Allison finds redemption in recovery
Like Hamilton, Marlins prospect rebounds from addiction
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- So many emotions must've raced through Jeff Allison's mind on July 14.
That night at Yankee Stadium, during the State Farm Home Run Derby, Josh Hamilton set the baseball world on fire by hitting a record 28 home runs in the first round.
By now, everyone knows Hamilton's story. How he was engulfed so deep in drugs he could barely see the light of day; how he completely reversed his life into the great story it is now; how he battled back to become one of the best hitters in baseball, giving recovering addicts like Allison hope.
"I definitely know what he went through," said Allison. "I'm definitely inspired by his story and what he overcame, because me and him have similar paths."
Allison's story is the same as Hamilton's in many ways.
But he's a long way from Yankee Stadium.
Allison now makes his living with the Marlins' Class A affiliate, the Jupiter Hammerheads. Five years ago, as a recent high-school graduate from the small town of Peabody, Mass., the world was his oyster. He was considered the best high-school player in 2003 and, soon thereafter, was the Marlins' first-round pick.
Back then, everybody thought in five years he'd be gracing magazine covers and dominating on Major League mounds. But an addiction to OxyContin and, eventually, heroin forced him to play just two seasons in half a decade in the Minor Leagues.
Now 23, his money is short and his bus rides are long. And for the second time since blowing Major League scouts away as a high schooler, he's trying to make a comeback.
In 23 appearances for the Hammerheads this season -- 22 of them starts -- Allison is 8-7 with a 4.72 ERA. Not the kind of numbers the Marlins envisioned when he was Baseball America's Player of the Year as a high-school senior. But at this point, Allison's life is no longer about wins and losses, ERAs or even WHIP.
The 6-foot-2 right-hander has been sober for 19 months. There was a time, he said, when he didn't even know if he'd be sober for 19 minutes.
To Allison and so many of those who haven't given up on him yet, that's the most important stat of all.
"Being mediocre is a million times better than my best high," Allison said. "I love what I do. I love waking up every day, going out to the field, knowing that I'm doing the thing I love to do and getting paid for it. That's something I've never felt before. When I was 18 and I signed that contract, I had too big of a head, and I didn't understand anything.
"I didn't understand life and what it was made of -- what it was going to bring to the table for me."
A budding prospect
Allison is a little bit different now than when he was a teenager. The swagger he carried when he was almost a god in his town of less than 50,000 people is gone, and his fastball isn't as electric as it used to be.
When Allison had those things, he was a can't-miss prospect.
At 14, he led his team to the Babe Ruth League World Series title. Then, when he went to high school at Veterans Memorial, he was the pitcher everyone came to see, capping his career with the kind of statline that makes you rub your eyes over and over again: 9-0, 0.00 ERA, 13 hits, nine walks, 142 strikeouts, 64 innings pitched. His fastball was clocked at 98 mph, and his curveball had some Major League scouts saying it was the best they'd seen in many years.
The Marlins selected him out of high school with the 16th overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft. Shortly thereafter, he'd be receiving a $1.85 million signing bonus and heading to Dolphin Stadium to showcase his talents for South Florida. He took batting practice, fired darts in the bullpen in front of then-manager Jack McKeon, and, most of all, took the first steps to what was promised to be a great career.
He was supposed to move up the ranks quickly. He was supposed to become one of the best pitchers in the Marlins' farm system. He was supposed to be as good as Josh Beckett.
"We thought he was a tremendous prospect," Marlins vice president of player development and scouting Jim Fleming said. "I mean, he was a first-round pick. We thought about him like you would with any first-round pick."
Drugs take hold
But that was before the Marlins knew about his addiction to OxyContin -- a potent painkiller that's said to give those who use it an intense high.
Months after graduating from high school, he entered his first residential treatment center. By February 2004, when pitchers and catchers were set to report, he had admitted to the Marlins he was addicted to the pills. Then, on July 17 of that year, while taking heroin for the first time, Allison was rushed to the hospital after blacking out.
|"I love what I do. I love waking up every day, going out to the field, knowing that I'm doing the thing I love to do and getting paid for it."|
|-- Jeff Allison|
He returned to pitch for Class A Greensboro in 2005, going 5-4 with a 4.18 ERA in 17 starts, but his stuff wasn't nearly as good, and his return was nowhere near complete.
"In '05, I went four months sober -- maybe three, if that," Allison said.
Drugs continued to keep Allison away from the baseball field. In 2006, he was suspended by the Marlins, and in August of that year, Medford, Mass., police reportedly found him unconscious in an apartment building after overdosing once again.
It didn't get any better after that.
Allison was put on the Marlins' restricted list once again in 2007, and on Aug. 29, he had his last wakeup call. That's when Allison was sentenced to 75 days in jail with three years' probation after pleading guilty to possessing heroin and drug paraphernalia, among other charges.
Trying to work it out
That was the last reported incident for Allison before his second attempt to live a clean life. He says there was nothing special to get him to finally be where he's at today -- no wakeup calls or anything that clicked in his head.
He just grew up.
"Forget about wakeup calls, because you can overdose, you can [have seizures], you can do all these things physically that can bring you down," said Allison, who was named to the Florida State League All-Star team this year. "But until you figure it out for your own and reach out to the people that tried to reach out to you in the beginning, that's when you're really going to figure it out.
"That's when you're really going to choose life over death, and that's what I did."
Allison now makes sure he stays clean. Just like Hamilton did in his recovery, he opts to watch movies in his room instead of going out, he always makes sure someone is with him whenever he steps outside his apartment and, most of the time, he even has a friend on call in case of an emergency.
"He's 23 years old now, and his maturity level is a lot higher than it was when he was 20 years old," said Hammerheads manager Brandon Hyde, who also coached Allison when he pitched in Greensboro. "He's a man now."
Hyde is just one of the countless people who are rooting for Allison -- and it has nothing to do with wins and losses.
"I just want to see Jeff pitch every five days," Hyde said. "Whatever happens, happens, but I just want to give him the ball every five days.
"I admire the heck out of him. I love him. I think he's a super person."
Allison said he hasn't had any temptation to go back to drugs since committing to staying sober, which is something that makes him even more admirable.
"If something happens bad in the game or in his personal life, what do you think he starts thinking about?" said one of his catchers with the Hammerheads, John Purdom. "Just to stay away from it is amazing."
Lately, Allison has stayed away from controversy, too. The only articles found on him now are basic recaps of his outings in Jupiter. No more arrest records or drug relapses or suspensions.
"Two things with [Allison]," Fleming said. "First of all, I'm happy he has his life together, and he's focused on something and being productive. As far as expectations, I didn't expect all of his stuff to come back, especially since he's been out of the game for so long, but he's shown what he can do.
"He's on track to be a big league pitcher."
Allison may very well live out a life like Hamilton's and play in the Major Leagues. But for now, he's just a regular guy trying to make his living in the Minors.
It's funny how when he was young, Allison did his best to make sure he was better than everybody else. Now, he's found his purest sense of happiness in being ordinary.
"That's what I wanted to do -- I wanted to be a normal human being," Allison said. "And for me to do that, I had to do certain things to get back to normal life. And I did those things, and I became a man.
"I knew that I had to become a man quick."
Alden Gonzalez is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.