Anthony Alford and the Search for Peace

Blue Jays’ outfielder Anthony Alford has dealt with many hardships on his way to the major leagues. (via Buck Davidson)

In June of 2016, while Blue Jays prospect Anthony Alford was playing for High-A Dunedin, he slammed into shortstop Richard Urena on a pop fly. He lay on the ground for nearly 15 minutes before he was carried off the field on a stretcher. It was an eerie scene in Dunedin — one that silenced Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. Alford suffered a neck injury and a serious concussion. With those injuries came a lengthy recovery process, more weeks spent off the field, more time taken away from the pursuit of his major league goals.

For Alford, who is currently on the IL with a back injury for the Buffalo Bisons, that collision in 2016 was just one of a long list of setbacks he’s had to endure throughout his career in baseball. Injuries have slowed his progress through the system. For every step forward, Alford has had to take a step back. To go along with the neck injury and the concussion, he has had wrist surgery and hamstring issues. He has suffered tragedies off the field. He has experienced the twists and turns of the business side of baseball, too, the game of roster management.

Every time, through every difficulty, Alford has overcome the headaches, fighting his way back to the field. After a point, though, even a fighter tires of fighting. Even a fighter longs for peace.

***

It was an early spring Thursday morning in Toronto: bearable temperatures, mainly sunny skies. A mile of cars crawled slowly along the Gardiner Expressway, inching along, bumper to bumper, getting closer to the city streets. Parkas. Toques. Streetcars. Sidewalks. And thousands of people. Just another Thursday — unless you were a baseball fan, or Blue Jays outfield prospect Anthony Alford. He sat in the still and quiet lobby of the Marriott enjoying his Starbucks – a little peace before the 2019 Opening Day madness at the Rogers Centre.

Alford had been working toward this moment since 2012, when Toronto drafted him in the third round. A natural athlete, baseball wasn’t Alford’s only love. There was football, too. Alford signed with the Blue Jays because they allowed him to continue to play college football – a risk Toronto’s department of baseball operations was willing to take.

After the major league draft, Alford didn’t have the year he expected as starting quarterback for Southern Miss, nor did he feature in many headlines as a defensive back at Mississippi. He decided to leave all the worrisome headaches of football behind to take pitches in the ribs, which he has described as being more painful than anything he experienced in football. Life in baseball had taken Alford on a roller-coaster ride. But now, here he was: Opening Day in Toronto. The dream was within his grasp.

Jeff Blair, a Toronto sports personality, saw Alford sitting in the hotel lobby. He congratulated him on making the 25-man roster. Blair even took to Twitter, sending a tweet to all of his roughly 55,000 followers, congratulating the young outfielder. Alford responded thanking him, and as the prospect of baseball buzzed through the city of Toronto, the news spread far and wide.

But Alford had no idea his high would soon turn to a low. At 10:45, only a few hours after Blair’s early-morning tweet, Arden Zwelling, a Blue Jays beat writer, would break the news that Rowdy Tellez had cracked the 25-man roster and not Alford.

It was hard for Alford to come to terms with the fact that his cleats would dig into the dirt at Sahlen Field to begin the 2019 baseball season, as it looked like, once again, his road was leading him back to Buffalo, the city that has become his baseball home since 2018.

The dream of becoming a major leaguer is a great one. You can find the drive to pursue it only if you have equally great expectations for yourself. The problem with great expectations, though, is that they make for even greater letdowns. And while Alford told the media there wasn’t a 100% chance he was going to be activated for Opening Day. He had believed he was going to be.

He wasn’t.

***

In 2017, a healthy Alford saw his road bend and wind up the different levels of professional baseball – all the way from High-A to the big leagues. He began 2017 playing six games in High-A ball for Dunedin. He then got called up to Double-A and donned the New Hampshire Fisher Cats cap in the Eastern League, many miles north of Florida. He put up impressive numbers there – numbers that would catch the eye of Toronto’s executives. In his first 33 games for the Fisher Cats, he was hitting .325 and had a .411 on-base percentage.

