A pitcher's duel | The Jeff Allison story
He was Peabody's golden boy, a can't-miss pitching prospect from Little League to high school to the day he was the top pick of the Florida Marlins; But then a greater force -- drugs -- threatened to steal Jeff Allison's dream, and his life
First of two parts
The buzz had followed him since he was a little boy chasing pop flies and ground balls across the dusty infields of Peabody.
Born in the whispers of wide-eyed Little League coaches, it grew louder as the kid with the golden arm collected trophies and championships, banner headlines, and a first-class ticket to Major League Baseball.
Jeff Allison has a gift. Jeff Allison is unstoppable. Jeff Allison will make it to the big time.
The day before his promise would be realized -- as a platoon of Major League scouts watched his 95-mile-per-hour fastball end in the smoky snap of a catcher's mitt -- Allison stood on a ball field at Peabody Veterans Memorial High School in June 2003 and embraced those expectations.
"They say high school kids are risky," the lanky right-hander told reporters. "But I don't feel like I'm a risk."
The next afternoon, the high school senior sat in a bedroom in his small home, holding a cellphone to his ear as the call came in.
Jeff Allison was the Florida Marlins' first-round draft choice.
The news ricocheted through the high school's hallways and electrified the city. Television crews from Boston arrived on his doorstep. In two years -- four tops -- he told them, he would take the mound as a major leaguer.
But he did not have to wait that long to cash in on his talent. By summer, he had landed a million-dollar contract. And then something else. As he realized his schoolboy dream, Jeff Allison also had a devastating secret.
His closest friends detected it first in the pinpoint pupils of his eyes. His family sensed it in the strangers who had taken the place of his longtime friends.
Soon the catch phrases used to describe him began to darken. Now the buzz that follows him has turned sharp and sad.
Jeff Allison has a drug problem, it says. Jeff Allison overdosed on heroin.
Jeff Allison, who had it all, may have blown it.
By the time he left for Florida last year to pursue the big-league career that had almost seemed his birthright, Allison had begun to get hooked on the prescription painkiller OxyContin.
In time, his habit would nearly drown out his promise. It would test the trust of his family and a tightknit circle of friends who tried to keep him clean. And it would drive Allison to the brink of selfdestruction.
"I figured I was going to die," Allison told the Globe last month. "I didn't want to live."
Indeed, on a muggy night in July, when he traveled with a longtime acquaintance to a run-down rooming house in Lynn and injected heroin into his forearm, it nearly did kill him.
Today, Allison's story is no longer about the speed of his fastball, the stinginess of his earned run average, or the size of his bonus. The cartoon caricature of the sure-bet superstar is gone. For Allison and those who love him, the stakes are exponentially higher. Success is sobriety meted out in hard-won increments, 24 hours at a time.
For now, baseball can wait. The buzz be damned.
"All that matters to me is that my son stays happy, healthy, and lives a good life," said his father, Bob Allison. "All I care is that he wakes up every day and he knows I love him, his family loves him, he loves us back. . . . And that when his last day comes, people look back and they say: 'You know what? He was a good guy.' "If he has a great baseball career or not, it just doesn't matter to me. I don't know why it would matter to any parent."
The pitching prodigy
On a spring morning in the early 1990s, the ball field was crowded with 7-year-old boys, and John Celentano's son, Bobby, was one of them. The stakes could not have been lower: Little boys were learning to play baseball.
In those early years before wins and losses count, coaches pitch to their own players, making sure the ball sails straight and true over the plate. Celentano pitched, and one of his players hit the ball into the outfield. When the kid in center field picked it up and threw it back in, Celentano, who was armed only with an old softball glove, winced in pain.
He stared in disbelief toward the outfield. When the inning ended, Celentano approached the coach on the other team.
"Who's this kid you got in center field?" Celentano said.
"That's Jeff Allison," he was told.
Even at that age, the ingredients of Allison's story were being assembled.
As a small child, his world was neatly circumscribed by the wide lawns and well-used playing fields of the Kross Keys housing complex across the street from the bright lights and vast parking lots of the Northshore Mall.
