The regulars at Champions Pub in downtown Peabody, Mass., all grew up in town, and they all say it in the same rapid-fire way: Peebadee, one syllable just about. Peebadee High. Home of The Tannas. There was a time, the regulars will tell you proudly, when Peabody was the leather-tanning capital of the world, but then the work went overseas and the factories were converted into low-income apartments, and now all that are left are the school nickname, the Tanners, and the descendants of the last generation of Peabody leather workers, who are old or dead. You can tell the descendants by their working-class Greater Boston accents and their Old World surnames, anchored with consonants, names from Greece and Italy and Poland and Portugal.
There's Ed Nizwantowski--Coach Niz--who's been the football and baseball coach at Peabody High forever. There's James Leontakianakos--Jimmy Leon--who brought Jeff Allison to the hospital the night last summer when the greatest pitcher in Peabody history nearly died. Outsiders in Peabody, wayward tourists in stiff Red Sox hats trying to find the witch trial reenactments in neighboring Salem, they might as well be wearing a sign. The battalions of professional baseball scouts who came to Peabody in the spring of 2003 to clock Jeff Allison's 95mph fastball and to try to take the measure of the kid, they never had a chance. Peabody's not easy on outsiders.
Coach Niz, one of the best athletes ever to come out of Peabody High, is a regular at Champions. Even with all the bad stuff going on in his life--the drug problems of Allison, the Florida Marlins' No. 1 draft pick in 2003; the same sort of troubles with his own hockey-playing son, whose addiction has left Coach Niz with serious money woes--he can still sit in a cramped booth at Champions, surrounded by his buddies, his chin over a glass of Mich Ultra, and talk about the good times. The other day he and his sidekick, Terry Lee (fellow member of the class of '64, retired cop, assistant Tanners football and baseball coach), were reliving highlights from Jeff Allison's senior season.
Niz: Remember the Medford coach? He's, like, "I can't tell you how to hit this guy. Just swing. If you get a hit, you can say you got a hit off a future major leaguer."
December 20, 2004
Lee: How 'bout the Somerville game, when he struck out the 20?
Lee: Kids were getting high fives for hitting foul balls.
Niz: That umpire, when he called that third strike a ball?
Lee: Oh, man, did you have it goin'.
Niz: And Jeff says, "Don't worry--I'll take care of him on this one." Ninety-eight miles an hour!
Lee: The scouts all staring at their radar guns.
Niz: Kid was a warrior.
Lee: Between the lines, yeah.
even ed nizwantowski, the insider's insider in Peabody, did not know that his star pitcher was getting high on the prescription opiate OxyContin, an intensely powerful painkiller five times stronger than the more commonly prescribed Vicodin, all through his senior baseball season. Jeff Allison was striking out two batters per inning. He was allowing nothing--no earned runs--game after game. Scouts were saying he'd be a top 10 pick in the major leagues' June 2003 amateur draft. Agents were circling. College coaches were praying, but they had no chance.
Jeff Allison was in Baseball America all the time, the best high school pitcher in the country. The talk was that his signing bonus would be well north of $2 million, that he'd be in the majors in a couple-three years, that he'd make everyone forget about Jeff Juden, a first-round pick out of Salem High in '89, whose big league pitching career turned out to be a series of dashed hopes. Jeff Allison was going to come out of Peabody, out of the little rental house on the dead-end street he shared with his mother and sister, and make Peabody famous and proud again. How could he be a doper?
Coach Niz thought he knew what to look for. He was an expert on the subject, to tell you the truth. In Peabody nobody confused OC with a Thursday night teen drama on Fox. The town was rife with the drug. One of Nizwantowski's former football players, a suspected OxyContin user, had died of a heroin overdose. Another former Tanners football player had been arrested for murder in an incident involving an OC stash and is awaiting trial. The starting second baseman on Allison's team, the son of the school superintendent in Salem, had recently gone through a drug rehab program for OxyContin addiction. (Talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh has done the same.) An outstanding former Tanners placekicker went through college getting stoned on OxyContin three times a day, then went through hell to get straight, and the only way he gets by now is that one-day-at-a-time mantra.
then there's Brad Nizwantowski, the middle child of the three Niz kids, graced with athletic skill, as likable as his father is charismatic, as chatty as his mom. Hockey got him to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. OxyContin addiction, and the desperate rage it fueled, got him to the Hampshire County House of Correction.
