Reclaiming his life, and his life in baseball
Last of two parts
It was $70,000 worth of chrome and steel, power and thump. When it rolled through the streets of Peabody, everyone knew who was behind the wheel.
If there was a shining symbol of Jeff Allison's success, this was it: a maroon Cadillac Escalade he bought in the summer of 2003 after signing a $1.85 million contract with Major League Baseball's Florida Marlins.
He was the team's top draft pick and he wanted a rig worthy of a number one, with Italian-made rims, a monster sound system, video screens in the headrests -- the full flamboyant package.
''First day I got it, I came to a stop sign and a bunch of people were looking at me," Allison said. ''I mean, everyone just looks at you. It's a cool feeling."
In those warm weeks before the car -- and Allison -- veered chillingly off course, his friends felt that way, too.
It was a far cry from the common-man cars they knew, a dream, in fact. It seemed to make them part, again, of something special -- to bind Allison to them as his star seemed so far ahead.
And so it was that just hours after the Escalade rolled off the truck that had carried it to Peabody from Sarasota, Fla., Allison and his high school buddies -- Artie Generazzo, Bobby Celentano, and Andrew Coppola -- roared up a highway onramp and headed north.
Soon they were cruising down the honky-tonk main strip of Hampton Beach, N.H., a sticky summertime mecca for oiled bodies, hot wheels, loud music, and all things adolescent. They caught the eyes of everyone, including the law.
Almost as soon as they blasted onto the strip, a motorcycle patrolman pulled Allison's car over. Turn down the sound system, the officer told him, and turn off that dashboard television screen. The boys weren't fazed.
''This is the coolest thing that's ever happened to us," Coppola recalled. ''We're with a Major League Baseball player driving around in the most unbelievable, head-turning machine. . . . Being seen with Jeff was, like, top-notch. At that point, he was royalty."
But within weeks, the car -- the flashy embodiment of everything that was right in Allison's life -- would become a symbol of what was desperately amiss. When he wasn't taking his friends for joyrides, he was driving the Escalade through the side streets of Peabody searching for drugs. Even before his Caddy lost its new-car smell, Allison had acquired a dependency for OxyContin, the prescription painkiller that would become his obsession.
''My attitude was so cocky," he said. ''It was like, 'Yeah, they should be looking at me.' I look back on it now, it's ridiculous. I had it coming."
Today, as he struggles to stay clean and reclaim his life in baseball, Allison relies on the kindness of his friends to get him around town.
''Everything I've done wrong, I basically did in that car," he said. ''I don't want to be reminded of what I used to do. That's why I don't have that car now."
In pursuit of 'OC' There was an effortlessness about Jeff Allison's baseball career. He pitched. He won. He got stronger and kept winning.
''Baseball is easy," the right-hander said. ''To me, it's easy, and it's always been easy."
Even as he moved from high school fame to the first rung on the ladder to the big leagues, Allison barely broke a sweat.
The Marlins, concerned that his pitching arm may have been overtaxed in high school, did not overwork their new million-dollar draft pick in the summer of 2003. He pitched only nine innings, total, in three Gulf Coast League games.
With that rookie-league season over, the newly minted pro was back in Peabody, where his life began to fracture.
''I started getting into drugs big-time," Allison said. ''I'd do it wherever. It didn't matter where I did it as long as I had it."
His family and friends saw it in his eyes and in the simple lies he told about the company he kept, the places he visited, the things he did. ''They'd just sit there and ask me questions, and I was sitting there lying to their face," Allison said. ''I became like a pathological liar for a long time."
Once his constant companions, his high school friends would not see him for weeks at a time. His mother grew suspicious about the unfamiliar characters who had popped into her son's life. ''All of a sudden these new people are coming out of the woodwork," Noreen Allison said. ''This new name, that new name. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa."
For Generazzo, Celentano, and Coppola, the way their friend abruptly dropped out of their circle was disturbing. They immediately suspected the worst.
Allison's world was centered on the pill he knew simply as ''OC."
