We should probably start with a disclaimer: on this site, and an earlier incarnation, I’ve probably written more about Toronto OF Anthony Alford, whose tenure as the longest-serving Blue Jay came to an end in the middle of the team’s double-header sweep of the Phillies on last Thursday, than I have about any other Blue Jays prospect. And over the course of several hundred posts spread over eight seasons, that’s saying something.
Truth be told, I’ve always had an affinity for the underdog, and despite his prodigious athletic gifts, from a baseball standpoint, Alford has always been something of a longshot.
Drafted by the Blue Jays in the 3rd round in 2012, he came from the non baseball hot spot of Mississippi, and was said to be the best high school diamond prospect from the Magnolia State since Charlie Hayes. With all due respect to the former 3rd Baseman, who carved out a decent career in the 90s (leading the NL in doubles with 45 in 1993), that comp as much as anything speaks volumes about Mississippi amateur baseball. In a state where football is king, baseball ranks well down the popularity list.
A multi-sport athlete, Alford absolutely shone on the gridiron. A two-time MS Gatorade Player of the Year, he led his high school team to the state championship game his senior year, and was ranked the 5th best dual-threat QB in the nation. Alford followed his high school coach Steve Buckley to Southern Miss, where he was expected to lead the Eagles to NCAA glory. Despite his college commitment, the Blue Jays still rolled the dice and drafted him, agreeing to allow him to follow his football dreams while he played a few weeks of baseball every summer.
But that freshman year of college for Alford turned into a nightmare. Southern Miss used four QBs – including Alford – en route to an 0-12 record that cost Head Coach Elliott Johnson his job. Things continued their downhill slide in a late season lopsided 59-24 loss to Marshall, when Alford’s mother Lawanda was arrested after getting into an altercation with some fans who had berated her son for his poor play. In fairness to Alford, his former prep coach Buckley (who was likely hired to get Anthony to commit) was thrown into the fire when the Eagles’ offensive co-ordinator had to step down for health reasons. The high school coach was in over his head in the college ranks, and his QBs paid the price. Still, this was not the first time mom had gone over the top at one of her son’s games, according to the Hattiesburg (MS) American:
This past spring, she came out of stands and onto the field of play at Petal High School’s baseball stadium after her son was ejected for arguing a called third strike during the first game of the South State playoffs against Harrison Central. After showing her displeasure by screaming at the umpire, she was escorted from the stadium by school officials.
Alford’s woes did not end with the conclusion of the Eagles’ season. In late November, he was involved in a late night incident on campus involving himself, a teammate, and two individuals who were not Southern Miss students.. Trouble had brewing between the two sides for some time, according to campus police. Alford had received a $750K bonus from the Blue Jays, and one of his first purchases was a loaded pick up truck, which (as you might expect) attracted considerable attention on campus – not all of it positive.
Details of the incident are sketchy, but it’s fairly easy to imagine the details. Tensions escalated to the point where Alford’s teammate allegedly produced a weapon, and made some threats. They were charged with aggravated assault The pair were ultimately suspended from Southern Miss, pending an investigation. Alford didn’t wait around for the results, leaving campus soon after the incident, and was released from his scholarship before Christmas. In the New Year, he signed on at Ole Miss, where he was slated to play defensive back and return kicks.
In another life, before I decided to follow my twin passions of baseball and the written word, I was an elementary school teacher. I enjoyed both the teaching and coaching tremendously, but having been taught mostly by old school teachers who stressed discipline and class control, I fell more into that mode for the first half of my career. In what became all but an annual ritual, I would have dreams several times every August, as school approached, of me being in a classroom with absolutely no control over the students. Not that I was a harsh taskmaster, but I always had class control as one of my biggest priorities every day as a classroom teacher. I wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy, but most kids learned and I got the job done. The problem was, of course, that I wasn’t reaching as many as I could. At the half way point in my career, my wife (a high school Special Ed and Guidance Teacher)) suggested I get my qualifications and moved to Spec Ed. I was wary at first, but it turned out to be a career saviour for me. I began to see at-risk students in a whole new light; sure, they had learning difficulties, but they were funny and creative and very bright in a way that school didn’t always measure. Through them, I learned to become much more empathetic, and I started to see people in general in a much more holistic way. These kids didn’t have many champions; I wanted very much to become one for them.
