Hoppers Hurler Stood at the Crossroads
Over the last quarter century we’ve seen some good ones come through here, some great ones, even. But we may not have ever seen the likes of one who is here now.
Going back to the early-eighties glory days of Don Mattingly, Greg Gagne, Otis Nixon, Mike Pagliarulo, Matt Winters, et. al., through the second golden era of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettite, Ricky Ledee, Sterling Hitchcock, etc. of the mid-nineties, on up to those now emerging as major league stars such as Mike Lowell, Nick Johnson, Zach Day and Christian Guzman, we’ve seen a steady stream of talent taking those first tentative steps toward The Show. By my very unofficial reckoning, I’ve watched no fewer than 250 future major leaguers wear the uniforms of the Hornets and Bats at War Memorial Stadium.
And now, much to my delight, I am luxuriating in a sparkling new stadium, watching a whole new crop of prospects decked in Grasshopper green and orange trying to work their way up the Florida Marlins system toward their ultimate goal on the big stage.
On any given low A ball team, count on three to eight of them having at least a cup of coffee in the majors. And a large part of the charm of baseball at this level is trying to figure out which ones. Based on where they went in the draft, how much of a signing bonus (if any) they received, and what kind of credentials they established as an amateur, it would seem a relatively simple task. But it never is. Can’t-miss prospects often do (can you say Ruben Rivera?), while hard-working team players (hello Scott Seabol) sometimes blossom and make it. Each and every player is a risk, no matter how good their numbers look on paper.
Which brings us to the player alluded to at the top. If you’ve kept up with this ’05 edition even marginally, you’ve read about him, talked about him, perhaps even prejudged him.
But in case you haven’t, here’s the deal. His name is Jeff Allison and he was the Marlins’ No. 1 draft choice in 2003, the 16th player picked overall, the first out of high school. So prized was he that the Marlins offered him a $1.85 million signing bonus. A 6-2, right-handed pitcher with a 94 mph fastball and a knee-buckling curve, he’d thoroughly abused the competition around his high school in Peabody, Mass. But, unfortunately, that’s not the only thing he abused. With part of that bonus he immediately proceeded to get strung out on both OxyContin and heroin before the Marlins could stop payment on the checks. He pitched a total of nine innings in three starts of rookie ball in ’03, going 0-2. He was out of baseball all of the ’04 season and only made his return a few weeks ago, on May 10.
Now, I don’t know all the details of his descent into the abyss of addiction ‘— primarily because the Marlins threw up a protective steel curtain around him and wouldn’t allow the press anywhere near ‘— but at some point he hit bottom. He reached that crossroads of life that every alkie and addict knows all too well, where he either reaches out for help or succumbs to the disease. In his moment of clarity, one of the calls he made was to the Marlins brass, asking for a chance to try and come back (one may assume he also made other calls to addiction specialists and/or someone in a 12-step program, either a counselor or recovering addict). The Marlins were willing to give him that chance’… provided, of course, that he get clean and stay clean.
And so far he has. Judging solely from three postgame chats with the press, it is obvious that the 20-year-old hurler is on the right track. He looks like a ballplayer, talks like a ballplayer and acts like a ballplayer. But more importantly, he looks, talks and acts like someone in recovery.
Allison knows he is under the intense glare of the spotlight, more so for his off-field activities than his accomplishments on the diamond. He knows that there are detractors out there who see him as the poster boy for everything that is bad with professional athletics ‘— and society ‘— today.
But I see him quite a bit differently. Yes, obviously I see him as an enormously gifted athlete, but once you peel off the layers and get to the heart of the matter, I suspect you’ll see a young man who understands that he’s been given a second chance at life. I see gratitude and humility going hand in hand with that mitt-popping fastball and wicked deuce. I see someone who has begun to absorb the reality that he’s been granted a reprieve, and that he has to work as hard on his recovery as he does on his pitching. I see him understanding that ‘one day at a time’ is more than a hackneyed slogan.
And I see him one day in the not-too- distant future wearing a major league uniform.
Ogi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and heard each Tuesday at 9:35 a.m. on WGOS 1070 AM.