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In May, Gary Allenson, the manager of the Fisher Cats, told Alford he was going to be promoted. Alford thought Allenson was going to tell him he was going to Buffalo, but he learned he was going to Baltimore. And he was going to the show.

Alford was going to make his major league debut.

John Gibbons, then manager of the Blue Jays, spoke highly of Alford before the call-up, saying he thought Alford had made great strides from 2016, as much progress as anyone he had ever seen. Gibbons’ only advice for Alford before his first major league game, against the Orioles, was to have fun, because it only happens once.

Alford had no idea back then just how long he would be with the Blue Jays. He played only four games before he was sent back to New Hampshire. Still, the picture of his baseball future seemed bright, as he became one of baseball’s top prospects that year. But the colors on that picture would end up bleeding. The paint never seemed to dry for Alford. And he was about to become familiar with the long stretch of asphalt from Buffalo to Toronto.

In 2018, Alford played 13 games for the Blue Jays. He slashed an underwhelming .105/.190/.105 in 21 plate appearances. He saw 85 pitches. 50 of those were strikes. He struck out nine times. He walked twice. The path of his barrel led him back to Buffalo.

He would, however, get a new chance and a new opportunity.

***

A few days after Alford’s early-season “emotional roller coaster,” as he described it, the Blue Jays made it official that they had traded center fielder Kevin Pillar to the San Francisco Giants for right-handed pitchers Derek Law and Juan De Paula. This time it looked like the Blue Jays were ready to find out what they had in their top prospect — or, at least, that’s what everyone believed, including Alford.

On Tuesday, April 2, the day Pillar was traded, Alford was called up, and he had three plate appearances against the Orioles, the same team he faced in his major league debut. He saw nine pitches; seven were strikes. Three of those combined to turn into a strikeout.

In the second inning of that game, Alford got his first big league at-bat of the 2019 season. He set foot in the right side of the batter’s box, stared at Andrew Cashner in his open stance, took some deep breaths, and waited for the big hurler to wind up and deliver. Cashner threw a 93-mph fastball in the zone that Alford fouled straight back.

Alford held off on Cashner’s next pitch, a breaking ball low and away. He stepped outside the batter’s box, took a couple of practice swings, looked at Cashner, and stepped back in the box. He took a questionable strike just below the knees.

Cashner’s next pitch would be a sweeping breaking ball outside the zone. Alford began to swing, as his left foot lifted off the dirt and stepped in toward the plate, but he changed his mind and tried to hold the bat back from going around.

The home plate umpire shouted to the first base umpire, asking if he had swung. His voice echoed in the quiet, empty Rogers Centre. The first base umpire threw up his right arm to indicate he did. The small crowd let the umpire know they disapproved the call with boos and hisses.

Alford calmly took off his helmet and placed it on the turf, as Cashner and the Orioles walked off the field. He would get his next chance against Cashner in the fifth inning and hit a weak grounder to Chris Davis.

In his last at-bat of the night, Alford gently rocked his bat back and forth as he waited for what lefty reliever Paul Fry would throw. Maybe an inside fastball. Maybe an off-speed pitch. He held the bat on his shoulder and took the first pitch for a ball. Frye’s next pitch was a breaking ball — a strike. Again, Alford’s bat never left his shoulder. He stepped outside the box and had a long look at Fry before setting his feet within the lines and digging his back foot into the dirt.

Frye threw an off-speed pitch that Alford lined to center for the out. And it would be the last time he would swing at a major-league pitch this season.

Only two hours after Pillar’s trade became official, Toronto executives decided to take a chance on Socrates Brito, acquired from the San Diego Padres for minor-league outfielder Rodrigo Orozco. The Blue Jays felt Brito had intriguing tools that were accompanied with terrific minor league numbers and a lefty bat. Brito was out of options when he came to Toronto; Alford wasn’t. And for the second time in a week, Alford found himself on another emotional roller coaster, another letdown.

