bobby Darwin in 1972. Alyea’s early run was more similar to Colabello’s in length.
Alyea had five home runs and 23 RBI in his first 53 at-bats and 17 games. He was on the cover of The Sporting News on May 9, 1970, when that publication still was referred to as “Baseball’s Bible.”
The attention for Alyea started April 7 — opening day in Comiskey Park. Alyea was playing left field and batting fifth, behind Cesar Tovar, Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva.
Alyea singled in a run in the Twins’ three-run first vs. Tommy John. He hit a three-run homer off John in the fifth to make it 6-0. He then hit a three-run homer off reliever Danny Murphy in the sixth. The final was 12-0.
Four-for-four and a major league record of seven RBI on Opening Day … nice Twins debut, Brant.
“Jim Perry was pitching,” Alyea said. “I knocked in a lot of runs with Perry pitching. When he won the Cy Young that fall, Jim said, ‘I couldn’t have done it without you.’ ’’
Bill Rigney was the manager, having replaced the fired Billy Martin. This was before the designated hitter, and Rigney wound up using a left-field shuffle to get players in the lineup.
Alyea started 73 games in left, Jim Holt 40, Tovar 21, Rick Renick 12, Bob Allison seven (in his last season), Charlie Manuel five, and Jim Nettles and Steve Brye each twice.
“We were in Detroit a few weeks into the season, and I was winning the Triple Crown,” Alyea said. “The wind was blowing in and Rigney came to me and said, ‘I’m going to have you on the bench tonight. I might need a pinch-hitter who can hit a ball through that wind.’
“I was furious. I was going to get dressed and go back to the hotel. Harmon saw me and said, ‘Don’t do it. All that’s going to happen is you’ll get fined.’ I calmed down, but Rigney started playing everybody in left field.’’
Alyea batted .291 with 16 home runs and 61 RBI in 258 at-bats — fewer than half the at-bats for an everyday player.
The knock on the 6-3, 215-pound Alyea was fielding. Those slurs started with the first homestand, when Alyea was seen standing steadfastly on a large rubber mat in left field.
“It was a very wet spring in Minnesota, and the water pooled in left field at the Met,’’ Alyea said. “They actually put this mat out there for a few games. We called it ‘The Launching Pad.”
Alyea played one more season in Minnesota, then split time in St. Louis and Oakland in 1972, where he suffered a serious groin injury. He was out of pro ball after the 1973 season.
He had a job running the craps tables at the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City for 11 years, then a career with Volvo’s U.S. operation.
In December 1985, he saw a clipping that listed the sons of major leaguers in pro ball — and a Brant Alyea was listed as playing for Medicine Hat, Alberta, a Blue Jays farm club.
That’s when Alyea discovered the son he had fathered while playing winter baseball in Nicaragua was a ballplayer. Alyea had last seen the boy as a 15-month-old in Managua in 1968.
The Alyeas developed a relationship. “Brant has a family in North Carolina and he’s doing great,’’ the senior Alyea said.
As for our Brant Alyea, he both relishes and laments that first season in Minnesota.
“I was one of those streak hitters, and I was on the best streak of my life,’’ he said. “I’ve always wondered what might have happened if Rigney had kept me in the middle of the lineup all year. I might have led the league in RBIs.’’