The Allisons lived in a two-bedroom apartment near the front of a campus of three-story, red-brick buildings trimmed in white. There was a pool, basketball hoops, and tennis courts. Jeff became a play yard fixture.
For Noreen Allison, the neighborhood offered almost everything a mother could want for her children. It was safe, convenient, green, and friendly. And when the weather warmed and school let out, the gates to the pool swung open.
At age 2, Jeff was already swimming.
Two years later, about the time his parents' marriage dissolved and his father moved out, Allison found his first close friend in Anthony Palmieri. The Palmieris lived in the same complex, just down the road and around the bend.
Soon Jeff was eating at the Palmieri kitchen table and parlaying his playtime with Anthony into frequent sleepovers on weekend nights.
"That was like a second home," Noreen Allison said.
Gary Palmieri, Anthony's father, had been a Peabody High athlete who would later coach. To Palmieri, Jeff was a nice, down-to-earth boy -- the perfect playmate for Anthony and a pleasure to have around.
But when Palmieri watched Jeff in carefree ballgames with his son, he knew he was seeing something more than mere child's play. The careful, casual throws Anthony hurled toward Jeff were being returned with a velocity that turned adults' heads.
"I'd go in the house and I'd say to my wife, 'This kid, his arm is phenomenal,' "
Palmieri said. "You could tell the kid had a gift."
Bob Allison spotted it early, too. A tall, broad-shouldered man to whom Jeff bears a strong resemblance, he remained a frequent presence in his son's life after the divorce. He never saw his son outmatched even on the lowest rung of organized baseball, where youngsters are encouraged to swing at stationary balls placed on a tee.
Many little boys swung wildly or smiled gleefully as they dribbled the ball off the tee. When it was Jeff's turn, he stepped up confidently and pounded ball after ball into the outfield.
After practice he would polish his pitching form. His mother would stand in the backyard, taking her stance in an imaginary batter's box as the baseballs whizzed by.
"You hit me, I'm out of here," Noreen Allison warned her son. He never did.
Before long, the legend that would become Jeff Allison began to spread beyond Kross Keys.
By the time Allison was in Little League, his name was synonymous with dominance among parents and opposing players. Many felt their knees buckle as his pitches roared in.
"I came up at bat, and I remember my legs were shaking just because of his reputation," recalled Andrew Coppola, now one of Allison's best friends. "I was watching him throw throughout the game -- throwing these bullets to the catcher. And it just scared the [heck] out of me. And I remember facing him. I just let three fastballs down the middle just go by."
In those years, before Allison became a household name in Peabody, Jonathan W. Blodgett was one of his coaches.
Blodgett is now the Essex County district attorney, but in the early '90s, he was one of the first people to recognize that a brilliant future awaited Allison.
"I've been around long enough to have seen enough kids play that you know the ones who are special," Blodgett said. "And then there are one or two a generation who are extra special. He was one of them."
Local star ascends
Even before he walked into Peabody High in the fall of 1999, the athletic pedestal upon which many would place Jeff Allison was well under construction.
If its foundation lay in those early raised eyebrows on the playing fields at Kross Keys, and in the fear and wonderment of Little League opponents, its capstone slipped into place in the late summer of 1999. In August, Allison led a team of 14-year-olds from Peabody to the national Babe Ruth championship.
The team was the talk of the town, and Allison was its most valuable player.
He launched a towering home run. He shut down opposing batters. And he emerged from a joyous pileup in right field atop his teammates' shoulders after the final out was recorded against a team from Brooklyn.
When Allison and the team returned to Peabody from that win in Clifton Park, N.Y., a police escort greeted them. Later, they would march in a parade. New "Welcome to Peabody" signs blossomed around the city, making the teenagers' victory the focal point of civic pride.
Today, when Allison remembers that Babe RuthWorld Series title, his eyes brighten and his smile widens. In many ways, he said, those were the best days of his baseball life.
"The coaches were awesome," he said.
"The fans were awesome. We had, like, 5,000 people at one of our games. We were just 14 years old."
