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THE SCOOP WITH BILL KNIGHT: AUSTIN ALLEN

For Austin Allen, it was the most curious of moments.

A swing and a miss seldom leads to a hug.

It was the most curious of moments.

Austin Allen  had just struck out, just made the short/long walk back to the El Paso Chihuahua dugout, briefly oblivious to the beautiful surroundings of Southwest University Park.

Seconds later, he was in the tunnel that leads to the clubhouse, doling out a seemingly never-ending hug to Chihuahua skipper Edwin Rodriguez .

A swing and a miss seldom leads to a hug.

This time, though, it did. Rodriguez had just done one of his favorite parts of the job - telling Allen he had touched a dream, telling him he had been called up to the San Diego Padres.

Laughing, Allen said, "I don't even know how long I hugged Edwin. It was a long time. I might have even kissed him on the cheek … I don't know."

Rodriguez smiled at the memory and said, "I knew how hard he had worked. Not much was said. We were face to face, eye to eye. He had tears in his eyes and then he moved in and hugged me."

Allen had grasped a dream, reaching the pinnacle of the crazy, hard knock world of professional baseball. For some, grabbing a handful of that dream is about as easy as closing a hand around a piece of cloud.

Allen played 19 games in the Major Leagues, stepping center stage on that grandest of stages. He played and played well as a Padre. He is back with the Chihuahuas now, fresh off the Triple-A All-Star game, ready to help a Chihuahua charge for yet another championship.

Allen is one of three Chihuahuas (along with Ty France  and Luis Urias ) who played in the Triple-A All-Star game. All three Chihuahuas drove in runs in a 9-3 Pacific Coast League win over the International League Wednesday night in front of 9,706 fans at Southwest University Park.

Now these three and the rest of this talented squad will make the run through July and August on their championship quest.

The pieces to the Austin Allen career puzzle have plopped smoothly into place thus far. The big, pleasant, positive young man from St. Louis, Mo., has moved quickly through the minor league system and that is not always easy to do. Some stall out completely as the grind and the competition steps on the throats of dreams. Others make it - but it takes them years piled upon years to get there.

He was drafted in the fourth round by San Diego in 2015, following a standout junior season at Florida Tech University in Melbourne, Fla. He spent the 2015 season at Tri-City in low Class A ball. He moved up to higher A ball in Fort Wayne in 2016 and spent 2017 in High Class A Lake Elsinore and finished in Double A San Antonio. He hit 22 home runs last season in San Antonio.

And now here he is … teetering on the brink of the grand stage and playing with the best of the best in the minor leagues.

Of course, like every baseball story, this one began at home, playing with brothers and friends in the back yard, playing in high school, moving on to college as that elusive dream of most little boys grew closer and closer.

"Actually, basketball was my first love," he said. "I thought I'd go and play at Duke."

And then came high school and priorities took a different road. In fact, school has been the most important part of this journey.

"Going to Florida Tech was the second best decision I made in my life," he said. "Going to Chaminade (College Preparatory) for high school was the best."

Chuckling at the memory, Allen said, "I thought I wanted to play basketball. I got to Chaminade and there was a guy named Bradley Beal there (now with the Washington Wizards). I saw him play and I thought, yeah, I don't think basketball is in my future."

Baseball, though, sure was.

He became a catcher in high school at the advice of his coach, Rick Strickland. He was only 5-foot-11 at the time and that seemed to be the best path toward a future in this summer game. He has since grown and is now approaching 6-3 and weighing around 220-pounds.

But how did he get to that second great choice, from St. Louis to Florida?

"I went to a showcase at Florida Gulf Coast," he said. "I didn't really feel I did that well at the showcase. I got back and I was sitting in class and my phone was blowing up. I checked it at lunch and it was from Melbourne, Fla. I had no idea who it was. An assistant coach at Florida Tech said they saw me and liked what they saw."

Allen and his parents flew down for a visit. He visited one other school along the way but did not like the feel. 

"The head coach, Greg Berkemeier, offered me," he said. "I told my mom and dad I was going there. I felt like there was where I needed to be. Two days later I called them and told them I wasn't sure how to do this, but that I wanted to commit to them.

"Like I said, that was the second best decision I've ever made," Allen said. "If Florida Tech hadn't come into my life, I don't know where I'd be. They are my family."

