The recent release of Miguel Batista brings back memories of a similar situation facing the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985. Trading Neil Allen to the New York Yankees was one of the turning points for a team that would go on to win 101 games, and take the Kansas City Royals to the seventh game of the World Series.
Prospect to closer
Neil Patrick Allen was a tall right hander that was drafted out of high school by the Mets in 1976. He progressed quickly through the minor league system, making the jump from A to AAA in a single season. A strong showing in spring training combined with a nearly complete overhaul of the Mets starting rotation earned Allen a spot on the Mets 1979 roster, initially as a starter.
It did not go well in the beginning for the 21 year old. He had a good fastball, but it was his curveball that made your, and opposing batters, eyes pop out. Unfortunately, the control he had shown in the minors didn’t make the trip to the major leagues with the rest of his equipment. Falling behind in the count and an increasing walk total took away one of his best weapons, that nasty curveball, and what was left in his arsenal was quite hittable.
The Mets would lose his first five starts and Allen would fail to get beyond the sixth inning in all of them, including one hook after retiring just two batters (and giving up three runs). With an 0-4 record and rapidly escalating ERA, the Mets moved Allen to the bullpen instead of sending him back to the minors to work on his command. That turned out to be a good decision as Allen turned things around. It was a struggle at first, but after coming back from a short stint on the disabled list, Allen turned in a solid season in relief. In the 38 games after coming off the DL, Allen would post a 6-5 record with 2.07 ERA and 8 saves, with only one blown save. The Mets were on to something here.
Over the next three seasons, Allen would establish himself as the closer for the Mets, initially sharing those duties with Jeff Reardon. Allen would save 59 games over those three seasons. The Mets thought so much of Allen as their closer, they traded away Jeff Reardon early in 1981 in a deal with the Montreal Expos to acquire Ellis Valentine. Reardon would go on to save 367 games in his career, many of those coming with the Expos.
Not only was Allen doing a good job closing out games for the Mets, he was also the life of the party away from the stadium. At some point, the celebrating and good times turned into a problem, and it spilled onto the playing field in 1983.
By mid June, the once dependable closer had a 2-7 record with an ERA he hadn’t seen since those first few starts in his rookie season. He also disclosed his alcohol problem to the team. While the Mets front office took some time to find a solution, one suddenly presented itself in St. Louis – one that was too good to pass up.
Drug and alcohol problems were widespread in baseball at the time, but it seemed to be a particular problem in the St. Louis clubhouse. In 1981, then general manager, Whitey Herzog, cleaned house of the over-paid and under-performing stars as he retooled his new team into champions. He was about to do it again, but this time it was in an effort to clean up the team, and its image. It would take Herzog several years to complete the overhaul, and it all started with one of the most popular players on the team, Keith Hernandez.
On June 15, 1983, the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals completed a deal sending Gold Glove winner and former NL MVP, Keith Hernandez to New York Mets for Neil Allen. From the moment the deal was made, fans were against it. Memories of Steve Carlton for Rick Wise and dumping Jose Cruz to the Astros were still fresh in the minds of Cardinals Nation, and this trade was as bad, if not worse, than those. Things could not have worked out better for the Mets and Hernandez. It was quite the opposite for Allen and the Cardinals.
The pitching problem for the Cardinals was in the starting rotation, not the bullpen, so that’s where they would put Allen. And he pitched well initially, although the fans were clearly not on his side. With every pitch, all we noticed was George Hendrick playing first base instead of Keith Hernandez. Every ground ball that got through the right side of the infield or any runner stranded by the heart of the Cardinals batting order became another black mark on the Cardinals career of Neil Allen.
To put it simply, Neil Allen was doomed from the moment he put on a Cardinals uniform. It was totally unfair, and it hasn’t happened very often in the history of the franchise. But it did happen to Neil Allen, and the two years he spent in St. Louis must have seemed like an eternity.
Back to the pen
Allen would spend most of the remainder of 1983 in the starting rotation, posting a solid 10-6 record with a modest 3.70 ERA. His control had returned somewhat, and there was reason to be optimistic about 1984.