Gary Palmieri was the team's coach.
His mantra was: We win as a team, we lose as a team. He made no fuss over Allison. "I didn't have to do that," Palmieri said. "I don't think he wanted to be idolized."
Just days after the Babe Ruth success, Allison strolled through the doors of Peabody High for the first time. Four years later, when he walked out, he had become one of the most accomplished athletes in the school's history.
He signed autographs after games, sometimes for opposing players. Fans wore replicas of his jersey, complete with his name and his number -- 9 -- stitched across the back. The local newspaper trumpeted his pitching statistics with special graphics, mimicking the attention big-city papers have showered on the likes of Pedro Martinez.
"This kid was going to be the next Carl Yastrzemski," one former coach said.
"And everyone wanted a piece of him."
To be part of Allison's inner circle in those days was to be caught up in the kind of intensely local fame that is often part of life in smaller cities and towns, where schoolboy sports can be the civic glue.
If Allison insists he was treated like any other high-schooler, his friends knew otherwise.
"He was a celebrity in Peabody," said Bobby Celentano, his pal and neighbor after the Allisons moved across town into his quiet neighborhood. "If we go to the movies or something, people know who he is. . . . People are looking at him.
They're like, 'Yeah, that's Jeff Allison.' "
Andrew Coppola saw it, too. As a sophomore, when Allison announced he was dating "the most beautiful girl" in the senior class, Coppola's jaw dropped.
"I remember saying: 'Oh, my God.
You've got to be kidding me! You're going out with this girl? Are you kidding me?' I mean, that's when we knew," Coppola said.
But when he jumped into the front seat of Artie Generazzo's gray Ford Probe -- with Celentano and Coppola riding in back -- the star became just one of the boys.
"He wasn't that kid that everybody was 'Oh-my-Godding' about," Coppola said. "He wasn't that kid that everybody was talking about. When he was off the field, he was just Jeff Allison. He was the person. He was our friend. And we didn't treat him like anything more than that."
Allison, Generazzo, Celentano, and Coppola were a tight foursome, a clique unto themselves. For $7, they would while away an afternoon shooting pool in a large, fluorescent-lit billiards hall tucked between a gone-to-seed motel and a Chinese restaurant along Route 1's resolutely plain streetscape.
Allison was the group's unspoken leader. He rode up front and helped arbitrate the friends' adolescent squabbles.
"Most of the time it's something stupid," he said.
Generazzo was his chief lieutenant, the driver who controlled his car by its baseball shift-knob. The designated class flirt, he was also the comedian in the group. "Artie the one-man party," the yearbook called him.
Celentano, a scrappy ballplayer, was everybody's high-energy little brother.
Coppola, his yearbook's designee for nicest eyes, was the group's well-spoken smart kid.
"It's funny to look back and say it now," Coppola said. "But we were kind of the arrogant group. We were the group that if anyone had a party, it was like, 'Screw everyone else.' We were a group that didn't really care."
They ate roast beef sandwiches and $2 hamburgers at a boxy, glass-and-brick restaurant late on weekend nights. They played miniature golf, cruised for girls, and battled over video games in the basement dens of their parents' homes.
And they began to talk about the days in the near future when their jobs, their college ambitions, and their dreams would transport them well beyond the borders of Peabody.
By springtime 2002, as their junior year rushed toward its conclusion, that day seemed closer for Allison than for those who rode with him in Generazzo's Ford Probe.
The 6-foot-2 right-hander was collecting mail by the bucketful from elite baseball programs nationwide. Five hundred letters poured in from 70 colleges.
By some measures, Allison already was considered one of the top three draft-eligible pitchers in the country. He began to daydream about a fancy new car, a new home for his mother.
"The pros have been on my mind because people are saying that I'm going to be taken in the first round," Allison told an interviewer that spring. "That's a lot of money, and I don't think I could turn that down."
With the prospect of a million-dollar contract in his future, schoolwork and school rules began to hold less urgency for Allison. The golden boy was showing signs of a harder edge.
