BALTIMORE – When Anthony Alford stepped off the New Hampshire Fisher Cats’ team bus in Reading, Pa. Thursday night, his manager had some good news to deliver.
Alford wasn’t exactly sure what it was that Gary Allenson wanted to tell him, but he knew he’d been swinging the bat well. In his first 33 games at double-A the 22-year-old was hitting .325 with a .411 on-base percentage, so when Allenson told Alford he was getting promoted he couldn’t have been happier to be going to triple-A.
“I said ‘OK, I’m going to Buffalo,’” Alford recalls. “He said, ‘No, you’re going to meet the team in Baltimore.’”
With that, Alford headed south to join his new team, the Toronto Blue Jays. He arrived at Camden Yards with no guarantees of a long stint at the MLB level considering that the Blue Jays will need to reinstate Kevin Pillar to the roster Saturday, but he got to start in left field and struck out in his first MLB at bat.
Alford has come a long way since 2012, when the Blue Jays selected him in the third round of the amateur draft. Then, he was a two-sport star determined to play college football during the baseball off-season. Now, after nearly three years focused entirely on baseball, he has earned a spot at the highest level.
“It’s starting to pay off,” Alford said. “It’s like a dream come true. I don’t regret the decision [to stop playing football]. I didn’t regret it then, but I sure don’t regret it now.”
The Blue Jays called on Alford out of necessity. They placed Steve Pearce on the disabled list Monday, suspended Pillar for two games Thursday and placed Darrell Ceciliani on the DL Friday. That opened up two spots, first for Dwight Smith Jr., and then for Alford, his close friend.
Players rarely earn promotions to the big-leagues after just 33 games in the upper minors, but the Blue Jays have been impressed by what they’ve seen from Alford since spring training.
“I thought he'd made great strides from the previous year,” manager John Gibbons said. “You look at the raw talent and he's got as much as anybody you'll ever see.
“But he was a football guy. Sometimes that can take a while; sometimes it doesn't ever happen. He made as much progress as anybody I've ever seen. You watched him play in spring training and he looked like a big-league player.”
Alford built on his strong spring at Toronto’s New Hampshire affiliate, where he hit .325/.411/.455 with three home runs and nine stolen bases in 33 games. In all likelihood he has plenty more minor-league seasoning in his future, but in the meantime he gets the chance to make his MLB debut. Gibbons’ advice to Alford?
"Have fun, man. It only happens once, right?"
Josh Donaldson was among the Blue Jays players to reach out to Alford with encouragement and advice Friday. The third baseman’s message was simple: Go out and have fun, but expect greatness out of yourself, too.
Alford has had plenty of reason to believe in himself of late. He sustained a severe concussion last June, but recovered with a strong finish to the season at Class A before excelling in the Arizona Fall League against fellow top prospects.
“If I can play here, I feel like I can play in the show,” Alford said of his AFL experience. “These are the best players in the minor-leagues.”
The Blue Jays initially signed Alford to a creative $750,000 deal that allowed him to play football for the University of Mississippi during the off-season. By 2014 he was fully committed to baseball and he has gradually improved his prospect stock since, jumping from 59th to 34th on Baseball America’s top prospects list this spring.
Now, he’s in the big-leagues, a little short on sleep perhaps, but ready for what comes next.
“I still kind of feel like I’m dreaming,” he said.