The emergence of Danny Cox in 1983 meant that the Cardinals could best use Allen’s talents in the bullpen, as a setup man to Bruce Sutter, filling the long relief spot as needed. He could also jump into a spot start, should the schedule require it.
He got off to a terrible start to the 1984 season, allowing runs in six of his seven outings. Somehow, the Cardinals managed to score enough runs to make him a winner in one, and he was able to pick up holds, albeit rather shaky ones, in two others. After a long rest, Allen seemed to return to the form we had seen in 1983. May was a solid month for the young right hander, but as the calendar turned to June, he started giving up runs in bunches. Thanks to a couple of big innings from the Cardinals bats, Allen ended up posting a positive record of 9-6. His strong May and July helped him keep his ERA down to 3.50, slightly better than the previous year.
A brutal start
Then came the 1985 season.
For most Cardinals fans, it was a magical time. Vince Coleman would burst on the scene and electrify huge crowds with his base running. The Cardinals defense was one of the best in the game. And the pitching. Oh, the pitching. Joaquin Andujar started the season, looking like he might reach 30 wins. John Tudor’s turnaround in June, posting the best summer of pitching since Bob Gibson’s in 1968.
The odd man out was Neil Allen. And his troubles started in the first game of the season. The date was April 9, and it would happen in the city where he broke into the major leagues, New York.
Neither of the two starters, Joaquin Andujar for the Cardinals and Dwight Gooden for the Mets, were sharp. Andujar would only last five innings, Gooden six. The story was the two bullpens, and they were very good.
With the Mets ahead, 5-4 in the ninth, Doug Sisk, in his third inning of relief, got into trouble. A single, hit batsman, and another infield single loaded the bases with just one out. Sisk struck out Terry Pendeton, but a bases loaded walk of newcomer Jack Clark tied the game at 5. The turning point in the game was not the bases loaded walk, but the Cardinals failing to score more than the tying run. That would come back to haunt them in a few minutes.
Neil Allen would take over for the Cardinals in the bottom of the tenth, with the score still tied at 5. He would strike out Keith Hernandez, which had a certain touch of irony to it. Gary Carter would send the huge Mets crowd home in a frenzy when he launches a Neil Allen pitch deep into the left field seats for a walk-off homer.
History would repeat itself two days later. In the second game of the season, Ron Darling and John Tudor hooked up in one of the best pitched games of the season. Each would surrender a single run, and neither would be around when the game ended.
As in the season opener, the game would go into extra innings. In the bottom of the 10th inning, Andy Hassler would give up a single to Keith Hernandez. Whitey Herzog went to his bullpen, calling on game one loser, Neil Allen. Allen faced three batters, retiring none of them. A single and intentional walk would bring up Danny Heep with the bases loaded. Allen would walk Danny Heep, forcing in the winning run.
And this was not the low point in Allen’s 1985 season. That would come in just a few weeks.
Finding new ways to lose
On May 1, the Cardinals would battle the Los Angeles Dodgers for 12 exciting innings. Danny Cox and Orel Hershiser would each allow a single run in the first inning, and nothing but goose eggs after that. In the twelfth inning, Ken Landreaux would lead off with a double. Neil Allen, in his third inning of relief, would get a strikeout and groundout. With Landreaux now on third base, Allen was one pitch from getting out of trouble. Unfortunately. he would be called for a balk before that pitch could be delivered, and Landreaux scored the eventual winning run.
That was the day that Allen’s Cardinals career ended. But not the last day he pitched. And it got ugly. Real ugly.
Unlike in April, where Allen rebounded from those two extra inning losses in New York, there was just more of the same in May. And June. In the fourteen games he would pitch for the Cardinals after that balk, the Cardinals would lose 13 of those games. Whitey Herzog was afraid to use Allen in games where the Cardinals held a lead, no matter how large.
Does any of this sound familiar ?
As the All Star game approached, Herzog and general manager Dal Maxvill huddled to determine what they would do. The Cardinals lead in the NL East was small, and Allen was using up a valuable roster spot. The Cardinals could not afford to eat the remainder of Allen’s $750,000 contract, but they might have to do just that.
