Chasing success

For local players dreaming big, baseball proves a fickle game

Andover’s Ryan Hanigan, congratulating Cincinnati Reds reliever Francisco Cordero after a win last July, has earned a big-league job. Andover’s Ryan Hanigan, congratulating Cincinnati Reds reliever Francisco Cordero after a win last July, has earned a big-league job. (Al Behrman/Associated Press/File 2010)
By Maureen Mullen
Globe Correspondent / March 31, 2011

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Baseball, like life, has a way of throwing a curveball at even the most well-planned, sure-thing, can’t-miss careers. No one knows that better than Jeff Allison.

Like Matt Antonelli, another million-dollar bonus baby from Peabody, Allison continues to toil in the minors, hoping for a shot at the big show. Meanwhile, an unheralded and undrafted free agent from Andover, Ryan Hanigan, hit .300 for the Cincinnati Reds last year and is expected to share the catching duties with Ramon Hernandez this season.

If anyone is surprised by his success, it’s not Hanigan. “I always, to tell you the truth, expected to get there. I really did,’’ he said from spring training in Goodyear, Ariz.

After graduating from Andover High School in 1999, Hanigan went to Rollins College, a Division 2 school in Florida known for its baseball program. John Brickley, a big-league scout from Melrose, liked what he saw in Hanigan playing for Orleans in the summer Cape Cod League, and signed him as a free agent for the Reds in 2002.

“I think the first turning point for me was going all the way back to the Cape Cod League,’’ Hanigan said. “When I came to the Cape and I was playing against what were supposed to be the best players in the country and I excelled . . . that really opened my eyes to what I could be, both offensively and defensively.’’

Once he got into pro ball — just another minor leaguer, not a big-name prospect — he had little leeway for inconsistent play, Hanigan said. Forced to focus his abilities and energies, he became a better player while climbing the Reds’ minor league ladder.

“It was more me having to kick the door in to get to the big leagues rather than it being handed to me in any way,’’ Hanigan said.

After catching in a career-high 88 games, including 72 starts, in 2009, Hanigan had been expected to split the catching duties with Hernandez last season. But a broken left thumb in late May sidelined Hanigan for about six weeks. He returned to the lineup, catching in 68 games (58 starts), and batting .300 with 5 home runs and 40 RBIs while helping the Reds to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.

Although Cincinnati was swept by the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Division Series, the experience will be invaluable heading into this season, Hanigan said.

“It’s very important to know what it takes, wire to wire, to get where you need to get to, that being the playoffs,’’ he said. “And then obviously what it takes, having some more success in playoff games.’’

The Reds showed their confidence by signing Hanigan to a three-year, $4 million contract extension this month.

“It’s always nice to have that security. But at the same time, nothing’s going to change in terms of things I do in preparation or things like that,’’ Hanigan said. “It’s just that I’ve worked hard and I’m happy to have it done, at least before the season, no distractions, nothing like that. I’m focused on the game and everything else, and I can put that behind me.’’

For Antonelli and in particular Allison, the road to the majors has been twisted with winding turns.

As the No. 1 pick of the Florida Marlins in 2003 out of Peabody Veterans Memorial High School, Allison was chosen Baseball America’s High School Player of the Year. He was nearly untouchable as a senior, using a 95-miles-per-hour fastball and a curve that’s rare for the high school level to go 9-0 with 142 strikeouts while not allowing an earned run.

But Allison’s baseball career — and life — for years was derailed by drug and alcohol abuse. He says he’s now been sober for more than four years.

“I’m extremely happy with life in general right now,’’ Allison said from the Marlins spring training home in Jupiter, Fla. “I know there are definitely other things out there other than baseball, but right now baseball is it. Hopefully, it will be my future.’’

Allison pitched for Florida’s Double-A Jacksonville Suns last season, bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen.

“I’ve never been in the bullpen,’’ he said. “So I kind of had to teach myself and ask around a lot and just ask questions of the guys that have been in the bullpen a long time, older guys, veteran guys. They definitely helped out a lot.’’

Allison would like nothing better than making his Major League Baseball debut with the team that has stood by him through his darkest days. But the righthander, who turned 26 in November, has learned to plan for life beyond baseball.

“The average age in the minor leagues for people that retire is about 27, 28 years old, and I’m 26,’’ he said. “So you kind of have to start thinking beyond baseball. If it works out, it works out. Don’t get me wrong: That’s what I would love to happen. But, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’ll definitely have something in the works for hopefully later on down the road.’’

During the offseason back home, Allison worked for a small computer-parts distribution company by day and gave pitching lessons at night. He has begun taking online courses through the University of Phoenix. He considered a post-baseball career in criminal justice, but working with youngsters — teaching and coaching — has more appeal right now, Allison said.

Like Allison, Antonelli was a blue-chipper, a first-round pick by the San Diego Padres out of Wake Forest University in 2006. An outstanding three-sport athlete at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, he was named the 2003 Massachusetts Player of the Year in both football and hockey, and was the runner-up in baseball.

In 2007, his second professional season as an infielder, Antonelli hit a combined .307 between a high Single-A team and Double-A, but a funny thing happened on the way to Triple-A in 2008.

“When I got to Triple-A, things started going wrong with my swing,’’ Antonelli said from the Washington Nationals’ camp in Melbourne, Fla. “And to be honest, when I got to Double A, as well as I was playing, I thought I was going to be in the big leagues pretty soon.

“Then all of a sudden I kind of forgot how to hit and things started going — I don’t know — it was kind of crazy the way things were going,’’ he said..

“I didn’t play well and the way my swing was going and how bad I was struggling, I was scared that I was never going to remember how to hit again.’’

Ironically, though, it was when things were going so poorly — he was hitting just .215 in 128 games — that Antonelli was called up to the major leagues. He made his debut Sept. 1, 2008, starting at second base for the Padres against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, and in his first big league at-bat got a single off future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.

Antonelli appeared in 21 games for San Diego that season, batting .281 (11-for-57) with a home run and 3 RBIs.

But his struggles carried over into the 2009 season. Limited to 59 games by a leg injury, he hit just .196 for San Diego’s Triple-A club in Portland, Ore.

“They were trying everything and nothing was helping,’’ he recalled. “And then I just got lucky. I finally connected with a couple of hitting coaches that really started talking and helping me. For some reason, whatever they were saying just kind of clicked with me and that kind of got me going last spring training.’’

Just as he was getting his swing back, Antonelli missed all of the 2010 season because of a broken bone in his left hand. In the fall, the Padres informed him they were taking him off their 40-man roster, making him a free agent.

Finally healthy again, Antonelli, who turns 26 April 8, looked around for an organization that could give him the best opportunity to play and get at-bats. He signed a minor league contract with the Washington Nationals in December. He expects to start the season with their Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs in upstate New York.

“My number one goal right now is to stay healthy, play well, and hopefully get another shot in the major leagues,’’ Antonelli said.

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