Like his father before him, Brad Nizwantowski excelled at baseball, football and hockey. His parents sent him to a nearby boarding school, Cushing Academy, because they feared that had he gone to Peabody High, other parents and athletes might harass Coach Niz about giving preferential treatment to his son. At Cushing, Brad was a captain of the baseball, football and hockey teams. He started using OxyContin regularly in his sophomore year at UMass, where he was on a hockey scholarship.
His college days came to an end in December 2001, during his junior year, when Brad, strung out and depressed, talked his way into the apartment of an old girlfriend, locked the woman and himself in her bedroom, pointed a kitchen knife to his stomach and yelled repeatedly, "I'm gonna kill myself!" He was arrested by Amherst police and convicted, in February 2003, of kidnapping and assault with a dangerous weapon. He spent six months of a one-year sentence in the Hampshire jail and is now out on probation. Any failed drug test could send him back to jail. His parents live in fear of that possibility.
After the arrest and before the trial Brad was home in Peabody, and the full extent of his drug addiction became obvious. The father and son battled constantly. The tension between Patty and her husband over what went wrong, and why, hung over their every meal. Each could see lines of despair in the other's face. (Ironically, when Coach Niz was prescribed OxyContin after major back surgery in December of '01--he was left with a dozen metal rods and plates in his back--the innocent-looking green pills hung in a small plastic bottle around his neck like a stopwatch.) Trying to help their middle child (their oldest, Paul, is a custodian at Peabody High), Niz and Patty have twice remortgaged their house and have spent $45,000 on lawyers, psychologists, therapists, doctors and antidepressants. Until he went to jail, the kid had been getting high daily, often stealing from his parents to pay for drugs. He was unable to stop himself. The things Brad once loved, hockey, baseball, football, his family, now meant nothing to him.
Brad, when he's straight, is a pleasure. (He's been off OC for eight months now; his craving for the drug has been eliminated by a Naltrexone pellet inserted under the skin in his right arm. (His parents pay $400 every eight weeks for a new pellet.) But before, when he was lusting for drugs in the middle of the night, he was a wholly different person. One night Coach Niz heard Brad smashing the vinyl siding of the house with a hockey stick. The coach had had enough.
"Get away from this house!" he yelled at his son. He tried to shove Brad off the front doorstep.
"Let me in!" Brad screamed. He swung his hockey stick like a baseball bat and came within a foot of slashing his father's face with the curved blade.
The next day the father had to go out and face Peabody, walk the school's hallways and fields as he always had, with his 1960s jock's strut, as if everything were fine. He was the coach, the gym teacher, a fixture. He had to deal with the scouts and the college coaches calling about Jeff Allison. He had to be Coach Niz. Then he'd come home, and he and Patty would face their broken lives.
the scouts sent to Peabody did not want to find a problem with Jeff Allison. When they heard him be disrespectful to his mother--"I'll come home when I wanna come home!"--they dismissed it. He took the standard fill-in-the-dots Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau psychological test, and it raised no red flags. (Allison told his teammates the test was "a joke.") The Pittsburgh Pirates, with the eighth pick in 2003, had a doctor test the flexibility and overall health and strength of Allison's pitching arm. He was given an MRI. Allison is tall, strong and lanky. He was not one to lift weights and has almost never thrown more than 100 pitches in a game (although he threw 153 in his final high school pitching appearance, a must-win playoff game). All the test results were off-the-charts good; Allison had one of the most flexible arms the Pirates had ever seen. Word spread around baseball quickly. Only a few of the scouts talked to Coach Niz, and then only briefly. He offered little more than the stock answer: "He's not a bad kid." (That passes for praise in Peabody, where the typical response to "How you doin'?" is "Not too bad.") Had they caught up with him at Champions, they might have learned more, though maybe not. Peabody's not easy on outsiders.
