It's April, 1983. Every player at the Seattle Mariners spring training camp, except Rod Allen, sends his luggage to the big city in preparation for the regular season.
Allen, a graduate of Santa Monica High and a 10-year veteran of minor league baseball, lugs his bags to Salt Lake City for the team's final exhibition game. The next day he learns the Mariners want him. But 12 major-league at-bats later, he returns to the minor leagues.
Allen's experience in Seattle, the first of two brief stays in the major leagues, reflects the disillusioning education he has received from professional baseball. His has been a career of what-ifs, of near misses, of being the last player cut from the major league roster after spring training.
He has shown he can hit .300 or above in class AAA but has learned that holds no guarantee. Allen remains committed to the game and confident of his major league hitting ability. But at 27 he understands what he didn't at 18--major league baseball rewards only a precious few.
A decade into his career, Allen, although proud, is not one of the few.
When he arrived in Seattle four years ago Allen's Mariners uniform hardly fit and his photo slot in the team program was filled by a player released a day earlier. A game-winning hit earned him a name on opening night, but he was soon forgotten.
"That was a bad feeling," said Allen, now the cleanup hitter for the Buffalo Bisons, a Cleveland Indians AAA affiliate in the American Assn. "I made the team and they still wouldn't let me play. I had a great spring and it seemed like the team didn't even know who I was."
But his bat talked in Salt Lake City. He hit .324 in two seasons with the Mariners AAA club and felt he deserved another chance with the big-league team. He never got it. So after six years in the minors he became a free agent looking for a team in need of a line-drive hitter.
"Some guys, for whatever reason, get stereotyped as AAA players," said Steve Greenberg, Allen's agent. "Rod has definitely been stereotyped. He's proved he can hit over .300 in AAA, but he's not great defensively, average probably. He's a fringe player. Most teams would not be afraid to call him if they needed a right-handed bat, but unless you break out of the stereotype, it's tough."
In 1984 Allen broke out of his stereotype briefly.
He sent letters to several major league teams and the Detroit Tigers responded immediately, signing him to play for AAA Evansville and inviting him to major league spring training camp as a non-roster player. Detroit also told him he would be evaluated in major league exhibitions.
In minor league camp Allen hit well, so well that "one day I was called over to (major league camp) and I was on the lineup card. I was startled. I had never seen that, but they wanted to see me."
Allen knocked home the game-winning RBI, and the next day the Tigers called again. Soon he recorded hits off Houston Astros ace Nolan Ryan and Kansas City Royals submariner Dan Quisenberry, and the Tigers noticed. Detroit manager Sparky Anderson told him to come every day in uniform and ready to play.
"Then the Tigers traded (outfielder) Glen Wilson and I started to realize I had a chance to make the team," he said. "My buddies said I had a good chance, and with three days to go in spring I went into general manager Bill Lajoie's office and he said, 'Congratulations, you made the team.'
"That was the most thrilling point of my career. I knew I had the ability, and now I had a major league contract."
"He was ecstatic," remembered Allen's mother, Nania, "and I was too. There was no feeling like it because I knew he wanted it so bad."
Allen believed he could hit big-league pitching consistently. The Tigers offered a $40,000 contract and a shot as designated hitter against left-handed pitching.
In 15 games Allen batted .296, going 8 for 27 with 6 runs scored and 3 RBIs. But that was not good enough on a team that won 39 of its first 51 games. As spring progressed, manager Anderson lost confidence in Allen, and on June 5 he was optioned to Evansville and replaced by Ruppert Jones.
"Rod was a very nice, cooperative person," said Lajoie, Tigers general manager. "He was useful until we found someone more useful."
Allen was a utility outfielder whose only asset was his bat. He had speed, but the Tigers wanted more. He learned he was expendable and left, angry, for Evansville.
"I was really bitter. The Tigers started out so well that year and I had to go to AAA where the team was in last place. It was like going from A to Z."
In 74 games at Evansville, Allen hit .282, only to find his parent club in the World Series. He thought he should have been a part of Detroit's first championship since 1968.
"That was devastating for him and for me, too," his mother said. "He came home and didn't watch the series. He wasn't interested. I was kind of surprised, but it was painful for him."