Hey, Allen, you stink," a fan called out as Cardinal reliever Neil Allen took the mound at Busch Stadium the night of April 19. Many of the 30,510 in the stands were booing Allen, who was as lonely as a man on the moon. After four poor road outings, Allen, seeking his first save, was making his home debut as the successor to Bruce Sutter, who had taken his National League-record 45 saves to Atlanta. The fans were telling Allen they expected the worst. He had been summoned to protect a 5-4 lead with a man on first and no outs in the ninth.
Allen tried not to let the boos affect him, as they have so many times in the past. "Just keep the ball down," he told himself. "Get a double play." He went to a 3-2 count on Pittsburgh's Jim Morrison, then threw a good inside fastball and forced him to hit a double-play ball to shortstop Ozzie Smith.
Two outs. Tim Foli at bat. On the first pitch, Foli hit a weak two-hopper to Allen. Ball in hand, Allen half-ran, half-galloped toward first, tossed to Jack Clark and shot his right fist into the air as teammates descended on him. The fans grudgingly cheered.
The sound of applause has had an unfamiliar ring to Allen for the past two seasons. On June 15, 1983 he and another pitcher, Rick Ownbey, were traded to the Cardinals for All-Star first baseman Keith Hernandez. Allen's record the next two years might have seemed satisfactory enough—10-6 as a spot starter and occasional reliever in 1983, 9-6 with three saves as Sutter's setup man in 1984—but it fell far short of the fans' expectations. They wanted Allen somehow to be the pitching equivalent of Hernandez, a .300 hitter and a great glove. "The trade was a little strange, a little different, a little lopsided," concedes Allen. The 1982 world champions fell to fourth and third in the two years following the deal, and the fans took out much of their frustration on Allen. Then Sutter, the best reliever in the league, departed, seemingly dashing any Cardinal pennant hopes—unless, that is, Allen could fill his shoes. Of such expectations are scapegoats made.
Allen, 27, is an excitable Kansas City boy with freckles on his nose, blond hair and an infectious smile, and he has a history of trying to please all the people all the time. After saving 67 games for the Mets from 1979 to '82, Allen started the '83 season by going 2-7 with only two saves in 21 appearances and lost his composure. He cried after losses. He got into a barroom brawl and stayed home from a game, lying to the club that he'd taken his wife to a hospital.
The transfer to St. Louis scarcely brought him peace. "I was traded for a very popular person," says Allen. "I had an 'I'll show you' attitude, and that's not the way I pitch best. After a while I was asking myself, 'Where are they going to hit it this time?' My confidence was shot."
Last fall, Allen telephoned Irwyn Greif, a motivational Consultant in Brooklyn, whom football star Lyle Alzado has credited with rescuing his career. He and Allen had five one-hour conversations at Allen's Long Island house, and Allen played back tapes of their talk each time he jogged.
"I told Neil, 'You're fighting too many wars and battles: the expectations of the fans, the press and your manager,' " says Greif. " 'Your ears are like antennas. You've got to block out the noise and go one-on-one with each batter. See him as a tree and chop him down with as few pitches as possible. People will keep throwing Sutter at you. Sutter is a great pitcher, but he didn't lead the Cardinals to a pennant last year.' "
Allen reported to training camp in what he insists was the best physical and mental shape of his career. He had lost 25 pounds, had trained hard and learned to shrug off comparisons between himself and Sutter. "God is in Atlanta," he'd say, referring to Sutter. "I can only be Neil Allen. If I get 25 saves and the staff as a whole gets 45 or 50, we'll be fine." Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog helpfully emphasized the importance of other Cardinal relievers while playing down the fact that Allen was his No. 1 stopper. Allen had an excellent spring, with five saves in eight games and a 1.39 ERA.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge," Allen said on Opening Day against the Mets in New York. Brought in to pitch with the score tied 5-5 in the ninth, he worked out of trouble that inning, struck out his old nemesis Hernandez to open the 10th—and then yielded a game-losing homer to Gary Carter on a decent down-and-away curve.
The next night, Greif told Allen, "Hang in, things might get a lot worse before they get better."
"Thanks a lot," said Allen. Whereupon he walked home the winning run in Game 2. Next were two unimpressive performances in Pittsburgh. If Allen's mien was unruffled, he was showing the internal pressure by overthrowing.
His therapy notwithstanding, Allen was also thinking about the St. Louis fans. "I'm giving them a lot of ammunition," he said. When someone mentioned that the Cardinals would enter Busch Stadium for their April 15 home opener in convertibles, Allen took the munitions metaphor a step further. "Anyone know where I can get a bulletproof car?"
Though he wasn't used again until the Cardinals' fourth home game, Allen, ignoring the boos, set down Morrison and Foli. The next night he threw two hitless innings and earned another save. He also took some good-natured ribbing after he was hit on the head by Sixto Lezcano's broken bat. "No brain, no pain," was the line going around the clubhouse.
Before a weekend series with the Expos in Montreal, an upbeat Allen said, "I used to have rabbit ears. I'd try to show up the fans instead of pitch for Neil Allen and the St. Louis Cardinals. But now I'm ready to roll." But on Saturday he took over in the eighth inning and gave up a three-run homer to the Expos' Andre Dawson in an 8-3 Cardinal loss. His season's ERA: 7.04. He may be rolling, but it seems to be downhill.
A subdued Allen (far left) found himself struggling with his thoughts and a 7.04 ERA in the dugout.