The visiting baseball men saw Allison's cocky, aggressive behavior on the mound and loved it. Only when they saw similar qualities in his father did they get nervous. They heard Bob Allison make noise about his son's going to the University of Arizona, where he had been offered a full scholarship. They wondered if the father might make his son hold out for an outrageously high signing bonus. The number $2.5 million was bandied about. Jeff Allison didn't know it, but his stock was starting to fall.
"He was a difficult kid to get to know," says Charlie Sullivan, the New England amateur scout for the Pirates. "He had a real intense competitiveness, he had that cockiness. But watching the kid interact with his father--there was no happiness there. That made you worry. You try to get to know a kid, his parents, the girlfriend. But with Allison, we couldn't. For the industry not to have known [about Allison's drug problems], well, we all should have done a better job." Other scouts say almost the exact same thing.
noreen allison, Jeff's mother, is often in her small house near downtown Peabody. Brad's mother, Patty, calls her on the phone regularly. Patty Nizwantowski is a schoolteacher with a master's degree. Noreen has been divorced from Jeff's dad for 16 years, and she isn't working now. (In the past she's worked with mentally disabled adults, which kept food on the table and her son in the batting cages.) What the two mothers share is Peabody, sports--and a nervous system jangled by having a drug addict in the house.
"It's not an easy thing to say, 'My son is a drug addict,'" Patty recalls telling Noreen not long ago. It took her years to be able to say it about her own son. A drug addict, in her view, is a drug addict whether he is in recovery, as Brad is, or not.
"Yeah, I know."
"Maybe we should go to a meeting together." Patty was referring to free counseling sessions, modeled on AA meetings, for relatives of drug addicts.
"Yeah, we should do that."
But they never did.
Noreen is well-known in town. Back when she was Noreen Riccardi she was a tomboy jock at Salem High, class of '66, and a star on the girls' basketball team. Later she appeared on a Boston TV bowling show, Candlepins for Cash. She watched all of Jeff's games, including his summer games on elite teams, often sitting in the top row of the stands, avoiding the scouts and the reporters. (Coach Niz can't recall seeing Jeff's father at any games before Jeff's senior year.) Sometimes, when Jeff was on the mound, Noreen would point to her right biceps as if it were her son's and say quietly, "Million-dollar arm." People smiled. Everyone knew she didn't have much.
These days, wherever she goes--the gas station, the supermarket, the corner store to buy cigarettes--she runs into people who knew her son in simpler times. She asks the same thing, over and over.
"You seen Jeff?"
Sometimes the answer is yes. Jeff's been in town since early May, a little more than two months before he was rushed to a hospital after a heroin overdose. Except for brief stints in Florida with other Marlins prospects, Jeff's been in Peabody pretty much his whole life.
"He looks good, don't he?"
You take care of yourself, Noreen.
it's hard to know how Jeff Allison is doing. Athletes addicted to OxyContin, like addicts everywhere, are skilled liars. They will routinely and dishonestly blame their use on a doctor who prescribed the drug for chronic pain just to keep them suited up. Brad Nizwantowski had no chronic pain. The same is true for Allison. Brad, 24, says he tried the drug in high school and liked how it made him feel. Allison, who tells SI that he did not start using OxyContin regularly until after he finished high school--an assertion that one of his friends challenges--says the drug made him feel "just warm inside, that you could do whatever you want, say whatever you want." (Warmth is a common theme; many users say the high from OxyContin, heroin, methadone and other opiates is like "being back in the womb.") The hubris associated with gifted athletes makes them particularly susceptible to addiction; they brazenly think they're stronger than the drug's addictive pull. Some come to believe that OC actually improves their performance. For a variety of reasons, OxyContin (page 80) is particularly popular in and around Boston, although it is also found across the country, often in rural areas, which is why it is sometimes called "hillbilly heroin."
