When a coach discovers an athlete with an extraordinary work ethic, it’s like striking gold. Finding an athlete with superior talent can be just as rare. Ask any coach what it’s like to find both in the same player, and he’ll probably shrug his shoulders and sigh.
It’s a one-of-a-kind athlete for sure, and that’s how former Southington High School baseball coach John Fontana describes third baseman Cris Allen.
“Some people are born with it. Look at Carl Pavano. Nobody could have taught him to do what he did for us. He came out of his mother’s womb being able to pitch,” he said. “Cris Allen was something else. He had some God-given ability, but he had an incredible work ethic, too. Nobody could have worked harder than he did.”
Allen arrived at the high school in the mid-1980s at a time when Southington was changing fast. It was no longer a small farming community. Housing developments were already choking open spaces. Southington was becoming a blue collar town, and Allen was the perfect blue collar Knight.
When scouts called him slow as a high school junior, he trained as a sprinter. He spent the off-season running 80 yard sprints and running up the hill on Lanning Street. He spent hours in the gym and practicing drills.
When the scouts returned for his senior season, Allen had chipped almost two seconds off his time in the 60-yard dash.
“I struggled my whole life,” he said. “I did start as a sophomore at Southington High School, but it didn’t really come easy. I think that the hard work just started to pay off for me.”
Few athletes trained as hard. Long before athletes started to focus year round on a sport, Allen turned his focus to baseball. He gave up football after the midget leagues and gave up basketball when he left DePaolo Junior High School.
For the next three years, Allen became a fixture on the high school diamond. He spent every day honing his craft. His father, a former minor league pitcher with the Boston Braves organization, would throw batting practice until the shadows settled on the field.
“He’d come down with his father and they used to be in the batting cages all day. That kid used to wait all day for his father to come home,” Fontana said. “He was the only one that I ever gave a key to our shed because he used to come here every day with his father. They’d grab the baseballs and helmets, and they’d go right over to the batting cages for hours.”
Fontana wasn’t one to promote underclassmen to his varsity team, but it was impossible to ignore Allen’s skills. As a sophomore, he could drive rockets into the outfield no matter who was pitching. He would line up behind the grass at third base during fielding warm-ups, and Fontana said that his throws to first base would whistle through the air.
“It was incredible,” he said. “He would throw long toss with Rob Dibble when Dibble would come to town, and they would stand with one on the left field foul pole and one on the right field foul pole. They would throw the whole width of the field, and they would throw bullets—no lobbing.”
Success came quickly. He earned a spot on the all-conference roster in all three years with the Knights. He was named as an all-state infielder in his junior and senior seasons and was named all-American in 1985.
“He was one of the bright stars, for sure,” said Jim Senich, a former sports writer for The Southington Observer. “He had a gun for an arm, and he could really hit the ball solid. He’d hit line drives in the gaps. He could run, too. He had the whole game.”
Allen batted .420 as a junior in 1984, and went .443 at the plate as a senior. He finished his high school career with 15 doubles, seven home runs, and 136 runs scored. He still holds the Blue Knight record with 74 career RBIs.
“The worst thing about Cris Allen was that nobody wanted to pitch to him. Most of the time, he would never see a fast ball, so sometimes he would have a tendency to go out of the strike zone to try to get his pitch,” said Fontana. “He’s the type of guy that, if you got him out three times in a row, he’d get up there and hit the fourth one 385 feet. He’d make you pay for any mistake.”
Allen shrugs off the compliment. Instead, he gives credit to his teammates.
“I can’t tell you anything about those records, other than the fact that the first and second hitters were doing their job,” he said. “I can remember Mike Majeski was the first hitter, and he could fly. If he got a hit, I can bet that he was on second or third by the time that I got up to bat. I don’t think that hurt a lot.”
On the other hand, Allen was so dominant it took just one call from Fontana to secure a full scholarship at Florida Southern College. The Moccasins were coming off of an NCAA Division II national championship in 1985 and went on to beat the division I champion in a best-of-three series. Without even seeing him swing a bat, they offered Allen a full scholarship.
“I remember my father telling me that a small school was a good thing, and I don’t think I would have done as well in one of those 30,000 or 40,000 student schools,” he said. “When you look for great opportunities, this was one from the best baseball school in the country. It was a small school, and I wasn’t paying anything to go there. I didn’t need to look any further.”
Once again, Allen said that it didn’t come easily. Once again, he worked his way onto the varsity lineup as a rookie. He led the team in hitting during his freshman preseason. On opening day, he was named to the starting lineup.
“You’re either 100 percent in, playing that sport and working every day on it, or you’re just playing to have fun,” he said. “I think you’re born with some of the abilities, but over a period of time you can work really hard to accomplish it. To make it at the next level, you have to be beyond dedicated.”
Once again, success came quickly. Along the way Allen set 10 school records, and he still holds the program record for runs (258), doubles (67), triples (25), RBI (245), total bases (483), and walks (200). He still holds a single game record for hits (6), and his 200 career walks still stands as the the NCAA Division II record.
Along the way, Allen helped lift his team to three conference titles. He was an all-conference selection in each of his varsity seasons. Allen averaged .348 as a college player and helped lift his team to national title in 1988.
“In the first two games, we pretty much conquered our competition. Before you knew it, we were playing a team from [California Polytechnic State University]. They were a tough team, but we beat them to win the World Series,” he said. “It was a great moment that I’ll never forget. It was probably one of the best sports moments I’ve ever experienced.”
During the off-seasons, Allen continued to hone his craft. In the summers, he played in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League. He was a member of the 1987 USA Pan-American Games baseball team and won a silver medal as a member of Team USA at the 1987 International Harbour Tournament in Taiwan.
It was no surprise that he was drafted by the Orioles after his junior year. In fact, he was drafted three times by a Major League Baseball organization. After high school, he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays. After college, he was drafted by the California Angels. He signed with the Angels in 1989 before walking away from the game.
“I look back and, boy, when things were going great in my junior and senior years in high school and through college, it was fun,” he said. “I would love to go back and relive those five or six years. It was just a great time with the competitions and friendships. The coaches, the recognition, and everything else were something that I won’t forget.”
With his dominance in high school and college, it was no surprise that Allen was selected to represent the town in the Southington Sports Hall of Fame. On Thursday, Nov. 8, he will be inducted in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville. For tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.