Battling Back

By now, most baseball fans are familiar with the incredible comeback story involving Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton. Down in the Florida State League, another former top prospect is battling similar demons. While Florida Marlins' farmhand Jeff Allison is a long way from the majors, he has put the drug addiction that derailed his pitching career behind him.

By now, most baseball fans are familiar with the incredible comeback story involving Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton.

Hamilton was regarded as the best prep prospect ever when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays selected him with the number one overall pick out of Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, NC, in the 1999 First-Year Draft.

With too much time on his hands after sustaining an injury early in his professional career, Hamilton simply got mixed up with the wrong crowd at the wrong time. He then spent the majority of his time at a tattoo parlor down in Bradenton, Florida, smothering his body in tattoos while experimenting with a plethora of hardcore drugs.

This was quite a shock for Tampa Bay. In fact, the organization said at the time that its reason for selecting Hamilton over Texas high school hurler Josh Beckett was because of Hamilton's makeup as a person.

Things only got worse from there for Hamilton, who was suspended from baseball on three different occasions after he became addicted. Under the guidance of his family, he turned to religion to get his life back on track. Baseball seemed like an afterthought at this point, as he nearly lost his life to the addiction that crippled him as a person and athlete for years.

The rest is history. After Tampa Bay left him off of its 40-man roster in the fall of 2006, he was selected in the Rule V draft by the Chicago Cubs. Then-Cincinnati Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky saw the tremendous potential left untapped there, making one of the strongest moves of his tenure by acquiring the once-promising future star for cash considerations.

There was risk involved in keeping Hamilton on the Reds' 25-man roster at the time, for sure, as he had never faced a pitcher above low-level Single-A and missed much of the previous three seasons. The odds were stacked against him, though he had already accomplished a lot solely by cleaning up his act and remaining sober.

Hamilton made Krivsky look like a genius, immediately showing his tremendous natural baseball ability with an excellent showing in spring training before breaking camp with the big league club.

The best was still yet to come. Although the injury bug found its way back into his life on two different occasions, Hamilton exceeded expectations and defied conventional logic by hitting .292/.368/.552, for a .922 OPS, with 19 home runs and 47 RBIs in 90 games. While he spent too much time on the disabled list to merit serious consideration for NL Rookie of the Year, he was in the discussion for most of the first half.

With Rick Ankiel's transformation into a capable position player in St. Louis, Major League Baseball was full of amazing tales of overcoming adversity.

Hamilton's tremendous journey then took another incredible twist this offseason, when Krivsky dealt him to the Texas Rangers in exchange for pitching prospect Edinson Volquez.

Fittingly enough, Hamilton and Volquez each made it to the All-Star game at Yankee Stadium last week.

Volquez was brilliant in the first half is his own right, going 12-3 with a 2.29 ERA and 126 strikeouts. One of the most promising young arms in the National League, he is now a core piece to the Reds' strong nucleus of young pitching talent. If he can maintain his performance after the All-Star break, he may merit some strong consideration for the Cy Young Award.

Texas has done alright on its own in the deal, though, as Hamilton is an MVP and Triple Crown candidate in the American League. He has turned into one of the most feared hitters in the game with his excellent first half, batting.310/.367/.552 with 21 home runs and 95 RBIs.

At this rate, he is on pace to drive in more than 160 runs, leading to questions about whether or not he has a legitimate chance to break Hack Wilson's historic single-season RBI record. While reaching Wilson's 191 total may seem like a stretch, Hamilton will have plenty of opportunities to drive in runs. After all, he has All-Stars Ian Kinsler, the AL's leading hitter, and Michael Young batting in front of him. With Milton Bradley enjoying a fine season as well, it is no surprise that Texas ranks first in the majors with 538 runs scored.

But it was on Monday when it all came full circle for Hamilton, as he captivated the city of New York and the rest of the nation with his incredible performance in the Home Run Derby. He stole the show, blasting 28 long home runs—several of which traveled more than 500 feet—into the seats to break Bobby Abreu's record for most homers in the first round. (Unlike Abreu, who was never really a power hitter, I do not see a home run drought on the horizon for Hamilton).

While he ended up losing in the finals to Justin Morneau, Hamilton will be the one who is remembered when fans think of the last ever Midsummer Classic at historic Yankee Stadium.

It truly would be difficult to make this stuff up.

What is even better, though, is that this appears to be only an early chapter in the saga for Hamilton, who has provided hope for thousands of recovering addicts across the country.

Down in the Florida State League, another former top prospect is battling similar demons.

This prospect, though, is a long way from captivating the baseball world by showcasing his skills on the national stage.

Regardless, Florida Marlins' pitching farmhand Jeff Allison is lucky to be alive himself, and he has now seen that conquering a crippling addiction is possible by watching Hamilton put on his legendary home run show last week.

Allison was one of the most promising prep pitchers in the nation entering his senior season at Peabody Veterans Memorial High School back in 2003. Armed with a 95-MPH fastball, he dominated inferior competition for Peabody in front of nearly 15 scouts per game, striking out 142 in only 64.0 innings pitched during his senior season. At the time, he was regarded as the premier high school arm in the draft class of 2003, with a plus fastball and curveball.

Florida selected the then-18-year-old with its first pick in the draft, 18th overall, that year, rewarding him with a $1-million signing bonus. If not for signability concerns, he probably would have been selected even earlier.

Jeff Allison (AP)

Shortly after signing, he became addicted to OxyContin, before eventually getting hooked on heroin. The story only got worse from there, as the boy with the golden arm overdosed on heroin on two different occasions and nearly lost his life.

After numerous run-ins with the law, Allison finally cleaned up his act, reporting to spring training with one last hope of making an unthinkable comeback. Going into camp, he had not pitched since 2005, with only 20 professional appearances under his belt. Sober for more than 18 months with a new outlook on life, he is back on the mound where he belongs, pitching for the Marlins' Single-A affiliate, the Jupiter Hammerheads.

While he no longer has the overpowering stuff that drew so many scouts to his high school games in Massachusetts, Allison pitched effectively enough to earn an invitation to the Florida State League All-Star game. In 17 starts, he has had some up and downs, going 5-7 with a 4.39 ERA and 50/40 K/W ratio and an opponents' batting average of .256. Considering that he is less than two year's removed from his last heroin overdose—August 2006—those numbers are pretty impressive.

The majors are miles away for Jeff Allison, who has a long way to go. But he is alive—and has seen that a comeback can occur—which is all that really matters.

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