It's work, getting stoned on OxyContin. A single 80milligram pill, enough for one person to get high for several hours, costs about $80 at Peabody street prices. To take the drug, the abuser crushes the aspirin-shaped tablet into a fine powder and sniffs it. (It can also be injected.) A full-blown addict will need at least three 80milligram tablets a day, at a cost of $240.
An addict is likely to commit crimes on a routine basis to support his habit. Most pharmacies in Peabody have signs posted saying that the store has no stock of OxyContin; when prescribed, the drug is typically delivered to the pharmacy by a private courier. (Still, theft is a regular problem.) Brad Nizwantowski regularly stole cash from his parents and jewelry from his mother, selling the necklaces and watches and rings to pawnshop managers near Peabody. According to former Peabody High baseball teammate Joel Levine (the son of the Salem school superintendent), who says that he often got stoned with Jeff Allison and who is now in recovery, the chase for the money to get high was the most social part of doing OxyContin. That, and giggling at all the witty things they said at parties when they were high. Jeff Allison was never so funny as he was when the OC was working its magic. But inevitably, things get ugly. An OC addict with no supply gets dope sick: headaches, nausea, diarrhea, itchiness, insomnia, chills. Jeff and Brad experienced all of that.
Even in recovery there are dark days for Brad when he does nothing but sleep. He knows he'll never have his old life back. He's a convicted felon, and his dream of playing professional hockey is dead. All the Nizwantowskis are affected. There are happy moments--the family celebrating the October birthday of the youngest child, Amy, with Chinese food in her University of New Hampshire dorm room--but even those moments are frail. No one knows what will happen next.
The Nizwantowskis and the Allisons have known each other for decades. Brad and Jeff, who's four years younger, have known each other all their lives; they played pond hockey together and pickup games of basketball and football. Jeff had an astonishingly strong arm, and Coach Niz wanted him to be his quarterback at Peabody, but the pitcher was too concerned about a possible football injury. Playing basketball, for some reason, didn't worry him. He was fierce on defense and an excellent rebounder. One of his basketball teammates was Jimmy Leon, the kid he was shooting heroin with on the night last July when he nearly died.
OxyContin and heroin are chemically similar. When an OC addict cannot score his drug of choice, he or she will often turn to heroin, which, if you're near a big city, is easier to find and far cheaper. (Unable to obtain heroin, the drug user might try to get methadone.)
Allison tells SI that he takes responsibility for that July night with Leontakianakos. "He came by the house, but I made the decision to go with him," Allison says. They went to a drug house in the nearby town of Lynn. "I was doing OC every day," Allison says. But on that night, unable to get OxyContin, they bought a bag of heroin. "I didn't care about anything," he says. "You just want to get away from your problems."
They shot up in the car and went into a heroin nod. When Leontakianakos noticed that Allison was barely breathing, he rushed him to Union Hospital in Lynn. Allison's mother and sister, Tracy, were called in immediately. Tracy took pictures of medics placing a defibrillator on her brother's chest, to return life to his heart. "If I made it, she wanted me to have pictures of myself like that," Jeff says. "I was basically dead." He spent three days in the hospital. "That was rock bottom for me. There's no more digging after that."
Allison says that was the first time he had used heroin and the last time he used any narcotic drug. He acknowledged that he sometimes smokes pot, but did not want to go into detail with SI about his history of using OxyContin. Brad Nizwantowski and Joel Levine, and many other recovering addicts, say that when you are really in recovery, you want to own up to everything related to your drug use. Of course, not many recovering addicts are in a position to make tens of millions of dollars playing a game.
Some of the things Jeff Allison tells SI do not jibe with Levine's recollections. Allison says he didn't smoke anything in high school and drank only at his senior prom, but Levine says Allison smoked cigarettes and pot regularly and saw him drink often at parties. Though Allison says he never used OxyContin in high school, Levine cites many times and places when he says they got high together on OC during their senior year. Levine regards Allison as a friend and says he's not trying to rat him out. He's trying to fulfill step 12 of his Narcotics Anonymous rehab program: help others. He wants word out about the extreme addictiveness of OxyContin. He knows that the more unlikely the example--why would Jeff Allison, with all his talent and promise, ever risk becoming a drug addict?--the more useful it is as a wake-up call, a public alarm.