For doctors and patients concerned with managing pain, OxyContin is something approaching a wonder drug. It has a time-release formula that gradually dispenses painkilling medication over extended periods. Introduced in 1996, it has become the top-selling painkiller in the United States -- and something else: a badly misused narcotic that street dealers can sell for 30 times the retail price.
Drug abusers have found that by crushing a tablet, OxyContin's time-release mechanism is defeated. When snorted, it is fully absorbed by the brain within minutes. The powerful euphoric high, and its addictive power, rivals that of heroin.
When Allison first experimented with the drug as a high school junior -- casually taking a snort while watching a football game on television -- he said it made him sleepy and slightly ill. But as summer gave way to autumn last year, Peabody's newest millionaire was hooked.
''Once you do it one, two, three times, you're chasing that high," Allison said. ''Because you'll never be as high as you are that first time you do it. You're always chasing it. So you always need more and more. And then once you need more and more, your life becomes unmanageable."
He was using a lot, and burning up a lot of his Marlins bonus to buy it. ''It put a hole in my pocket. . . . I started shoveling money," he said.
Under the drug's influence, Allison says, he felt what other abusers have described as a sense of effortless power, as though you can rule the world from your bedroom in your pajamas. ''You can do whatever you want," Allison said.
He soon realized that drug use had become an all-consuming force in his life, which just months before had seemed destined for baseball glory. It became the only thing on his mind.
''You wake up and you don't think about it at first," he said. ''And then you get up and as soon as you stand up, you're like, 'OK, I need to go get it.' . . . You physically do not feel good, and mentally you know you want it."
Four months after he signed his professional contract, Allison had entered his first residential treatment center for substance abuse. He spent Thanksgiving 2003 at Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plain. ''I figured that would have set the tone as far as drugs go -- not doing them anymore," he said. ''Because, I mean, I'm not even home for Thanksgiving. I'm not with my family. But it didn't stop me."
If you could look into Allison's eyes during the depth of his addiction, what would you see? Allison recommends a movie rental. ''The Basketball Diaries" is a two-hour, bottomless pit of darkness based on rocker-poet Jim Carroll's autobiography about squandered talent and drug abuse.
''Leonardo DiCaprio stars in it. And he's me," Allison said. ''Once you see that . . . I don't know if you'll get sad, mad, sick to your stomach. But that's life. And I've been through it."
In the 1995 film, DiCaprio's character is a star basketball player and the first-person narrator, explaining the treacherous slope to addiction:
''First it's a Saturday night thing and you feel cool like a gangster or a rock star. It's just something to kill the boredom, you know? They call it a chippy, a small habit. It feels so good you start doing it on Tuesdays, then Thursdays. Then it's got you. Every . . . punk on the block says it won't happen to them. But it does."
A step back
Allison knew now that it had happened to him, and he knew where to turn for help.
With much of New England still buried under the snow of an early-December northeaster, Allison spent the early days after his stay at Faulkner Hospital sequestered with Generazzo at Nichols College in Dudley, where his friend was a freshman.
Seventy-five miles and a world away from his street routine in Peabody, Allison confided in his best friend. ''I wasn't going to lie to anybody," he said. ''I had to explain that I had a problem. And I did."
For these former teammates, who had played basketball in the sixth grade and helped lift their Babe Ruth team to the national championship in 1999, the two-day, heart-to-heart exchange was intense and cathartic. Quickly, it seemed like old times again. They hung out in the dorm. They met girls. They danced.
''I knew he was good because he was with me," Generazzo recalled. ''Maybe he was having thoughts because, naturally, maybe he would. But I know [drug use] wouldn't happen around me. And I wouldn't let it happen around me."
For two months, Allison thought his troubles might pass. But wrong decisions with wrong people, he said, led to ''dumb places and doing dumb things."
During his treatment at Faulkner, Allison said, he was given an opiate blocker designed to quell his cravings for the OxyContin. ''But once you're done taking that, you feel sick after," he said. ''You don't feel good. So I went back to using again. And my winter consisted of doing drugs."
When he showed up at a Peabody High basketball game early this year, in a gymnasium where he once suited up for the home team, his former baseball coach took note of the bad company his superstar was keeping. Word of Allison's problem was getting around the city. And Ed Nizwantowski, who had heard the chatter, stopped Allison inside the gym.