In a moment of brilliance, they decided to showcase Allen, putting him in very low risk situations, mostly blowouts, but showing his value as a long reliever. They took a gargantuan gamble on June 11, giving him a spot start in Pittsburgh. Maxvill and Herzog held their breath as he took the mound, and got totally shelled, giving up 7 runs in less than three innings of work. Gutsy call on Maxvill’s part – unfortunately it didn’t work.
The turning point
Allen would not see any more work in June. In the past, Allen seemed to rebound from a long rest, and that’s just what he got. After missing 19 games, Allen appeared next in early July. In three appearances, he didn’t allow a single run and that was good enough for the New York Yankees, who had a sudden bullpen need.
On July 16, the Yankees bought out the remainder of Neil Allen’s contract, and his Cardinals career came to an end. Two years, one month and one day.
The deal worked out well for both clubs. Allen’s roster would be filled by Joe Boever, who proved to be an upgrade from Allen’s recent performance. The bullpen became significantly better when a young right handed flame thrower by the name of Todd Worrell was called up from Louisville just before the post-season eligibility deadline. What was once a liability suddenly became the strength of the Cardinals roster, and late inning leads were now safe.
The Yankees got more than they expected in Neil Allen. In 17 appearances, he would post a 1-0 record with an ERA of 2.75, the best of his career. He would also tack on one save and two holds. More important, he didn’t blow a single save chance in those 17 appearances.
Just before the start of the 1986 spring training, the Yankees traded Allen to the Chicago White Sox. The tall right hander started out the season in the bullpen, but moved into the starting rotation in early May. In a reversal of his rookie season, he proved to be magic for the White Sox as a starter. He would win his first four decisions, and finally post a 7-2 record. Of particular note were a pair of complete game shutouts in July, the second being against his former team, the Yankees. Arm troubles would cut short his season in July. He would miss more than two months, returning for one final start at the end of the season.
A rough start to the 1987 season would lead to his release in August. The Yankees would pick him up one more time, and he pitched well for them again, at least some of the time. It is during this second time with the Yankees that Neil Allen pitched one of the strangest games in baseball history. It is certainly one that doesn’t look right in the record books.
The date was May 31, 1988. The Yankees were in Oakland to play Tony La Russa’s Athletics. Starting the game for the Yankees is Al Leiter.
Carney Landsford leads off the game by hitting a hard line drive that deflects off Leiter’s pitching arm. The Yankee’s lefty scrambles for the ball and throws wildly, allowing Landsford to take second base. Leiter is injured on the play and unable to continue in the game.
Neil Allen is brought into the game to replace Leiter, and he pitches the game of his career. He retires the next 19 batters, giving up a single to Jose Canseco with one out in the seventh inning. Allen would allow just two more Athletics base runners, a two out single by Ron Hassey in the eighth, and a second single to Canseco, this one with two outs in the ninth. Along the way, Allen would also strike out five while walking none. Because he recorded all 27 outs, Allen was given a shutout for his effort. But, he didn’t face all of the Athletics batters, so he did not receive a complete game.
Throughout all of these seasons, Allen’s battles with alcohol would continue, mostly in private. It would reach a low point with the Cleveland Indians, while on a rehabilitation assignment in the minor leagues. After a particularly nasty drinking binge, a friend gave Allen a Breathalyzer test, and the results were quite sobering. He was nearing the toxic levels of alcohol in his blood, and if he continued this behavior, he would not survive.
That was the last drink Allen took and he soon checked himself into a substance abuse clinic. He managed to get his life turned around, and even returned to the major leagues for a pair of appearances in September 1989, but those would be the last of his career. He would retire from baseball after an unsuccessful comeback attempt with the Cincinnati Reds in 1990.
A happy ending
Fortunately, the Neil Allen story has a happy ending. After a short break from baseball, Allen returned to the game as a pitching coach for the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays. He has coached at just about every level, including some time in the major leagues as the bullpen coach for the Yankees. Allen is now the pitching coach of the Durham Bulls, the AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.