There were a few small events in Allison's senior year that didn't help his reputation in professional baseball circles, including a suspension from school for starting a fight. Then came a day in mid-April, when Allison and a group of friends went to Fenway Park to watch a college baseball tournament. A group of pro scouts spotted Allison and approached him. According to two friends who were with him, Allison was stoned. As he talked to the scouts, he kept picking his nose and slurring his words. (Besides slow breathing, fatigue and abnormal pupil size, the OC high makes the user itchy and unaware of what he is doing.)
Still, the scouts chatted as if there were nothing odd. After all, Jeff Allison was the best high school pitcher in the country, and the baseball men just figured he was arrogant and socially inept, a small price to pay for a wicked 84mph curveball.
The following week Allison was scheduled to pitch a Monday game. Two dozen scouts, plus the general manager of the Pirates, were expected to attend. But Nizwantowski benched his star pitcher for skipping the Sunday-afternoon practice the day before. The coach recalled his Monday conversation with his co-captain like this:
Nizwantowski: You know the rule, Jeff. You miss a practice and you don't call, you don't play the next game.
Allison: You better let me play or I'm gonna have my father transfer me right out of here!
(Allison tells SI that that confrontation did not happen, that he accepted his benching. When asked why he missed the Sunday practice, he replies, "It was a rainy day. I thought practice was canceled." In fact, the day was bright, sunny and unusually warm.)
Allison apologized to his teammates for missing the practice. "He loved baseball," says his high school catcher, Brian Garrity. "For him, baseball wasn't about getting to the Show or anything like that. He just loved being on the mound. He was a gamer." Allison's former teammates are consistently generous in their praise of him. Levine says, "Everybody who doesn't know Jeff thinks he's an ahole. Everybody who does thinks he's a great guy."
One day during his senior year, Allison spoke to a Boston TV station about the Red Sox' aversion to drafting high school pitchers. "Normally, drafting high school pitchers is a risky business," he said, "but I don't think I'm a risky business." He wore number 9, the number Ted Williams famously wore for the Red Sox, and he was making a case for himself to the club he had rooted for all his life.
Noreen proudly shows the tape of that interview. She is sitting in her small house with low ceilings, barely high enough to contain her 6'2" son. She is burning incense candles and smoking cigarettes and talking nonstop; she has the look and voice of a woman who has never had an easy day in her life. Jeff isn't home. According to his mother he is at his daily meeting with a drug counselor. "There are a lot of things he doesn't want to talk with me about," she says. Her divorce from Jeff's father was bitter, she says. Jeff resents how involved in his life she has always been, and how he always had to rely on her for rides. Money has always been tight. She says, "Kids today don't have enough to do. I just wish they could have the fun we had."
Joel Levine knows that Noreen Allison thought of him as a bad influence on her son. Levine describes getting stoned with Allison in school and before some practices and games. He describes using a blue plastic hall pass to crush the OC tablet in the second-floor bathroom near the school library. Once, according to Levine, after Allison got high without him, the pitcher whispered to him, "I just did a rail in the bathroom."
In his senior year the Peabody Police Department contacted Levine, at Noreen Allison's request, and told him to stop calling the Allison house. The police had heard that the son of the Salem school superintendent and Peabody's most famous ballplayer were using OC, but it was not a priority for them. "We don't counsel kids," one officer says. "We set 'em up and lock 'em up."
While the scouts never suspected Allison of drug use, others did. One day late in Allison's senior year, Bob Russell, a veteran narcotics detective in the Peabody Police Department, received a call from Jeff Berry, an agent at IMG, the sports-marketing firm that represents Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods and hundreds of other well-known athletes. IMG, as well as its rivals, wanted to represent Allison. According to Russell, Berry, who works out of the IMG Baseball Academy in West Bradenton, Fla., had heard from Russell's son, then a tennis teaching pro in Florida, that Allison might have a drug problem. The agent called the detective.