''I said, 'Hey, I've been hearing some rumors about you,' " Nizwantowski recalled. ''And he put his hands up like this, and he said: 'Coach, they're all rumors. I'm behaving.' So what am I going to do -- scream at him, tell him he's a liar? I took him at his word. And I just said: 'Well, I'm not going to preach to you. But you have a lot more to lose than those guys you're with sitting in the stands.' "
By this time, the first spring training of Allison's fledgling pro career was approaching. Pitchers and catchers were due to report in February. When Allison admitted to the team that he was addicted to OxyContin, the Marlins acted to protect their first-round investment. They booked him at a rehab center in Lynn.
''They put me in this place in Lynn -- it's like a halfway house," Allison said. ''They put me in there for, like, three weeks."
One day, a limousine pulled up out front and Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria -- who six months earlier had smiled as he watched Allison throw heat in the bullpen at Pro Player Stadium in Miami -- stepped out of the car. Loria's visit caused a stir, and people began to ask about the young patient he was calling on.
Allison said the Marlins owner spent a half-hour with him, encouraging him in his recovery and pledging the organization's support. ''I told him I appreciated everything and the support," Allison said. ''I needed it."
When spring training opened at the Marlins minor league complex in Jupiter, Fla., Allison's jersey hung in his locker, but the pitcher remained in Lynn. When he finally arrived April 7, several weeks late, the first-round draft pick did not want to discuss the reasons for his tardiness. He would not address the rumors that had begun to swirl.
''We're in the process of getting a young man into professional life as well as trying to corral a personal life," Tim Cossins, Allison's minor league manager, told The Miami Herald in mid-April.
What Cossins did not say was that Allison was attending daily drug-counseling sessions at a nearby rehabilitation center, where he was expected in the evenings after games or practices. ''They basically put me in a place where they knew where I was at all times," Allison said.
But he chafed against the new rules. He was living in Riviera Beach, away from his teammates. He felt isolated and unsafe.
''It was a big crack area, and it was just a lot of crack fiends and dope fiends walking around the place, walking up to me and asking me if I wanted anything," he said. ''It was ridiculous."
As Allison struggled to beat his addiction, the Marlins took their time easing their pitcher back into baseball. They wanted to wait a month before using him in a game.
''Then I went out one weekend and partied, and that was it," Allison said. ''I screwed up. I smoked weed, and I tested positive for marijuana twice."
The Marlins placed Allison on the restricted list, a designation that means a player is inactive and is not being paid. He forfeited $250,000 of his bonus and left training camp. Soon, he was showing up at the Peabody High baseball diamond where big-league scouts once drooled over his fastball. He did not want to discuss his drug problem, but he said he was determined to turn his life around.
''He said he was going back and was going to prove a lot of people wrong," Generazzo said. ''That's what I thought was going to happen."
But it didn't. Allison was guilt-ridden and embarrassed. He had abandoned his friends to devote nearly full time to feeding his habit. ''I figured I was going to die. I didn't want to live. I felt like I was in this big hole," he said. ''And I felt so full of shame. I was so doubtful about what I wanted to do with myself and my life."
By early summer, Generazzo, Celentano, and Coppola feared urgently for him. Why are you doing this? How did this all start? Look what you have to lose.
Allison promised to straighten up. But he couldn't.
'' 'Lost cause' is the word that we were looking at," Coppola said. ''Like . . . he's never going to get better. He has to want to get better."
Generazzo went to Allison's mother and asked her to help him confront his friend.
''I didn't want to see it happen anymore," Generazzo said. ''I mean, I was sick of it. Finally, we all confronted Jeff. We just sat down. We told him, 'We love you, and we just want the best for you.' "
On the brink
''Did I ever tell you about the first time I did heroin? . . . I was just going to sniff a bag, but a guy says: 'If you're going to sniff, you might as well pop it. And if you're going to pop it, you might as well mainline.' I was scared of needles. But I gave in." -- Jim Carroll, Leonardo DiCaprio's character in ''The Basketball Diaries"
Jeff Allison was scared of needles, too.
