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A Favorite of Mine

I was on the No. 7 train coming back from Flushing a couple weeks ago and my uncle Richard told the story of how his son, my cousin Michael, cried the day that the Mets traded Todd Zeile in January, 2002.

I don't remember how I reacted the day that my favorite Met was dealt, and I don't have any recollection of why I picked this player as my favorite, but I do have a neat story to tell about him, and I can tie it in to walk-offs, if you'll indulge.

Neil Allen (middle name Patrick) was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on January 24, 1958. That part I know by heart, as his birthday was a week before mine (the January 24, part, not 1958). He was drafted in the 11th round in 1976, made his Mets debut in 1979 as a starter but was moved to the bullpen shortly after recall. His chronology of pictures his Topps cards are rather oddly sequenced. His 1980 rookie card shows him in mid-delivery, ball in hand. The 1981 card has him just about to plant his front leg and the back reveals he "spurned football scholarship offers from all Big 8 Conference schools." In 1982, he's shown post-delivery and appears to have just completed his final warm-up toss (I thought he was about to do a celebratory fist-pump until I looked in the background and saw the third baseman with hands on hips). His 1983 card, his last as a Met, features a rather ginger follow-through, not quite what you'd expect from someone with a huge leg kick and big curveball, which made Allen more distinct.

From 1980 to 1982, Allen was one of the most reliable relievers in the National League. He had 59 saves in that span and had stretches in which he was totally unhittable. In 1981, he had a 14-inning scoreless streak and pitched particularly well in three outings against the Cardinals, something of which Redbirds skipper Whitey Herzog must have taken note.

When you're eight years old (even one who reads the newspaper cover-to-cover every day), you're not as aware of some of the other things. In 1983, Allen had some issues that came to the surface and his pitching suffered in turn. On April 13, Phillies catcher Bo Diaz hit a walk-off grand slam against Allen to cap a 10-9 Phillies win as the Mets were mired in an early six-game losing skid. In his first 10 outings, Allen allowed runs in eight of them. There was a question as to whether Allen was an alcoholic and though it was thought to be shown at the time that he wasn't (a doctor said he had stress issues), he acknowledged in an Associated Press series on sports and alcohol in 1991 that he was a recovering alcoholic.

In May, the Mets moved Allen into the starting rotation to see if that might change his karma, and in his second start, he shut out the Dodgers. It was around this time that Allen was a guest at a baseball card show. My dad owned a candy store in the late 70s, early 80s and one thing for which he was known was custom-made t-shirts. Since Allen was my favorite player, my dad thought it would be cool for me to wear a t-shirt to the show with his picture on it, so he took Allen's rookie card and turned it into an iron-on.

I don't think the line was particularly long for Allen that day, as his popularity diminished. He seemed to be signing quickly and when it got to my turn in the line, I put his rookie card down, and he quickly inked his name without looking up. "Neil," my dad said. "Look at the shirt! Look at the shirt!"

In an instant Allen's whole demeanor changed. His face brightened and he had a huge smile. He said "Wow!" or something to that effect, said something about trying to win a game for me, and signed the shirt. I don't think he ever got the chance to deliver as a Met, because his last two starts and final six relief appearances with the team were unimpressive.

On June 15, I was sitting in my room, playing something (probably an Atari 2600 game) with my friend David Cooper when word passed over the radio that Allen had been traded to the Cardinals along with pitching prospect Rick Ownbey for star first baseman Keith Hernandez, who was dealing with his own issues (drug addiction) and whom Herzog wanted off the team. Allen was the pitcher that Herzog wanted, but the fans didn't and they let him know in a rather unpleasant fashion, even though he went 10-6 with four complete games and two shutouts (with a win in his first appearance against the Mets) to close the 1983 campaign.

Flash forward to 1985 and the game for which most remember Allen, at least anecdotally, was on April 9 when Gary Carter punctuated his Mets debut with a walk-off 10th inning home run. Carter reached out and punched Allen's big curveball just over Lonnie Smith's glove and over the left field fence for a well-known, dramatic welcome to New York. ''It was the best pitch I threw,'' Allen told reporters. ''A breaking pitch, what I wanted to throw, where I wanted to throw it. You have to give the man credit. That's why they pay him $2 million a year.''

Two days later, Allen walked in Danny Heep for another Mets walk-off win, and to be fair, he never had the same trust from Herzog again (would the 1985 season have gone as it did for St. Louis if Herzog had stuck with Allen as his closer?). The Cardinals sold him to the Yankees, for whom he pitched decently for half a season. The Yankees in turn traded him to the White Sox and Allen pitched well in 1986, but his numbers sunk sharply after that and after another mildly decent trial with the Yankees and a three-game stint with the Indians in 1989, he was done as a pitcher. He finished with a career mark of 58-70 and 75 saves.

There are some blanks to fill in along the way, but in 1996, Allen became the pitching coach for the St. Catharine's Stompers, the Blue Jays affiliate in the New York-Penn League. Apparently the reviews were good, because after three seasons with the Stompers and two with the Staten Island Yankees, Allen joined the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, for whom he served as pitching coach in 2003 and 2004. In 2005 he was promoted and can be seen in the background quite often on YES Network telecasts, serving as the Yankees bullpen coach (and viewed as the heir apparent to retiring pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre). That's the best way that I can identify him when I tell people at work about my first favorite, because their response is often "Who the heck is Neil Allen???"

I spoke with former Mets pitcher John Pacella (the one whose cap always flew off post-delivery) about another project last year, and he told me that Allen, still a friend of his, had the best memory of any player he's ever known. I haven't had the chance to try to contact Allen, though in the profession in which I work, it wouldn't surprise me if our paths cross someday. I don't know if he remembers our encounter during what must have been a rough time in his life, but I'm glad that I can say that I think I made one of his last Mets memories a good one.

True Methodologists know... Neil Allen was the winning pitcher in eight Mets walk-off wins and the losing pitcher in three Mets walk-off wins.

Comments

Metstradamus said…
Neil Allen was my first baseball autograph. Unfortunately he signed a very small slip of paper which was lost years later.

He had that very distinctive delivery that I emulated when I was young.

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