As Russell recalls the conversation, he asked Berry, "If you sign him, can you make money from him?" Yes, the agent said. "Well then I'd sign him quick," Russell said. "Because he's on our list of things to do." (Asked about the phone conversation, Berry would not comment.) Russell had received one anonymous (and unsubstantiated) call saying that Allison had shaken down a kid to get five or six OC pills from him. It was enough for Russell and his fellow detectives to discuss the matter. "We talked about sitting on him," Russell says.
On the mound Allison was not performing as if he had a drug problem. His stuff all through his senior year was electric. The 2003 amateur draft began in the morning on the first Tuesday in June, and it was certain that Allison would go in the first round. From what Allison had heard, the Baltimore Orioles might make him the seventh pick. If that didn't happen, Pittsburgh would make him the eighth pick. In the unlikely event that that didn't happen, the Cleveland Indians would take him at No. 11. That was the word going around. Allison, following the draft on the Internet from home, was extremely annoyed when the Pirates, who had scouted him so intensively, didn't select him. Nor did the Indians. Then, around 1:30 p.m., came an unexpected call: Florida had made Allison the 16th pick. Coach Niz was as surprised as Allison. He couldn't recall having had a single conversation with anyone from the Marlins. No club knew Allison well, but Florida--later named the 2003 Organization of the Year by Baseball America--knew him less than others.
Having fallen to the 16th pick, Allison wasn't going to get anything like a $2.5 million signing bonus. Still, he was looking at a major payday. IMG, the agency that he and his father had selected to represent him, would make sure of that.
Later that day there was a party for Allison at Extra Innings, a vast, spotless batting cage and baseball practice facility near Peabody where Allison had spent days on end as a kid. School officials were there, and so were Allison's family members, teammates and coaches, as well as reporters and TV crews. When Allison spoke to reporters, he predicted that he would make the major league All-Star team "in two or three years." A month later he backed off that claim, saying it had just been the "adrenaline talking." After the party, according to Levine, he and Allison slipped out, went into Levine's car and did a couple of OC rails.
In late june, while IMG and the Marlins were negotiating Allison's signing bonus, team owner Jeffrey Loria invited Allison to watch a Red Sox--Marlins game with him at Fenway. Allison brought along his father and Jimmy Leon. A few weeks later, on July 22, Allison agreed to a $1.85 million signing bonus. His agent of record was Casey Close, the president of IMG's baseball operations, who personally represents Derek Jeter. Allison reported for work in Jupiter, Fla. He was now a professional baseball player.
And, it seemed to some, pretty full of himself. A team executive recalls driving Allison around the club's training site in Jupiter, where he would be playing for the Marlins' rookie-ball team in the Gulf Coast League. Allison made no effort at conversation and, without asking permission, turned on the radio, found a rap station and started playing the music loudly. The executive said, "What are you doing, man?" Allison was barely that. He was 18 years old and, except for highly supervised amateur baseball trips, away from Peabody for the first time.
But the Marlins were committed to him. Why wouldn't they be? They had unexpectedly signed the best high school pitcher in the country. Wayne Rosenthal, Florida's major league pitching coach, made an unusual pledge, saying that he would be checking on Allison regularly, keeping an eye on him. The Marlins were expecting Allison to blow right through the minor leagues, just as another strong righthander, Josh Beckett, had done for them.
The Marlins wanted Allison to go through a weight-training regimen and expected hard work from him. The adjustments were difficult for Allison. Baseball had always come so easily to him.
Allison was living with other Marlins prospects and minor leaguers in a Fairfield Inn off I95 in Jupiter, in South Florida's flat, chain-store sprawl, which was nothing like Peabody, with its neighborhoods and tight quarters and corner bars. At night Allison hung out with another young pitcher, Greg Bartlett. Bartlett was Allison's opposite. He was a native Californian and the Marlins' 28thround draft pick out of Phoenix College and had signed for a pittance. Bartlett was nearly two years older than Allison, socially adept and comfortable around adults. But the two pitchers, the ornery one and the mellow one, bonded. Together, Bartlett and Allison would hit the bars off Indiantown Road that were happy to serve ballplayers even if they were underage.