In late March of his junior year, police were called to the school after a student said Allison had pushed him against a wall and threatened him with physical harm. Allison said it did not happen that way. He was merely sticking up for his friends, he said. Charges were not pursued, but Allison acknowledged receiving an in-school suspension because of the incident.
Meanwhile, there was far more serious trouble to confront -- a frightening shadow on his life and his dreams.
By that time, Allison had experimented with OxyContin, the powerful prescription painkiller intended to quell intense pain like that suffered by cancer victims.
It began in a casual way. The first time he tried the drug, he said, he was watching a professional football game on television with an acquaintance.
"I just took it," he said. "At the time, it wasn't a great feeling. I didn't feel too well. I actually came home and went to sleep because it made me tired. But then once -- the next year -- once I got into it, it was like: 'OK. I like this feeling. I always wanted to feel like that. And nothing else.' "
Jeff Allison, the ballplayer who has mastered the mechanics of a curveball and the importance of pinpoint control, knew nothing about the unforgiving power of the drug.
But he would learn.
"I had no idea. No idea," he said.
"Until I was finally addicted to it."
Plucked into the big time
There was a made-for-Hollywood quality about Jeff Allison's final weeks at Peabody Veterans Memorial High School.
When his senior-year baseball season opened in mid-April, Allison struck out 17 of the 24 batters he faced. He hit a grand slam. Scouts from at least 15 big-league clubs clustered behind home plate, clocking his fastball at 94 miles per hour.
For his teammates, that kind of domination bred boredom. "I'd sit out there at shortstop, and it was like: Strike 3.
Strike 3. Strike 3," Celentano said. "And it's like, 'Let them hit the ball once.' "
Allison rarely did.
When he pitched a one-hitter against Malden, 75 of his 98 pitches were strikes.
He threw a no-hitter against Cambridge.
In mid-May, against Somerville, he raised his record to 6-0, striking out 20 batters, including the first 17 to face him.
"Every time that Jeff would be on the mound, I would be walking into the game with a couple of friends," Coppola recalled. "And everybody you'd walk by -- whether it be kids, parents, reporters, photographers, anybody -- you would walk by and the only thing you heard was Jeff Allison, Jeff Allison, Jeff Allison."
As his legend grew, the number of scouts flying into Peabody multiplied.
With radar guns in one hand and cellphones in the other, they reported back to their big-league offices: This kid can't miss.
"He had the chance to be a numberone impact pitcher," said John Kosciak, a longtime scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"His curveball was as good as any big-leaguer I've seen in 15 years. . . . He was cocky, but I guess when you're that good you can afford to be cocky, because he backed it up."
If there were any warning signals about Allison's life away from the baseball field, they were vague and difficult to discern.
Longtime Peabody High baseball coach Ed Nizwantowski said that when Allison stepped between the foul lines, he became a "warrior" who earned the respect of teammates as well as opponents.
But when his star pitcher missed a practice, Nizwantowski promptly benched him -- a rare and brief punishment.
"I had 26 scouts screaming at me one day because Jeff was not going to pitch," Nizwantowski said. "And I said: 'I don't care how many guys flew in here. This kid has got to learn to follow simple rules.' "
The day before the 2003 draft, Allison, in a game against Chelmsford, surrendered one hit and struck out 10 batters before leaving the game with an 8-0 lead. "I wanted to go out there and dominate," he told reporters afterward.
The next morning -- June 3 -- Jeff Allison headed to school to take two final exams. But his world was about to shift on its axis. It was draft day. Within hours, he was through the looking glass.
Reporters, photographers, and television news crews flocked into the driveway of his modest home. His father, by now the gatekeeper for the Major League suitors, had to elbow his way into the house.
"After I fought my way through the camera crews, photographers, and some of the reporters . . . was when it really hit me -- the amount of pressure my son was under," Bob Allison said. "The pressure on him, the expectation of him being a first-round draft pick, a top-10 pick potentially. . . . Before the draft started, I leaned over and I hugged him and I whispered in his ear and I said: 'I don't care where you're picked. You're still number one with all of us.' "
There were some anxious moments.