***

Still, the letdowns from the business side of baseball must seem minor for Alford, who lost his family home in Columbia, Miss., to a fire on December 28, 2016. His family escaped, and no one was harmed. But Alford’s parents lost all their possessions in the blaze, including his childhood memorabilia, memories collected over a lifetime.  Those included the trophies he won from high school. Alford had given his parents all his awards as a thank-you for their support over the years.

“I think that’s what my dad was most sad about,” Alford told the Toronto Sun. “It wasn’t necessarily the clothes or furniture. He can get that back. But the awards that I won were something they really valued. So he was really sad and emotional about that.” Gone were Alford’s state championship rings from Petal High School, his Gatorade Player of the Year trophies, the jerseys he once wore. There’s no price on the sentimental; its value exceeds the superficial. Mere things eventually can be replaced, but the memories cannot.

And the fire was only the latest in a series of unfortunate events. Tragedy has followed Alford and his family. A few days before Christmas in 2014, tornadoes tore through the flatlands of Mississippi and destroyed his grandmother’s home, a place where he grew up — another place rich with memories of his childhood.

So Alford isn’t just playing baseball for himself. Alford is playing baseball to help his family. He is playing baseball to help rebuild what they have lost over the years. Alford’s parents have a new home now. And it’s where you will find the ball of his first major league hit, which he got back in 2017 against the Milwaukee Brewers on a Tuesday night.

***

It’s no secret Alford is a pure athlete. He has raw power, speed, arm strength, and an ability to hit. In his first full year in the minors in 2015, he began to make noise with those skills, showing scouts hints of the potential he had. He began the year with the Lansing Lugnuts in the Midwest League and finished the year with Dunedin. He slashed .298/.398/.421 with 25 doubles, seven triples, four home runs, and 27 stolen bases.

But that was a long time ago. Before the injuries, the headaches. Before the setbacks. And now Alford’s name isn’t found on any top-100 prospect lists.

Early season distractions got the better of Alford this season. He played 20 games for the Buffalo Bisons in April, slashing .132/.213/.265 – hardly the line he wanted to run after his strong spring, and hardly a line that earns a minor-leaguer that long-awaited call. He had 68 at-bats and struck out 31 times. He had no plate discipline. He had a 45.5% strikeout rate. Umpires rarely called ball four. It happened only six times, which added up to an uninspiring 8.8% walk rate.

April’s struggles forced Alford to reflect. He decided to silence his phone and leave social media behind. He sent out his last tweet on April 17, telling the Buffalo News he was done with the distractions of social media. He realized he needed to focus, to cancel out the surrounding noise. Mental health is just as important as physical health.

In May, Alford set foot in the batter’s box 98 times and had 27 hits, struck out 26 times, and had 10 walks. His strikeout numbers were still high, but he cut his K rate to 26.5%. He went from an April OPS of .478 to a May OPS of .783. Alford was focused on baseball and not the Blue Jays’ transactions. And Alford started to see ball four.

***

This ball-four story began when Alford decided to leave all the distractions in the dark in early spring. It’s a story that continues to follow him across the International League from Buffalo to Pawtucket to Lehigh Valley and Indianapolis, where he was on one specific Wednesday afternoon in June. He was a safe distance from his Opening Day disappointment now, miles away from the bustle of Toronto and the Rogers Centre.

Eleven thousand inhabitants of the “Crossroads of America” went to Victory Field on this lazy, sunny afternoon to take in some baseball and watch the Triple-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Buffalo Bisons were ready to play the second game of a three-game series after beating Indianapolis 2-0 on Tuesday night. But the Bisons were not the team the people of Indianapolis wanted to see win. They wanted to see Alford swing and miss, along with the rest of the Bisons.

