WOONSOCKET – No regrets. No bitterness. No remorse.
Pride and a sense of accomplishment can remain intact even if the ultimate goal is never reached. No matter if he didn’t reach the sport’s ultimate holy grail after toiling for nine years in the minor leagues. Karl Allaire does not have a sense that something is missing, that somehow his career should have “incomplete” rubberstamped on it because he never reached the majors. The Woonsocket native can look back in earnest and take comfort that he put his best foot forward, that he gave it his best shot.
In the end the old college try simply wasn’t good enough. No matter. Drafted in the second round by Houston in 1984, Allaire came to grips regarding his status as the summers he spent as a minor league vagabond started blending together. At best Allaire viewed himself as a utility infielder, nothing more. If the call should ever come, great. If not, he understood why.
Allaire, 47 and nowadays overseeing the check cashing operation at Hava Java on Mendon Road, appeared in 975 minor-league games between the Astros, Angels and Tigers organizations, spending 570 of them at Triple-A. He hit six of his 12 career home runs in 1992, which marked his final foray in pro ball. A lifetime .251 hitter, Allaire’s high mark came in 1988, batting .273 for Tucson, then the Astros’ Class AAA affiliate.
Allaire represents a side of baseball rarely portrayed. For every silver-spooned phenom who goes on to fulfill his prophecy, there are those, like Allaire, spending countless days chasing after the golden goose. Working class folks can better relate to ballplayers like Allaire because his struggle is just like theirs – a rat race that makes you fight for a territorial edge.
Brendan McGair: Is minor league baseball simply a matter of survival, given the amount of roster turnover that can ensue during the season?
Karl Allaire: You’re happy just to survive just because there are so many guys who come and go all the time. You have to make sure that you’re trying to do whatever you can to stay. Spring training comes and a lot of guys get let go. During the season you have a lot of friends either released or traded. It’s not as glamorous as everyone thinks, but it beats being Joe Lunch Bucket, where every day it’s the same thing.
As long as you enjoy it, which I did, you don’t have any regrets.
BM: Getting released can be deflating, but you saw it differently.
KA: I got released twice, once with Houston [in 1989] and California [the next year]. I asked for the releases because I felt like they had no use for me any longer. I was willing to take my chance to go someplace else and try to get a fresh start. I was still fairly young and I wasn’t ready to end my career at that point.
BM: Is it true that if a player is perceived as a “prospect,” he automatically becomes a priority over less-heralded teammates?
KA: That’s a pretty fair assumption and is something that happens at every level. They have their five or six prospects that have to play. The rest of the guys are roster fillers and that’s the way they are looked at. Sometimes roster fillers bloom and get to the majors, but it’s very difficult for those guys.
I was a prospect in the beginning, then after a while you’re not the priority. Look at [PawSox pitcher Michael] Bowden. He was the prize of the Red Sox system. Now he’s a relief pitcher. It just works out that way. It’s no knock on him. It’s just how the game is.
BM: Talk about the June 1984 day you were selected by the Astros.
KA: I was at Fenway Park at a New England college all-star game when I found out. My college coach [from CCRI] found out from scouts who were at the game. [The amateur draft] wasn’t as covered quite so elaborately as it is now. Most of the time you didn’t find out until two or three days after you were drafted. It just so happened that there were people [at Fenway] who had heard I had been drafted.
BM: As a prospect did you feel any additional pressure?
KA: I don’t think so. If anything I think it helps to relax you knowing that if you don’t play well that you still have an opportunity. You know that [the organization] is still on your side. Being a non-prospect, you’re almost on your own.
I remember Tom Mezzanotte [a former standout at Pilgrim High and Providence College in the 80s] came up to me while I was in big-league camp with the Tigers. He told me that they were thinking about sending him back to the Gulf Coast League. He was 25. From my experience, I told him that he’s just a number, doing just well enough to stick around. That’s a good thing, but do you project out? Will you get enough time to really play at any level or keep on moving up? There’s always going to be a prospect ahead of you.
Since [Mezzanotte] went to college, he had another outlet. Some guys, they don’t have anything to fall back on. Once baseball is over, they’ll be stocking shelves. You hate to give up your dream, but sometimes reality intervenes. Maybe you’re that guy, but chances are you’re not.