Not only did Alford’s mom have her issues, but so did his father. Anthony Sr had been in and out of jail numerous times, it has been reported, on various drug-related charges. Both parents, understandably, are shy and concerned about harming their son’s chances of making it in the bigs; when Gare Joyce of Sportsnet profiled Anthony Jr several years ago, both declined to be interviewed. Nonetheless, growing up must have been difficult for the younger Alford – anyone who has ever watched their kids go through the upheaval of their teenaged years knows how mortifying their parents mere existence can sometimes be during that often angst-filled time. Things were going so well for Alford on the playing field as he progressed through his high school years; off the the field, not so much. Inundated with scholarship offers his senior year, he moved in with Buckley and his family. But he was massively conflicted. In a conversation from 2014, Alford said that despite his success in football, “baseball was my first love.” It’s just that when you’re a five star pigskin recruit from Mississippi, the expectation is that you’ll go on to greater glory playing at the college level. So, Alford signed with the Blue Jays in 2012, but with permission to head to Southern Miss in early July, limiting his first season to five games. After transferring to Ole Miss, he had to sit out a season, but with the coaching staff wanting to change Alford to a defensive back, his second pro season consisted of just 6 games. Finally, with the Blue Jays getting a little antsy, Alford played in 14 games in 2014, and was promoted to Lansing. After hitting a monster Home Run for the Lugs, and his original deal about to expire, then-GM Alex Anthopoulos presented Alford with a contract offer he thought the young outfielder couldn’t refuse.
But he did.
Alford returned to school, and geared up to play for Ole Miss, but with his playing time reduced to second string duty and kick returns, he had a change of heart in late September of 2014, and decided to take the Blue Jays up on their offer. He rushed down to Instructs, and then was off to the other side of the world for a crash course in pitch recognition with the Blue Jays Australian Baseball League Canberra partner. Overmatched, at times, by the veteran, backwards-pitching Aussie League hurlers, Alford made up for lost development – he had amassed just over 100 PAs in three minor league seasons. Not surprisingly, Alford had a breakout year at Lansing and Dunedin in 2015, slashing .298/.398/.421.
But then the injury bug hit; Alford was to miss significant chunks of time each of the next three seasons. And if we’re looking to determine why his development stalled, we might not have to look much further than that. By 2018, he had roughly half as many pro at bats as his draft peers. And the inexperience began to show, and Alford found himself the last two seasons in something of a paradox: he wasn’t hitting, so he wasn’t getting enough playing time, and he couldn’t get more playing time if he couldn’t hit more. This year, the lack of playing time manifested itself in Alford having a lot of trouble catching up to big league velocity. In the outfield, Alford’s relative lack of reps also was a factor in some of his flyball adventures. His speed and athleticism helped him outrun a number of route mistakes, and he worked hard with former Jay Devon White at Buffalo to improve his reads. Alford also took pride in his throwing arm – he was mildly upset several years ago when one scouting site rated the former QB’s arm as below average. Misjudging a few flyballs in spring training and again at the beginning of the season probably harmed his chances of becoming a late-inning defensive replacement as the truncated 2020 season progressed. Those mistakes, coupled with his struggles at the plate, most likely convinced the front office that with his options used up, that it was time to move on.
After corresponding with Alford for several seasons, we had the chance to meet at spring training in 2017. He was just as gracious in person as he was in writing. Pro sports (and other walks of life, for that matter), are full of people who are prickly and/or entitled on a huge scale. Given what he experienced in his youth, it would almost be understandable if Alford leaned in that direction. That’s entirely not the case, however. You couldn’t ask for a more honest, more earnest young man. That he was reunited this week with the Pirates, who claimed him off of waivers, helps him to come full circle with Ben Cherington, who oversaw minor league operations for the Blue Jays from 2016 to 2019 before leaving to take over the reigns in Pittsburgh. If the Bucs can find him enough ABs (and if Alford can stay healthy), that prodigious talent may finally break through.