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Any hitter who sincerely wants a piece of Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson is a man any team ought to want, appreciate and turn loose to do his thing. That is how Allen sees it, and any hedging on that proposition gets him down.
"I don't use the strike zone much," he says. "I'm looking for something to hammer. I don't have time to argue whether the pitch was two inches either way. Besides, that sumbuck in blue back there has more problems than I do.
"When I first see a pitcher I'm looking inside. Fight that hard stuff to right field, and the moment he comes in with that soft stuff, CLICK, pull it to left. If he can keep putting the ball on that outside corner, fine. I'll take five or six strikeouts until I understand the pitcher. Then if I see this guy can keep putting the ball there, I'll start looking outside, going to right. Then if he does come inside I can still come around on it."
It is possible to draw an analogy to life: Allen wants everybody to be straight with him, to come in with their hard stuff. He wants everybody to want him as simply as he and Gibson want each other. He is set up to handle life that way—looking inside.
When pitchers get shifty, trying to nip the outside corner, he disapproves but will adjust, grumbling all the while about pitchers who "want to fool everybody." But he cannot adjust to deviousness and compromise off the field.
During the first eight years of his career Allen was noted mainly for hitting preposterously long home runs, eschewing batting practice, drinking before games rather than just afterward and not being punctual for buses and planes. Allen established himself as one of the game's top hitters and was with four teams in as many years. He wrote dismissive notes to his general manager in the base-path dirt with his foot! What kind of man would do a thing like that? And why didn't anybody think of it before?
Then, in the winter of '71, Allen was traded to the White Sox. He became the rock on which their sudden resurgence was built and the Most Valuable Player in the American League. Vida Blue, Reggie Jackson, Alex Johnson, Joe Pepitone, Denny McLain have all pitted their natures against the system and been put down. Allen alone has come through as a confirmed team-carrying hero, on his own idiosyncratic terms. He shows up at the park a couple of hours later than his teammates. He takes no more part in pregame warmups than he wants to, which isn't much. He travels separately. The city of Al Capone and Richard Daley has put him, in the words of a writer who covers the Sox, "on a pedestal."
Allen is the first black man, and indeed the only contemporary man of any color, to assert himself in baseball with something like the unaccommodating force of Muhammad Ali in boxing, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in basketball and Jim Brown in football. He is perhaps the best all-round player in the game today; he is certainly the most independent and highest paid. How can such an imposing figure have remained so ill-defined?
Allen himself feels no call to be fully explicable. "Nobody can say they know me, or what I will do," he says. "If I ever am trying to keep up an image, and something I want to do comes up, I'll say lose the image." But that does not mean he is an unknown quantity or hasn't gotten himself together. "The man is undaunted," says Reggie Jackson. "He is the epitome of poise."
Tailors must find it hard to believe that all of Allen's measurements belong to the same individual: jacket size 42, sleeve length 35, trouser length 32, waistline 31. From the waist up he is a defensive end, from the waist down a wide receiver. The only three active players who sometimes hit the ball as hard as he does—San Francisco's McCovey, Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell and Detroit's Frank Howard—are four to eight inches taller, 20 to 60 pounds heavier and incalculably slower than the 5'11", 190-pound Allen, whom some opponents call the best base runner in either league.