Jeff Allen vividly remembers the phone call he received during the summer of 2012. Almost a year after playing professionally in Roswell, N.M., and fresh from college finals at UT-Brownsville, he did not expect to be catching former Major League pitchers that night.
That was when he heard from a friend and fellow catcher, Baytown Sterling graduate Kade Johnson, who had just injured his hand playing for the Sugar Land Skeeters.
“His first game back he took a ball off his hand,” Allen said. “He called me and said ‘I’m hurt, (Skeeters manager) Gary (Gaetti) said we need another catcher and you’re the only guy in Houston I can think of, so get your butt to the stadium.’ I showed up, I met Gary and he said ‘sign here, go find a locker and get a jersey.’”
Signed with the understanding he would serve as a bullpen catcher, Allen received another surprise when he was called upon to catch the ninth inning that same night.
“That definitely got the heart pumping,” Allen said.
The 2007 graduate of Taylor High School has been with the Skeeters ever since, often working somewhat behind the scenes to help the league’s best pitching staff. He has seen is role increase a bit this season, accompanying the team on a few east coast trips.
“Last year I was activated a few times due to injuries, but that one time in the ninth inning was the only playing time I got last year,” Allen said. “This year I’ve been activated maybe four times. This is the first year I’ve gone on road trips. I’ve been to Bridgeport, Long Island, Lancaster and Southern Maryland.”
Atlantic League players come from a wide range of baseball backgrounds. Allen’s baseball journey took him to Dawson Community College in Montana before two productive years at UT-Brownsville.
He was a student assistant coach while finishing his studies in kinesiology during his fifth year of college, after which he decided to try out for the independent Pecos League.
“After my last year of eligibility, I got home from finals and within a week I left for a tryout in the Pecos League in Las Cruces, New Mexico,” Allen said. “One round of (batting practice) into it, the owner of the league walked up and said ‘you’re going to Roswell.’”
Allen spent one season with the Roswell Invaders, cut short by a shoulder injury. But his baseball life changed for the better within a year.
These days the former Mustangs standout is at Constellation Field every afternoon to work with Skeeters pitchers during bullpen sessions, and is always on call during the game to warm up relievers.
Though it might sound as simple as playing catch, Allen said it took time to adjust to top-level pitching.
“These guys throw extremely hard and their ball moves a lot,” Allen said. “My first two months with this team last year, it was pretty much just try and knock the ball down. I’d never caught guys like this. Everyone in that bullpen has thrown in the Major Leagues. But I’ve learned a lot and have grown as an athlete doing it.”
Allen has enjoyed catching and observing a group of highly-skilled, experienced pitchers. Though the staff has been shuffled through player movement the Skeeters own the Atlantic League’s best ERA at 3.12, almost a full run better than the rest of the league.
“Every single person on our staff brings something different to the table,” Allen said. “You’ve got (Gary) Majewski and (Roy) Corcoran with sinkers, (Jay) Marshall submarines left-handed, (Adam) Miller with power fastballs and command, (Clint) Everts has the nice cutter. All of our guys have that mentality on the mound, the way they battle through at-bats is just amazing.”
Allen said he enjoys just being a part of the Skeeters, particularly during a superb season that included the franchise’s first division championship. He has also added his name to a couple boxscores and has the highest batting average in Skeeters history – 1.000.
On July 6, the Skeeters led 11-0 at Southern Maryland when Allen was informed he would enter the game as a pinch hitter and defensive replacement.
“The (eighth) inning ends, I’m getting (Roberto) Giron loose and Reid Gorecki comes running down and says ‘Allen, you’re the second hitter.’ I’m trying to get all my stuff off, get my bat and get up there.”
Facing former Washington Nationals pitcher Charlie Manning, Allen ended his first Atlantic League at-bat with a single up the middle. He later scored on a sacrifice fly.
“It’s been a great experience,” Allen said. “This team is very special. I’m very blessed to be part of a great organization with a great group of guys.”