Teams that had indicated a keen interest took a pass. The Pirates. The Reds. The Indians.
"Oh, my God," Allison said, recalling his thoughts. "I'm slipping in the draft."
But at 1:23 p.m., the scouting director for the Florida Marlins was on the phone. Allison, the 16th player selected in the draft, was the Marlins' first-round pick. Surrounded in his sister's bedroom by his parents and three of his coaches, Allison was at the center of a joyous group hug.
By the end of July, Allison was standing on the emerald infield of Pro Player Stadium in Miami. He wore a team uniform with his name and the number of his draft year -- 03 -- on the back. He took batting practice with the World Series-bound Marlins, and he shagged fly balls in the outfield. For 15 minutes, surrounded by reporters and coaches, as well as Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and team manager Jack McKeon, the new hot prospect threw bullets in the bullpen.
"He looked outstanding," McKeon recalled. "He had outstanding stuff.
Looking at him, you could just envision this guy being in the big leagues in a couple of years. His stuff was that good."
His brief workout over, Allison trotted to the dugout. He signed a $1.85 million contract. He ate in the owner's box. And then, with his electronic image flashed on the stadium's huge, high-tech scoreboard, he was introduced as the Marlins' newest first-round pick.
Pretty cool, he thought.
"You sign a professional contract for almost $2 million and you're flying high now," Allison said. "It's like you can do whatever you want. You don't care about anything."
Bungling the dream
For the friends who rode with him in Artie Generazzo's compact car to the pool halls and late-night eateries of Peabody, there was something alarming about Jeff Allison, the newly minted pro ballplayer.
Their best friend, their constant companion, the leader of their small pack, was suddenly nowhere to be found.
Generazzo, Celentano, and Coppola repeatedly quizzed one another about his absence. What do you think is going on?
Is there anything we can do? Has Jeff called you yet? Where is he?
"He was slowly leaving us, in a way," Coppola said.
After periods of a week or two away from the gang, Allison would return briefly. And his best pals, the boys who knew him long before he became a local superstar, did not like what they now saw in his eyes.
"The pupils of your eyes, when you take OxyContin, get like they're in sunlight," Bobby Celentano said. "So if you're playing pool at the pool hall and his eyes are beaming like they're in sunlight, he's on one. He just didn't look like Jeff. He talked different. It was completely different.
It was like Good Jeff, Bad Jeff. And we knew right away."
Generazzo, perhaps his closest friend, took him aside for a series of long, urgent conversations.
"You have too much to live for right now," Generazzo told him. "You can't be doing that kind of stuff. This is your life now. You can't mess it up."
But with Allison's celebrity in full flower and his wallet impossibly full, the drug use escalated dramatically.
"Once he got signed, once he had this contract, once he received his signing bonus, that's when things blew up," Coppola said. "That's when the gasoline was thrown on the fire."
In those heady days of local stardom, when his name was on the lips of strangers who served him pizza, or handed him movie tickets, or wanted to bask in his reflected glory, an aura of invincibility surrounded Allison. The young man atop a pedestal in Peabody had grown fearless, and reckless.
"I started to get a big head," he said. "I started not caring. I started thinking I was invincible -- that I could do whatever I wanted. And that wasn't the case at all. I knew in the back of my mind that I couldn't do whatever I wanted, but my attitude was just so cocky. . . . I mean, I had the money, the fame in the city. I was me."
By the end of last year, just months after his giant image had flashed on the bright scoreboard in Miami, Allison found himself at the bottom of a dark, deep place. He could see no escape.
As the professional baseball world moved on without him, as some former friends and acquaintances scoffed about the gift he had bungled, Allison's family and friends went to work fashioning him a lifeline.
"Baseball right now is secondary," Noreen Allison said, speaking about her only son. "I need Jeffrey healthy. I need the Jeff who I knew before all this started. . . . [OxyContin] takes over your life. It's like a tidal wave.
"It takes you. You don't take it."
Tomorrow: A habit. And hope.
Thomas Farragher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.