Félix “Nacho” Millán: The Toughest Out

In today’s Major League Baseball, many Latino players still encounter obstacles while transitioning to U.S. society. The main obstacle is the language barrier. A close second is racial stereotyping.

Félix Millán, the outstanding second baseman and contact hitter who played 12 seasons with the Atlanta Braves (1966-72) and the New York Mets (1973-77), recently said, “I see Cleveland’s shortstop Francisco Lindor, Houston’s shortstop Carlos Correa and Cubs infielder Javier Báez, and that makes me proud. The same is true for the Twins José Berríos and Eddie Rosario, to mention some young stars.

“We are in the year 2018, they are better prepared scholastically than players of my times, and above all, they speak English. In addition, MLB is finally understanding that these young players need guidance.”

Humble Beginnings

When sugarcane plantations were the backbone of Puerto Rico’s economy many decades ago, Félix’s dad, Victor, often worked from daybreak to sunset under unbearable weather conditions at “Central Roig” in Yabucoa.

Riches did not abound in the Millán home. He was born to humble parents, Victor and Anastasia, in Yabucoa on Aug. 21, 1943, lived hand-in-hand with poverty. At times he had no shoes.

Several weeks ago, from his Florida home, he recalled, “Yes, growing up was tough, but our faith in God sustained my family and I. I’ve loved baseball since I was a kid. I never saw him play, but the story of Lou Gehrig was my great inspiration.

“My favorite play-by-play announcer was Buck Canel, and my hero was shortstop Jaime Almendro, a native Puerto Rican who in 1946, while playing for Jersey City (Class AAA), threw out Jackie Robinson (Montreal) in his first at-bat during his minor league debut.”

A year later, Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

With great joy, he continued, “In Yabucoa I played ‘barrio’ baseball … I played in high school … I played the top caliber of amateur ball with my hometown team. Finally, Kansas City A’s scout Felix Delgado signed me to a professional contract in 1964 with Daytona (Class A) in the Florida State League.

“I have been kind of shy all my life. The love and guidance I got from my parents were most valuable, but I became a man after serving two years in the U.S. Army (1960-62) in Savannah, Ga.”

MLB Career

When making his MLB debut with Atlanta on June 2, 1966, versus San Francisco, he became the 27th Puerto Rican to reach the majors.

He remembers that day well.

“We were in Atlanta,” he said. “And during the second inning I got a hit off righty, Bob Bolin. It was an infield hit between third base and shortstop. We lost the game, but my hit is something I never forget.”

From 1966 to 1977, he played the first seven seasons with Atlanta and five with the New York Mets. He was a three-time National League All-Star. In 1,480 games he hit a respectable .279 with 694 runs scored, 289 extra base hits and 403 runs batted in.

“I was simply a contact hitter,” he said. “I choked up on the bat in a way not regularly seen … but it was comfortable for me.”

As a hitter, Millán struck out only 242 times in 6,325 plate appearances during his career.

One unforgettable game for Millán was when the Mets hosted Houston on July 21, 1975. Hall of Famer Joe Torre set the MLB record by grounding out into four double plays in a game.

Millán was the runner at first base for each double play.

Millán, with a touch of incredulity said, “Yes. I never forget that … but Joe had a way out when he unexpectedly told the media that he thanked me for making that record possible.”

He added, laughing, “Everyone knows Joe was not the fastest runner in the game.”

Premature MLB Ending

Even though he understands the culture of the game, he regrets how his career ended. On Aug. 12, 1977, Pirates catcher Ed Ott slid hard into Millán at second base, breaking up a double play. Millán shouted at him, and Ott slammed him hard to the turf, seriously injuring his shoulder.

The Mets lost the game 3-2. More significantly, that is how Millán’s career ended.

“The slide was hard,” he recalls. “The Pirates knew that, and when I hit Ott with the ball in my hand… I became the bad one. I have forgiven Ott and the late manager Chuck Tanner, but it is difficult to forget.”

Paving the Way to MLB

With homes in Puerto Rico and Florida, Millán happily lives with his wonderful wife of 55 years, Mercy. They have a son, Bernie, and a daughter, Femerlie, also living in Florida.

“Playing in MLB was an honor,” Millán said. “The fans were and are great! I treasure my three All-Star selections, my two Gold Gloves and the support from my people in Puerto Rico. …

“MLB has made great strides in assisting many players from different countries, cultures and languages in adapting to life in the states.  But in my mind, I never gave up as a man, as a player. MLB must continue to pave other venues to further internationalize this great game.”

Félix remains active within the game of baseball. He conducts clinics for young players in Puerto Rico and the USA. He cooperates with the Braves and Mets whenever required and is a proud soldier of God.

He recently visited Atlanta as a request by the Braves honoring the Hank Aaron Foundation.

“I was so happy to see the joy in Hank’s face when he saw me,” he said. “I was really touched, and it took me back to my days as a child playing baseball with no shoes in Puerto Rico.”

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