Bartlett returned to Phoenix in mid-September after his first season in professional baseball. On Oct. 1, just as the Marlins were starting the playoff run that would end with their upset victory over the New York Yankees in the World Series, word came that Bartlett had died of an overdose of methadone. According to Bartlett's mother, Juliana Bridge, her son had no history of drug abuse before leaving Arizona for Florida. She knew that her son and Allison had become good friends. She has a ball Allison signed for her son, and she had heard Greg speak of Allison often. After her son died, she saw Allison's name and telephone number stored in Greg's cellphone. She called Allison to tell him the tragic news and asked him to call back, but he never did. "I never knew why," she says. (Allison did post a message in response to Bartlett's online obituary in which he wrote: "i know your with me and looking down on me, now its time for me to fulfill both of our dreams.")
Tim Cossins, the first-year manager of the Gulf Coast Marlins in 2003, says there were no indications that either Allison or Bartlett had a drug problem. "They were both on the field, ready to work, every morning at 8:15," he says. "Never, not one time, did these kids not perform. I never thought that [drug use] could be going on. They were competitive, focused young athletes." He says that neither ever missed the 11 p.m. curfew check.
Shortly before the end of the rookie-ball season the Marlins had sent Allison home for what the club described as rest for his tendinitis. Coach Niz says Allison had never had tendinitis in high school and, because Allison had joined the team with just six weeks left in the season, he'd pitched only briefly in rookie ball, appearing in three games for a total of nine innings, in which he gave up one earned run and struck out 11. He may not have had tendinitis, but he definitely had a drug problem.
That off-season, back home in Peabody, Allison had money and his own car for the first time in his life. Old teammates and friends suspected that something was seriously amiss with Allison. Brad Nizwantowski even heard about Allison's growing drug use as he sat in a county jail in western Massachusetts. (A guard from Peabody told him.) IMG was able to persuade Allison to come to its Bradenton (Fla.) Baseball Academy, hopeful that he would meet with drug counselors there. But Allison's stay was brief.
Back in Peabody, Allison was telling friends that he didn't know if he liked baseball anymore. He had changed. One day he made a rare visit to Extra Innings. One of the owners there, Rob Nash, had been an integral part of Allison's baseball development since age 10. Through high school Allison had worked at Extra Innings whenever he needed spending money. Now he was a professional baseball player with diamond studs in both ears. His flashy new trappings of fame--not just the earrings but also a Cadillac Escalade--clashed heavily with the culture he had grown up in.
"What the hell are you wearing?" Nash asked him.
"Wha'?" Allison said.
"You look like a frickin' idiot," Nash said.
The new baseball season arrived. Last March should have marked the start of the first big league spring training of Allison's professional career. Coach Niz and Terry Lee planned a trip to Jupiter, excited to watch Allison throw heat in his new uniform. But he wasn't there; he was in a halfway house in Lynn. He didn't arrive until April 7, five weeks later than his teammates. When he finally did show up, he told reporters that Bartlett's death had distracted him from tending to his professional obligations. He evaded the question of whether he had a drug problem. "People are saying whatever they want anyhow," he said.
His 2004 stint with the Marlins' organization lasted only a month. By early May he was back in Peabody. On June 13, in a New England Cable News interview, he admitted to having failed a drug test for marijuana and said that the Marlins had fined him $200,000 and, because he had violated the terms of his signing bonus, the team had placed him on the restricted list and stopped making bonus payments to him. (To date, the club has paid him less than a third of his $1.85 million signing bonus.) Allison says he has $200,000 in the bank, but others in Peabody wonder how much he really has left. Cossins, the Marlins' rookie-ball manager, was around Allison again briefly last spring. He says he doesn't know Allison well but that he found him to be "abrasive, very cocky. But it's a false cockiness. His cockiness on the field was warranted. But he's scared as hell off the field."
