Luke Allen’s death at the age of 43 left Newton County’s tight-knit baseball community heartbroken. As tributes poured in, it soon became clear that those he mentored were more than capable of carrying on his legacy through an undying love for the game.
It has somehow been 24 years since I first visited Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida. I can still smell the freshly cut grass, hear the steel cleats slicing through the finely manicured dirt and see the blur of 95-mile-per-hour fastballs splitting the air. I can think of nothing more idyllic. It was almost too much to take in.
I had boarded a rented Chevrolet Tahoe the night before with three friends. Enough happened during that one weekend in March 1999 to fill a book, and we still talk about it whenever we happen to get together. I went there to see Luke Allen during one of his first spring training camps with the Los Angeles Dodgers. I met Luke when we were sophomores at Newton High School, and though we ran in different circles, one commonality forever linked us together: our love of baseball. We graduated together in 1996, and he signed with the Dodgers as an undrafted free agent two months later. I lost track of him for a while but made it a point to follow his career more closely when I took the job as sports editor of The Covington News in 1998. By then, he had emerged as one of the Top 10 prospects in the Los Angeles farm system.
We spent roughly 48 hours in Vero Beach, the spontaneity of youth numbering our steps. I was 20 years old, still a kid without a care in the world. Luke invited us to watch as he participated in an exclusive camp former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda put together for a handful of the organization’s best prospects. Standing there with 10–15 other spectators, we were in awe as Lasorda University unfolded in front of us. We had all watched Lasorda’s hall-of-fame career—he led the Dodgers to two World Series titles—and yet there we stood, perhaps half a football field away from the man as he provided invaluable instruction to someone we knew personally. I briefly interviewed the accommodating Lasorda afterward, my nervous voice cracking through a few questions about Luke. I came away with one revelation: Lasorda adored him and for the very same reasons we all did. We all returned to Dodgertown in subsequent years, but nothing quite compared to that first trip. I eventually got married, left the newspaper and watched my wife give birth to our two sons. Luke made it to the major leagues with Los Angeles in 2002 and with Colorado after being traded to the Rockies the following year. I lost touch with him during the latter stages of his career but always had a sense our paths would cross again somehow.
“Baseball is a beautiful game of failure. Be your best and learn to get back up. It’s a game of inches.”Luke Allen
My oldest son started baseball at the age of 4 and expressed a desire to get more serious about it prior to his under-11 season. He had made a couple of all-star teams by then and wanted to move toward the more competitive travel ball scene. The search for a hitting instructor invariably led me back to Luke. Over the next several years, he had a profound impact on both of my boys. Gehrig, now 16, switch hits to this day thanks to Luke telling him it was “mandatory” after seeing him take a few off-handed swings in the cage at Diamond Sports Academy. Luke was also the first high-level coach to show any kind of genuine interest in my youngest son. He challenged him to apply himself more seriously, on and off the field. Gibson, now 14, has taken those words to heart. We could not have known how our story with him would end back then, but I cherish those days more and more as time marches on.
In my 44-plus years on this earth, I have never met anyone as full of life as Luke Allen. Seated at my desk on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 26, 2022, I received a text from Andy Mitchell, a former minor league pitcher who coaches my oldest son. It asked simply, “Did you hear the awful news?” Immediately, I knew it was something serious. “No sir,” I wrote back, bracing myself as best I could. Seconds later, four words around which I still cannot wrap my mind came across the screen: “Luke Allen died today.” He was just 43 years old and left behind three children, a doting mother and four siblings, along with hundreds of Newton County kids to whom he had given hitting lessons.
Even though they had not seen Luke in about six months, my sons were stunned. Gehrig later relayed his hurt to me in a text: “I just wish I could hit with him one more time.” He and I attended the funeral a little more than a week later. Once the service concluded, I made my way over to the Allen I had known the longest—Luke’s older brother, Sam. We hugged for a few seconds, and I managed to muster a few words from the heart. “He’ll live on through my boys,” I told him. “I know he will,” Sam said. As I walked back to my car while choking back tears, it occurred to me that Luke’s relationship with my sons was no more special than those he had crafted with the countless other aspiring players with whom he had shared his love of baseball. I cracked a smile as my car door closed behind me and thought, “He’ll live on through all of them.”