Saturday, May 4, 2019

Neil Allen On Being Traded For Keith Hernandez & Coaching A Young Robinson Cano

Jon Matlack (left) and Neil Allen. Photo by Jason Schott.

Former Mets pitchers Neil Allen and Jon Matlack, who pitched on the 1973 Mets National League Championship team, were at Citi Field recently as part of a Mets Alumni Weekend.

This new initiative was created by Mets Vice President of Alumni Relations and Team Historian Jay Horwitz, who was the team's public relations director for nearly 40 years, so fans can meet some of the Mets' former players and learn about the team's rich history.

Allen pitched for the Mets from 1979 to 1983, earning 57 saves as the team's closer. That was the start of an 11-year career in which he also pitched for the Yankees (1985 & 1987-88), St. Louis Cardinals (1983-85), Chicago White Sox (1986-87) and Cleveland Indians (1989).

Neil Allen (top right) on the cover of the 1983 Mets yearbook on display in the Citi Field interview room, the same year Tom Seaver (bottom left) returned. Photo by Jason Schott.

After he retired, Allen embarked on a career as a pitching coach. He started as a coach throghout the Toronto Blue Jays' minor league system. In 2000, he returned to the Yankees as a a pitching coach throughout their minor league system and was the New York Yankees bullpen coach in 2005. He worked in the Tampa Bay Rays organization starting in 2007, and was the Minnesota Twins' pitching coach for three seasons (2015-17).

The thing Mets fans might know Allen most for is who he they traded him to St. Louis for in 1983: first baseman Keith Hernandez.

Allen said of how he feels about being remembered for that as much as anything he did on the field, "The only time it really is brought up or even comes to my attention is when I come to New York. Like today, I'm not kidding, in all my years of coaching, nobody ever said a word to me anywhere I go. I told kids, though, they ask me about being traded and I go, 'you pack your bags and you go.'

"You know what though, when you kind of get hit with something like that when you're young, I'm trying to think back, the night it happened, the night I got traded was quite interesting because if you guys remember correctly, Hondo (Frank Howard) was the manager and you couldn't be traded until 6:30 eastern time, or you couldn't announce it until 6:30 eastern time.

"Hondo is the manager, and (equipment manager) Herbie Norman comes to get me, he's crying, he's a mess, hugging me, saying 'Hondo wants to see you.' So, then I pass Charlie Samuels, he's crying too, I go, 'what's the matter with you?' I pass a couple of clubhouse kids, they're all crying, and I'm like OK. So, I get into Hondo's office at 6:24, and you guys remember Hondo, 'well, young man, we just made a deal that we think can benefit both organizations.' I go, okay, because the rumors were Philly and Boston. Waiting to here, and he goes, 'but I can't tell you for six more minutes,' and then I go 'are you screwing me? I'm going out the door, you're hanging me.' He goes 'because of the media, I cannot announce it until 6:30, and I go 'Hondo, it's me and you, tell me where I'm going, we'll sit and talk about it.'

"It gets to be like 6:27 and he's cyring, 'you know, I love you like a son, this is killing me,' and I'm like, 'where the hell am I going?' and finally, at 6:27, he tells me 'you're going to the St. Louis Cardinals,' and I go, 'okay,' so right away, I start thinking 'who did they send over for me? we needed third base, actually a lot of things' and I didn't know what they were after, and he said, 'we just traded you for Keith Hernandez,' and I go 'really?' so I said, 'what, did you trade them the two A clubs and the Double-A club too?' No, he said, 'we think it's a deal that will benefit both sides,' and I said, 'I bet you do!' 6:30, I walked out and then there all you guys were, that's how it all went down."

Neil Allen telling the tale of how he got traded. Photo by Jason Schott.

Allen was the pitching coach of the Single-A Staten Island Yankees of The New York Penn League in 2001 and 2002, and he encountered a promising young player in second baseman Robinson Cano.

"We had a good lineup and we had good pitching, but Robbie stuck out over everybody, though, he was just so special," Allen said. "He had those hands and that plate presence - the way you see it today - that kid had that at 16, 17 years old. That wasn't just something he worked into, it was there, and he was so good, and so far ahead of anybody.

"He was just so special, and he had that swing. He had all those tools as a young kid in the extended program and Staten Island, he had it all going."

Allen continued, "Robbie was a kid that had gifted hands and tremendous ability, you knew he was going to be something special. But, sometimes when we were down in the extended program with the Yankees, and he was so confident and so good and so nonchalant with routine plays at times, that we'd have to sit him down, and we would sit him down for a day or two, maybe just to say 'Robbie, you can't be doing that,' but granted, we knew he could make the play.

"He was that good. We knew he had tremendous hands - 16, 17-year-old, he had those hands, but we had to sit him down to teach him a lesson that 'Robbie, you can't be doing that,' and sure enough, he'd go back out there and he'd be great for a couple weeks, make a beautiful play in the hole and kind of just routinely make it look great, but we had to bench him again because 'Robbie, you can't be doing that.'

"You take every ball and get it over to first base. Well, now, Robbie had to look at it a little bit and then vrooom (giving the motion Cano would use to throw it) underhand. And we were kind of going, 'he knew, he knew!' but it almost was like, it was so doggone hot down there in the extended program, and sometimes I think he did it to get out of the lineup for a day because it was so damn hot and we hadn't left yet to go to New York or Staten Island or anything, so I would think that sometimes he would get hot, which all the young kids would and go, 'maybe I need a day off.' He was so good and such a great human being."

Cano made his debut with the New York Yankees in 2005, and Allen said of him making the jump to the majors from Single-A Staten Island in a few years, "I'm shocked it took that long, but they were trying to slow him down. We knew he was going to be there shortly, and they did a good job of holding him up because when I got to the big leagues as the bullpen coach - that's the year he came up. He came up and asked me about the lineup. We were good friends and talked about a lot of things.

"To have him here and to see who he still is to this day, as the kid that he was at 17 years old, he's just an older version, but he was always that good, that confident."

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