The police chief in Jupiter says that neither Allison nor Bartlett was ever arrested on any charge while in that town. Whether the Marlins believe that there was any connection between Allison's and Bartlett's drug use is unclear; no one from the team will talk about it. Loria, the Marlins' owner, says through a spokesman that he will not comment about Allison. When others in the organization speak at all about Allison, it is guardedly, yet even so their anger is palpable. In part, of course, that is engendered by Allison's squandered pitching talent and in part by his perceived arrogance. He does little to create good will. He makes it easy to forget that you're talking about a kid, a kid with a problem. The kid turned 20 in November.
The marlins have lately taken a hands-off approach in dealing with Allison. Since her son's heroin overdose last July, Noreen Allison says, the only person from the ball club she has heard from is the team doctor, and him only occasionally. None of the baseball people who spoke to SI were ready to predict that Allison would become a dominant major league pitcher. There are too many obstacles in his way. "If baseball fits into his life, so be it," says Cossins. "But he's got to get his life healthy first."
Allison says he plans to return to Jupiter for spring training in the new year and get back on the road that leads to the big leagues. "The Marlins want me clean, that's it," he says. "I gotta take one step at a time. Baby steps." He says he was seeing a drug counselor regularly in Brookline, Mass. "My parents fight a lot, and I've got my own issues. I'm immature. I've got an addictive personality. But I don't want to do drugs anymore. I wanna be straight. I wanna play baseball. Self-will is the biggest part of it." He cited the number of days he's been clean. He's looking forward to spring in Florida. In the meantime there's the long, damp Peabody winter. Phil Mitchell and Kevin Houlden, co-owners of Champions, have been dropping by the Allison home now and again, bringing grilled chicken and steak tips for Noreen and her two kids. Everyone in town knows it's been a tough time for them.
You hope, of course, that Jeff Allison is sincere in his resolve. "I don't know," says Brad Nizwantowski. "He's telling you all the right things. But when I call him, he won't talk to me."
Bob Russell, the narcotics detective, has a certain wisdom about Allison and Peabody. "You know how they say it takes a village to raise a child?" he asked one night. "It takes a village to cover up for a kid this much too. At some point everybody knew there was a problem with Jeff Allison. The school people, the teachers, the coaches." He could have added the cops, but he didn't. "But people want to win games. He made people look good. He made the high school look good. He made his summer teams look good. So nobody said anything. It pays not to s where you eat."
The tanners football team wasn't supposed to be any good this year, but it surprised a lot of people, finishing 8--2. Away from the field Coach Niz always had something hanging over his head: a court date for Brad, a family meeting with a therapist, a pile of bills from doctors and lawyers. He'd lose himself in his afternoon practices, his team dinners, his Friday-night games. After one win this fall Coach Niz stood at midfield and talked to a few local sportswriters, answering the same questions sportswriters always have, about the bright future of this kid or that. And for a moment all was right in his world.
Brad came to some of the games and practices, helped out where he could. For the first time in years, father and son were doing things together, and sports were returning to Brad's life. Sometimes he'd play late-night "shinny" hockey--wearing nothing but shin guards--at a nearby rink. It had been three years since he lost his hockey scholarship, and for the first time since then he found himself wanting to play again.
Jeff Allison was keeping a low profile. Every so often, though, late on October afternoons, he'd go to a field way behind the school and pitch to his friend Artie Generazzo, his catcher from back in Little League days. At night, on TV, the Red Sox were undoing history and Allison was hanging on every pitch, along with the rest of Red Sox Nation. David Ortiz, with his big bat and big heart, was winning games for the Sox nightly, and at one point Jeff saluted the slugger in an email message to his Peabody buddies:
fukn Ortiz wut can i say.... mvp.
For a while, anyway, something lost had been returned to him.
Jeff Allison was going to come out of Peabody, out of the little rental house on the dead-end street he shared with his mother and sister, and make Peabody famous and proud again. How could he be a doper?
Even in recovery there are dark days for Brad when he does nothing but sleep. He knows he'll never have his old life back. He's a convicted felon, and his dream of playing professional hockey is dead.