Buffalo manager Bobby Meacham gave Alford a defensive break that afternoon but penciled him in as the DH. He wanted Alford to continue to improve his swinging-strike-rate troubles. He was confident Alford would continue to lay off the outside pitches. He was confident he’d write some headlines, too.

In a recent interview for the Toronto Star, Meacham said it’s easy when players are going good. But even when Alford struggled, Meacham said, he still stayed on top of things. “He hasn’t changed. He has been competing like crazy out there, working hard, and then when the game starts, he competes.”

And the 2019 International League All-Star manager was right. Alford has turned it around. In that game against Indianapolis, he lined an opposite-field home run over the right-field fence, collected four RBIs, and stole a bag. But the beauty of Alford’s performance in Indianapolis wasn’t about his line at the end of the day. It was about how he continued to show patience at the plate.

In his first at-bat against Indy lefty Cam Vieaux, Alford held off the first pitch, which was outside for a ball. He stepped out of the box, took some cuts, calmly chewing his gum, relaxed and focused. He stepped back in the lines, tapped his bat on the plate, and waited for what Vieaux would deliver. It was another ball, just outside. Alford laid off that, too. He stepped outside the box again; again, he went through his motions. He hit the dirt out of his cleats, set foot, stared at Vieaux, who wound up and threw. Alford saw ball three. Again, outside the zone. A few seconds later — ball four. Alford jogged down to first.

This might not be the type of at-bat that becomes the play of the week, but it is an example of where Alford is right now. His strikeout rate has been alarming over the past few seasons. In 2018, he played 105 games for the Buffalo Bisons and had 417 plate appearances. He struck out 26.9% of the time and walked only 7.2% of the time, which works out to just 30 walks. This season, he already has walked the line 26 times.

Alford seems to be showing signs of the player he was in 2017, a year when MLB ranked him as the 44th-best prospect in baseball. His strikeout rate was at 15% for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. He walked 12.1% of the time during those 68 games in Double-A. He was so good for the Fisher Cats that during the 2017 offseason, Ross Atkins, the Blue Jays general manager, said Alford should be viewed up there with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette.

Alford has played a total of 18 games for the big-league club since he was called up in 2017. He struck out 13 times and walked twice in 32 plate appearances. He has seen a total of 128 major league pitches. Two of those he turned into singles, and one of them he turned into a double.

He is ready to see more.

***

This season, the Toronto Blue Jays have used 12 different players in the outfield, including infielders like Eric Sogard and Brandon Drury. Yet Alford hasn’t been called up since that 0-for-3 night against Baltimore in early April. It would be easy for him to get lost in the business side of the game, focused on the Blue Jays transactions. For a moment, he did. And it showed in his April numbers.

But now, Alford is approaching baseball differently. In that same interview with the Buffalo News in which he said he was done with the distractions of social media, Alford mentioned that when he was seeing a bunch of transactions and trying to keep up with what was going on at the major league level, he kind of lost sight of what he was supposed to be doing there in Buffalo.

“I really just had to take a step back, and it was like a reality check for me, like, ‘Don’t (waste) your season away because you’re salty about what happened.’ But it was tough. I’ve never really experienced anything like that. But it’s part of the game. It’s part of the business.”

Sometimes a step back is the most important step a person can take. Alford took that step, and now he’s seeing clearly. He is at a place of peace, a calm we all try to make room for outside the hustle.

Alford recently broke his social media hiatus, posting a picture on Instagram wishing his mom a happy 45th birthday. He stands there proudly in the photo with his mom and family, smiling. A moment that matters – a moment outside the batter’s box.

Alford said he is at peace now after everything that happened to him during the first week of the season. Maybe that peace will lead him back to Toronto. And maybe it’s a peace that leads to success in the major leagues.


Ryan is a lover of birds and all things minor. He writes for Blue Jays Nation dot com.
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eely225
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eely225

Great piece