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The regulars at Champions Pub in downtown Peabody, Mass., all grew up in town, and they all say it in the same rapid-fire way: Peebadee, one syllable just about. Peebadee High. Home of The Tannas. There was a time, the regulars will tell you proudly, when Peabody was the leather-tanning capital of the world, but then the work went overseas and the factories were converted into low-income apartments, and now all that are left are the school nickname, the Tanners, and the descendants of the last generation of Peabody leather workers, who are old or dead. You can tell the descendants by their working-class Greater Boston accents and their Old World surnames, anchored with consonants, names from Greece and Italy and Poland and Portugal.
There's Ed Nizwantowski--Coach Niz--who's been the football and baseball coach at Peabody High forever. There's James Leontakianakos--Jimmy Leon--who brought Jeff Allison to the hospital the night last summer when the greatest pitcher in Peabody history nearly died. Outsiders in Peabody, wayward tourists in stiff Red Sox hats trying to find the witch trial reenactments in neighboring Salem, they might as well be wearing a sign. The battalions of professional baseball scouts who came to Peabody in the spring of 2003 to clock Jeff Allison's 95mph fastball and to try to take the measure of the kid, they never had a chance. Peabody's not easy on outsiders.
Coach Niz, one of the best athletes ever to come out of Peabody High, is a regular at Champions. Even with all the bad stuff going on in his life--the drug problems of Allison, the Florida Marlins' No. 1 draft pick in 2003; the same sort of troubles with his own hockey-playing son, whose addiction has left Coach Niz with serious money woes--he can still sit in a cramped booth at Champions, surrounded by his buddies, his chin over a glass of Mich Ultra, and talk about the good times. The other day he and his sidekick, Terry Lee (fellow member of the class of '64, retired cop, assistant Tanners football and baseball coach), were reliving highlights from Jeff Allison's senior season.
Niz: Remember the Medford coach? He's, like, "I can't tell you how to hit this guy. Just swing. If you get a hit, you can say you got a hit off a future major leaguer."
Lee: How 'bout the Somerville game, when he struck out the 20?
Lee: Kids were getting high fives for hitting foul balls.
Niz: That umpire, when he called that third strike a ball?
Lee: Oh, man, did you have it goin'.
Niz: And Jeff says, "Don't worry--I'll take care of him on this one." Ninety-eight miles an hour!