And by July, he had seen plenty of them. Needles. Addicts. Crack houses. Even guns. They had become the dingy backdrop to his life underground. But until this summer he said, he never needed a needle. OxyContin was his drug of choice.
On July 17, a longtime acquaintance, Jimmy Leontakianakos, pulled up to Allison's house and, Allison said, they drove into the muggy evening to find some OC.
Allison and Leontakianakos had known each other since third grade. They played basketball together as little boys and on the high school team, the Peabody High Tanners. In the summer of 2003, before Allison signed his Marlins contract, he had worked with Leontakianakos at a pizza place in Lynn.
''He was always a funny kid," Allison said. ''He just made me laugh a lot."
As the boys grew, Allison said, they knew they were not good for each other. These days, drugs had become their common bond.
''We started going down the wrong road," Allison said. ''We just kept influencing each other just to keep doing bad things when we knew we didn't want to do it."
On this day, that road led to Lynn.
As they cruised the streets of Peabody that evening, what Allison and Leontakianakos did not know was that two weeks before, local and federal officials had arrested two men who they said had illegally distributed about 30,000 OxyContin tablets over the past year. With what police called the region's biggest OxyContin dealers off the street, the drug was suddenly in short supply.
They decided to try to buy heroin, a drug Allison said he had never tried before. The decision to look for it that night, he said, was a mutual one.
They pulled up to a three-story apartment building on Rockaway Street in Lynn. It was and is a ramshackle place: There are bars on its sidewalk-level windows. Rickety steps in back lead to upper-story apartments. A lopsided orange ''No Trespassing" sign hangs from weathered aluminum siding.
According to the police report, Leontakianakos and Allison met a man named Alex who agreed to sell the young men from Peabody a $50 bag of heroin. The last thing Allison recalls, he said, is sitting down inside the apartment and injecting the heroin into his forearm.
''It was scary," Allison said. ''I was real nervous at first. And then I wasn't."
Allison and Leontakianakos retreated to the car outside. They passed out, and when Leontakianakos came to, police said, he noticed that a gold chain he had worn around his neck was gone and that Allison was unconscious and not breathing well.
Leontakianakos, who declined requests to be interviewed for this story, raced to Union Hospital across town with Allison lying unresponsive beside him, laboring for breath.
Like 75 other victims of suspected heroin overdoses in Lynn this year, Allison was revived with a shot of a drug called Narcan. It essentially reverses an opiate's effect on the brain.
Noreen Allison had spent the evening with neighbors at a ball field in Beverly, watching Little Leaguers from Peabody lose a close game to Hamilton-Wenham. Her friends urged her to join them for a pizza afterward, but she was tired and begged off.
When she walked into her house, her answering machine was blinking. ''It was all about my son being in the hospital," she said.
She was frantic by the time she reached the emergency room. ''I didn't know what to expect," she said. ''They put me in a little room until I calmed down."
When she saw her son, he was hooked up to a series of monitors. As she approached the side of his bed, she sensed that he knew she was there. ''He reached out for my hand. . . . We both hugged, and we both cried."
Early the next morning, Noreen called Generazzo and Celentano to tell them about Jeff's close call. Celentano abruptly left his house in tears.
When Celentano's car pulled up in front of Coppola's home later that morning, Celentano stared straight ahead. Artie, normally the group's joker, wore a funereal visage as Coppola got in the car.
''Artie turns around. Bobby doesn't move," Coppola recalled. ''I'll never forget it. He looked back at me, and he said, 'Jeff overdosed on heroin last night.' I didn't know if I wanted to scream, I didn't know if I wanted to cry. I didn't know what to think."
The friends sat silent for the rest of the 4-mile trip to the hospital.
When Generazzo, Celentano, and Coppola stormed into the emergency room, staff members told them that visits were restricted to immediate family members.
''Who are you guys?" Generazzo recalls being asked.
''We're Jeff Allison's brothers," he replied.
When his friends walked in to see him, Allison was wearing an oxygen mask. Intravenous lines trailed out of his arm.
''Artie went over and hugged him. Bobby went over and hugged him. And a tear dropped from my eye," Coppola recalled. ''It just made me so sad to see him like this -- to see Jeff Allison, who we had known for this many years, get to this point."
