It is a time when Mark Rogers can look back at two shoulder operations and two missed seasons to become the thunder at the end of the Brewers' reconstructed rotation. When Chone Figgins and Jason Bay put 2010 nightmares in the rear-view mirror, Jose Reyes and Jacoby Ellsbury prove it was all about health and Jake Peavy, Joe Nathan and Josh Beckett try to ease back to being who and what they were, or are.
Jeff Allison won't report this week; he'll be in Jupiter, Fla., the first week of March with the other Marlins Triple-A pitchers. He is back home in Andover, Mass., taking it all in. He's fought his way back to Triple-A, and at the age of 26, the pitching part is the easiest part, because it is what he loves and he knows that if those last few miles per hour ever come back, he will someday stand on a Major League mound.
He's spent the offseason in the snow and ice of Andover working two jobs, for a high tech firm from 8-to-5 during the week, and giving kids pitching lessons on the weekends. He realized this winter that when he signed his bonus contract as the Marlins' first-round pick in 2003, that there was a college bonus, so he is going to school through the University of Phoenix and working towards a degree in criminal justice.
"In my life," said Allison, "I have to fight for everything every day. Which is fine. I'm used to it now. It's rewarding."
And his driving force is what he calls "the moment that stood out from last season." It was after the Rangers had defeated the Rays in the American League Division Series and C.J. Wilson and other Texas players sprayed one another with ginger ale in honor of and out of respect for Josh Hamilton, a moment that was repeated when the Rangers beat the Yankees to win the American League pennant and get to the World Series.
"I was home watching Josh being interviewed after they beat the Yankees, and it really hit me," said Allison. "He was so emotional. It really hit home. I know how hard he's worked to get to where he is, how tough it is, what a fight it is every day."
Allison's been there. In fact, he remembers watching Hamilton's first at-bat for the Cincinnati Reds in April 2007.
"I was in Jupiter, in the early stages of my rehab, and I vividly remember his face and it being such a powerful message for me," Allison said.
Fifteen months later, Hamilton had his unforgettable Home Run Derby in Yankee Stadium, an exhibition Allison watched from the outfield in Jupiter while shagging flies before a Florida State League game. After the Derby was over, Hamilton asked for Allison's cell number and called him.
In 2002, Allison represented his country, pitching for Team USA. Chad Billingsley and Ian Kennedy were a couple of the other star pitchers. Delmon Young and Lastings Milledge were stars, and a future Royals first-round pick named Chris Lubanski was Allison's roommate. Lubanski just hooked up with the Marlins, and will be reunited with Allison in a couple of weeks.
In 2003, Allison looked as if he were a couple of right turns from the big leagues. He pitched for Peabody High School north of Boston. In one game against Somerville, with 50-something scouts in the stands, he threw a seven inning no-hitter in which he sat 95-97 mph and threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 21 batters he faced. He was the 16th pick in the first round, got into three games in the Gulf Coast League and struck out 11 in nine innings.
In the next four seasons, he made 17 appearances, all in 2005. No 2004. No 2006 or 2007, although he tried. And fell. Former Peabody baseball coach Ed Nizwantowski described a dangerous drug culture at Peabody High School in a December 2004 Sports Illustrated article, and Allison was a part of said culture. In 2004, he was rushed to the hospital one night after an overdose, and is probably fortunate to be alive.
"The Marlins organization never quit on me, especially Jeffrey Loria," said Allison. "He stood by me, always made me feel that they wouldn't cast me aside, but help me get my life in place."
After that near-fatal night, Loria flew to Boston and visited Allison in the hospital. But after his stint in Greensboro in 2005, Allison fell again and missed all of 2006. Then, fighting to stay clean in 2007, there was that moment in a motel room in Jupiter watching Hamilton's first at-bat.
"I'd see guys like Delmon Young from that 2002 Team USA and they'd always be encouraging," Allison said. "[Former Padres first-round pick] Matt Antonelli and I grew up together, and he always tried to help. I watched the Rangers' players respect for Josh in their celebrations and it touched home, because my teammates and friends have rooted for me to win my battles."
Allison made it back in 2008, going 9-8 in the Florida State League and making the All-Star team. The 96-97-mph fastball hadn't come back, and he spent most of 2009 repeating in Jupiter, going 7-9 with a 3.68 ERA. This past season, his fastball was in the high 80's and touched 90, but he wore down in July and August. Because he was so eager to get back, the previous winter he began an overzealous throwing program in November.
Allison pitched the entire 2010 season in Jacksonville, finishing with a 6-11 record and 5.04 ERA. But after the Draft and during the Instructional League, the Marlins had him talk to young players about drugs and alcohol and what they did to his life.
Then there was the Southern League clincher for Jacksonville, in Birmingham. Allison pitched seven innings and was the winner, and when the game was over, his teammates celebrated as the Rangers celebrated with Hamilton.
"They were just going to have beer," Allison said, "but they sprayed a drink ... I think it was apple juice. On Minor League paychecks, you can't afford good ginger ale and champagne."
Allison got together with Antonelli a couple of weeks ago, and they talked about their mutual friends, and they talked about the future. Antonelli got hurt, and now is finally healthy and hoping to make it in Washington.
Allison hopes that, at 26, his velocity comes back.
"I dream of someday playing with or pitching to Josh," Allison said. "But even if I don't get to the big leagues, I got a chance to play baseball, baseball helped me get my life in order, and I can move on. I've got a job, I'm going to college, I'm working with kids. ... I have a lot of people to thank, starting with Mr. Loria."
This is the season of light at the end of personal tunnels, if you're Sizemore or Figgins, Ellsbury, Peavy or Rogers. Before he was drafted by the Rangers, Carlos Pena was asked about the struggles of coming to the U.S. at 15 not speaking English and living in a three-decker without heat. Six years later, he was looking at being a first-round pick while carrying a 3.7 college GPA.
"No one," Pena replied, "ever said the American dream was supposed to be easy."
So this week we saw Hamilton sign his $24 million contract, and we watch so many try to fulfill their dreams on bullpen mounds and in batting cages. The night after Hamilton's Yankee Stadium power display, President George W.Bush held a White House dinner honoring baseball and asked me about Hamilton, then said, "not enough is said about the redemptive nature of our country."
Which is why we hope Allison gets back to 95 mph, and is pitching in a pennant race for the Marlins come August.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.