BM: Did you feel your career was heading in a new direction after Houston invited you to big-league camp in 1989?
KA: It was exciting to have a chance to play against some of the guys who were teammates and had made it to the big leagues and guys you watched while growing up. I really didn’t think I had a significant chance of making the major-league team. I had a decent year [in 1988], so it was more of a reward than anything else. I don’t think [Houston] had any intentions of keeping me, but the experience was enjoyable.
BM: When did you get the sense that the Astros and Angels saw you in a different light?
KA: A guy got sent down [in 1998] and they wanted to make him a utility player. He was an outfielder and they let him play shortstop, where I was, the rest of the year. They pretty much pushed me aside, so that’s when I saw the writing on the wall as far as the way the organization felt about me. That’s fine; it’s the way it is.
People have feelings and assumptions and different perspectives about how a player is. At that point in my career, I started to understand how those things worked.
I was the full-time shortstop in Edmonton [the Angels’ top affiliate in 1989]. The next year started and they had a kid named Gary DiSarcina. He was their big prospect so I was playing all over the place. Halfway through  they sent a bunch of guys down and wanted to send me to Double A. I told them that I’ve spent the last 3 ½ years in Triple A. I’m not going back to Double A. Again I asked for my release and four days later I ended up with the Tigers.
BM: When did you know it was time to walk away?
KA: I still had a chance to play [heading into 1993] Health was not an issue. I had an offer from the Mets, but I had young children. At that point I felt I had spent enough time and was ready to move on and be with my kids. That’s all that was important.
One day my father, who has since passed away, asked me why did I quit? I told him it was time for me to move on. It was more important for me to be around my kids than to have a chance to play two weeks in the big leagues because I knew I wasn’t a guy who would stay there. There was no way I would have ever been a starter and I knew that.
BM: Were there any thoughts about becoming involved in coaching/scouting?
KA: I had offers, but it all fell back on my kids being small. It’s all about the paths you choose. There’s no right one, there’s no wrong one.
BM: You were teammates with current Pawtucket Red Sox Arnie Beyeler in ’91 in Toledo.
KA: We were roommates. I had taken my kids up when he was managing in Lowell [in 2000-01]. He’s a good guy and it’s nice to see guys like him get a chance. He’s a baseball lifer.
BM: You have a close-knit relationship with Rocco Baldelli, throwing batting practice to him in the indoor batting cage located in the basement of Hava Java during Rocco’s offseason. Did you give him any advice after he was drafted?
KA: He was a level-headed kid. He never got too high or too low. We would go over a lot of things like [swing] mechanics, but he was such a talented athlete that there wasn’t a lot to do for him. It was about figuring out the best way for him to approach at-bats. I could tell [prior to the 2003 season] that he had made the jump and was ready to play in the bigs, and I told him as much.
BM: How tough were these last few years for Rocco after he was diagnosed with a mysterious illness that sapped his energy and affected his muscles?
KA: It was tough on everyone who knows him, obviously none more than him. Everyone’s heart went out to him and I’m sure a lot of people who didn’t know him felt bad. Tough on the immediate family and the guys who were close to him because after a while of hearing the same things, there’s not much you can say.
I don’t know if he has a lot of regrets that it’s over [Baldelli announced his retirement in January]. You could tell in his face and voice that it was over. He gave it his best and did what he could. He was disgusted not with the game, but with the way his body was reacting to the game. There was nothing he could do and it’s unfortunate that sometimes it comes down to that.
I think he’s at peace now with his decision and after speaking to him, he’s ready to move on to that next phase.
BM: Rocco is now involved in scouting and player development with Tampa Bay. Can you foresee him being involved in baseball for a long time?
KA: In my opinion, Rocco could someday be a general manager. He’s very intelligent and understands the game. To me, that’s more important than punching numbers into a computer (laughs).
It’s hard to get away from the game when you’ve played it for so long, and a lot of people have problems doing that. It’s a game where you build a lot of camaraderie and meet a lot of good people. It’s such a close-knit community that you can see someone 20 years from now and pick up where you left off.