Allison had begun crying, too.
''We just said, 'Jeff, we love you. We're here for you. We're your friends. We are your friends,' " Coppola said.
The next chapter
The letter, postmarked July 22, was sent to the hospital and forwarded to Allison's home in Peabody. In the months since, Noreen Allison -- blinking back tears -- has found comfort in the note, reading and rereading it before folding it back into its small envelope.
Dear Jeff, I am writing this letter to let you know that there are people out there who care about you, and what you are going through now. Unfortunately, because of your 'star status' a private matter has become public. Rest assured that the majority of people do not think any less of you. They are rooting for you and praying that you will overcome your addiction. . . . I know from experience that addiction makes one do things that they are not proud of. Remember: Those things were done by the addict, not by the person your family and friends know and love. . . . May today be the beginning of a beautiful life for you. Love, a concerned mother
Notes like that have helped Jeff Allison, too. But he knows not everyone thinks he will kick his habit. In fact, he said, some are rooting for him to relapse again.
''There's a lot of people in the city who want me to fail," he said. ''I can guarantee you that. . . . They think I'm a screwup, and now they just want me to fail."
His regimen these days is designed to prove his doubters wrong. Until recently, he drove to a Brookline clinic each weekday, where he received counseling and his urine was tested for opiates and other drugs. He takes a medication that helps quiet his craving.
His mother has taken a leave of absence from her job working with mentally disabled adults to help her son stay clean. ''Every day he's drug-free, that's an excellent day," she said.
She sees signs of hope in little things. In the light banter that has returned between Allison and his older sister, Tracy. In words of encouragement Noreen Allison accepts from Peabody Little Leaguers who know about her son's legend and his troubles.
And in the fact that her son's aura of denial had, by early autumn, finally begun to melt away.
''It was right here," Noreen Allison said, pointing to the corner of her kitchen. ''He told me, 'Mom, I'm a drug addict.' Do you know how much that was a relief to hear that?"
Allison, who turned 20 last month, has begun tossing the baseball again, sometimes throwing with Bobby Celentano across the backyard lawn of their neighborhood. He said his arm is strong, his head clear, his resolve fierce. He is hoping the Marlins will give him a second chance when spring training rolls around early next year. He says discussions between his agent and the team have been promising.
A Marlins spokesman would not discuss Allison's prospects, saying only that he remains on the restricted list.
Well-wishers, including Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley, have called to offer words of support. ''But I'm the only one who can save myself," Allison said.
He knows he might get only one more chance. In the privacy of his boyhood bedroom, he has begun to pray to God for help. ''I need it," he said.
Little things can trigger memories of bad habits. He can pull up to a convenience store, for example, scan the streetscape, and remember: ''I did drugs there. And there. And there." He said he has learned to avoid those moments.
''You have to get through one day at a time just not doing drugs," he said. ''It's tough at first. But then it's like a routine. . . . I don't want to get back into that. I don't want to be sick. I don't want to be bedridden all the time. I don't want my mom to be feeding me like a 2-year-old. It's disgusting."
He is supported today by the close circle of friends who played ball with him in grade school, raced to his hospital bed in July, and know that his greatest challenge is far from the baseball diamonds of southern Florida.
On a chilly night this fall, Allison and his friends sat in a circle around a small campfire in the woods near a friend's home. One by one, they testified to the courage he has shown.
''We don't love Jeff Allison the baseball player," Bobby Celentano, the neighbor whom Allison considers a little brother, told him over the low orange flames. ''We love the kid Jeff Allison."
''We believe in you," Coppola told him. ''In no way do I believe that you'll ever let us down again."
At the end of ''The Basketball Diaries," DiCaprio's character sits under a single spotlight on an otherwise darkened stage. Now a survivor, he delivers a soliloquy about the ravages of life in the grip of addiction.
The house lights come on. The audience rises. The film concludes in the crash of a thunderous ovation.
Jeff Allison, who saw himself in that movie's darkest moments, does not know how his own story will unfold.
He's at home, in Peabody, struggling with the next chapter, hoping the lights stay on.
End of series
Thomas Farragher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.