Allen fit right in and played very well. He played so well his sophomore season his coach called him in the summer and told him a lot of scouts were wishing he was a junior (so he could be drafted).

No worries; just a tad of patience.

The next year Allen hit .421 with 11 home runs and 57 RBI in just 49 games. And the Padres, patiently waiting that one year, drafted him fourth and the chase for a dream continued.

Minor league baseball, though, can be a grind. It is wonderful and you are playing baseball but it is a long season and sometimes the bus rides are forever and uncomfortable and late night fast food is the lone option.

But Allen made the most of it all and he still recalls one special moment in 2017 - again with Rodriguez starring as the central character.
"Until that year at Lake Elsinore in 2017, I hit mostly in the gaps," he said. "Left center … right center. If it went out, good. But I was more of a doubles hitter. I went to Edwin and asked him what he saw."

And?

"And that was the turning point," Allen said. "He told me two things. It was the day before the all-star break and I hit one out, just crushed it. The day we came back I hit another one. Edwin was a career changer."

And what were those two things?

"They were so simple," he said. "But the verbiage just clicked with me. The first was start slow and start early and the second was stay connected, which means working on synchronizing."

Pausing, shaking his head, Allen said, "That was a turning point. I was hitting .240 with four home runs. I finished with 22 (home runs) and I hit 22 last year in San Antonio."

"He was just rushing everything," Rodriguez said. "Austin and I worked together for the first time in 2017 in Lake Elsinore. His bat was there. Offense was going to carry him. At that time he was still trying to figure out catching.

"The last two years he has really worked on his defense," Rodriguez said. "He has worked more than 100 percent on his defense. He has really taken the challenge of playing defense - calling games, blocking balls, framing. I couldn't be more pleased with the way he has worked on his defense.'

The defense is coming and the hitting is just getting better and better.

Allen was hitting .309 with 12 home runs and 29 RBI in just 38 games with the Chihuahuas at the all-star break. He did have that 19 game interruption - albeit a very pleasant interruption - in the Major Leagues.

"We've been blessed with a lot of good catchers in these six years with the Chihuahuas," said radio play-by-play announcer Tim Hagerty, who has seen all but two of the team's games over that span. "We had Adam Moore , who went on to play in the Majors. We had Rocky Gale , who has played with the Padres and the Dodgers. And, of course, we had Austin Hedges , who might just win a Gold Glove this year, and Francisco Mejia , the two Padre catchers now.

"Austin (Allen) is right there with those guys," Hagerty said. "He's been working hard and he's such a positive person. Anything the Padres want, he says yes. He's had a quick ascent. You don't see too many strong, left-handed power hitting catchers in the Major Leagues and that's one of the reasons the Padres put him on their 40-man roster."

Allen has nothing but praise for the Padre organization, for their help in nutrition and strength training and the all-important recovery. He continues to work, to work toward grasping that dream again.

It is so near.

"This is a great place to be," he said. "The stadium is great and the fans are amazing. It's fun to come to the park each day. The all-star game was fun, too. I was able to play in one at Lake Elsinore and another at San Antonio. You kind of get to be friends with some of those guys you play against and it's fun to play with them.

"We are really looking forward to the rest of the season," he said. "Edwin is always there. You might go 0-for-4 and ask him what he saw and he says it was fine, you are fine, it was just a baseball night."

Sometimes, more often than is fun, very good players eat an 0-for-4 night. It is just baseball.

"Morgan Burkhart is a great hitting coach," Allen said. "It's such an advantage to have him and Edwin there every day - watching you, helping you, offering advice."

The Triple-A All-Star game is now a joyous feast in the rear view mirror in the long and winding road that is the 2019 baseball season. For the third straight season, Austin Allen has been a part of those baseball star fiestas.

Now he goes back to work, continues to grind, continues to help the Chihuahuas chase another championship.

And he continues to wait for another of those special moments, another hug in the tunnel, another opportunity to grasp that elusive cloud of a dream that is Major League Baseball.

It is but a matter of time.

"Austin will be a Major Leaguer for a long, long time," Rodriguez said.

And maybe, just maybe, Rodriguez will be there for that special moment, for another special face-to-face moment, for another endless hug.

Bill Knight is a contributing writer for the El Paso Chihuahuas. Knight may be reached at bknight@epchihuahuas.com.

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