MESA, Ariz.—One of the more intriguing stories in the Arizona Fall League involves a former Southeastern Conference college football player now playing outfield in the AFL.
No, it's not that Tebow guy.
Anthony Alford, named both Mr. Football and Mr. Baseball for the state of Mississippi in his senior year of high school, was considered as a sure first-round talent in baseball entering the 2012 draft. His insistence that he also wanted to play college football dropped Alford to the third round, where the Blue Jays drafted him and signed him for $750,000 to play baseball in the summers while he played football during the college season.
Alford enrolled at Southern Mississippi to play quarterback, beginning a three-year college football career while he also spent part of the next two summers with the Blue Jays’ Rookie-ball affiliate in the Gulf Coast League and a handful of games in 2015 at Rookie-level Bluefield and low Class A Lansing.
After starting five games at quarterback at Southern Miss in his freshman year, Alford transferred to Mississippi, where he switched to the defensive backfield. He had to sit out 2013 due to transfer requirements, and after four games in 2014 as a backup safety and punt returner with the Rebels, Alford quit football to concentrate on baseball.
“I had just gotten married in July going into the season," Alford said when asked why he decided to give up football. “I knew I had to make a decision that was best for me, my wife and my family . . . Football was taking a toll on my body. Just going back and forth between baseball and football, I never had an offseason."
After playing winter ball in Australia in 2014, Alford finally got to play a full year in 2015 split between low Class A Lansing and high Class A Dunedin and he was named Toronto's top prospect. Alford returned to Dunedin for all of 2016, posting a .236/.348/.378 slash line in a year marred by both an early season knee injury and later a concussion, still ranking as the Florida State League's seventh-best prospect.
Alford now brings his collection of plus tools and supreme athleticism to the Arizona Fall League, with the primary goal of getting more at-bats to make up for the lost development time. He's also seeing action in the outfield corners after primarily playing center field.
In addition to the flashy tools, what stands out for Alford is a solid approach at the plate and advanced hitting instincts despite his limited baseball reps. Alford credits a former college player in his native Mississippi, Bernard Williams, as helping him grow during his formative teen years.
“I would go to college (games) with him and go to his practices, so I was around it as a kid," Alford said. “Even though I wasn't playing much, he was still teaching me a lot about the game . . . He's like my mentor. I call him my brother."
Mesa hitting coach Larry Day, from the Indians organization, has been working with Alford for only a couple of weeks but has already seen evidence of this solid hitting approach, citing a recent home run on an 0-2 count in a road game against Salt River.
“That ball was a rocket," Day said. “In a disadvantaged count he stayed aggressive and was able to get a good swing off. For him to showcase that he has that ability, now it's on him and it's on us as coaches to try and pull it out as consistently as possible."
Alford's plate appearances are still marked by some extra movement, according to Day, but he continues to work at keeping himself into a good position to hit.
“All that extra movement, he's probably athletic enough to pull those moves off," Day said. “It's just a matter of him understanding the timing element as far as an approach . . . He's going to have to understand that he's going to have to start on the earlier side of 'on time'."
Despite the loss of baseball development time, Alford believes he benefited from football, both in the training and athleticism he gained as well as developing the nerves of steel required when playing in front of large crowds like he encountered in the SEC.
“I just try to bring my football mentality to the baseball field," Alford said, “and try to do that every day. When I have my football mentality playing baseball, I feel like I'm at my best."
Now, about that other former SEC football player participating in the AFL this year—Tim Tebow. When their respective teams met at Scottsdale Stadium last week, Alford waited patiently after the game for Tebow to finish signing autographs for the nightly cluster of his fans. He introduced himself to the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and the two chatted for a few minutes.
“You never really get the opportunity to meet somebody like that guy who's humble like he is," Alford said. “I don't get excited to meet a whole bunch of people—I've been around people like Brett Favre and a bunch of NFL players—but he's different. It's not so much what he's done on the field, but just how he carried himself and what he stands for. We have a lot of the same characteristics as far as what we value . . . not just as an athlete, but as a man. I'm strong in my faith and it makes me smile just to see him take a stand the way he does. It brings something out of me just to see him playing."
Alford then added about Tebow, “He's the kind of person that this game needs because a lot of people look up to him . . . I looked up to him growing up playing football. I think he's going to be fine because he has that competitive nature and he's a heck of an athlete."
Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday was inducted into the Arizona Fall League Hall of Fame on Wednesday night prior to a game at Scottsdale Stadium. The league's 39th inductee, Holliday played two seasons in the AFL (2002-2003) prior to his major league debut.
Celebration By Proxy
Cubs outfielder/catcher Kyle Schwarber played for Mesa on Friday night in his first official game action since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and another ligament in his left knee in early April. Hitless in three at-bats as Mesa's DH, Schwarber is being considered for a spot on the Cubs' World Series roster. After the AFL game he was the recipient of an honorary champagne shower from the Cubs support staff in Mesa since he was missing out on what was happening in Chicago at just about the same time.