It seemed like Anthony Alford could do anything, like he had nothing but good choices ahead of him. He had always excelled. He had always been the most talented athlete, the hometown hero. Some called him a natural—his nickname was “The Freak,” a tribute to his physical gifts—but those who knew him knew about the thousands of hours he had put into practice and work in the gym. He had faced adversity—not just the usual challenges an athlete faces on the field, but also everyday hardship.
He was on the verge of very big things.
And then he was on the verge of losing them all.
It was a schoolday morning, and he was just another teenager mixed up in something—something involving a gun, and not one that he’d touched or even seen. Just a gun that another kid was carrying. And then he was in a cruiser on the way to a police station, where he heard that he was being charged with crimes that could send him to jail for the best years of his adult life. He stood in front of the camera for a mug shot. He knew he was innocent, but had to have some doubt that a jury in Hattiesburg, Miss., would see it that way.
He had always been respectful and tried to lead a quiet, decent life. Now his name would be out in the media, and those who didn’t know him would think he was a thug.
He had never lacked confidence in any game he played, in any other aspect of life. Now he was scared. “Something like that changes you,” says Alford, taking off his baseball cap and wiping sweat from his brow. “It has to. You realize it can go away, just like that.”
As Alford sits in front of his stall in the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring-training clubhouse after a morning workout and reflects on that time, his voice is a raised whisper that could be drowned out by a running shower. His words are slowly, deliberately put together—it sounds like he’s talking about a time long ago and far away. Only when you look at the calendar and count back do you realize that all of this happened barely three years ago.
Anthony Alford, athletic wunderkind, had always tested the imaginations of those on the sidelines in Petal, Miss. “First time I saw Anthony, he was 13 playing on a baseball team with my son,” Steve Buckley says. “Anthony was on second, and a ball was grounded back to the pitcher, a routine play at first base. Anthony hit third and just kept going and beat out the throw at the plate. I said to the fellow beside me, ‘Did what I think happened really happen?’ You knew you were seeing a special athlete.”
As the Petal High football coach, Buckley saw a lot of Alford that fall. Even though Buckley had a senior starting quarterback returning, he gave the first-string job to Alford. “Anthony was a freshman, and the way his birthdate fell, he was only the age of an eighth-grader,” Buckley says. “He was up against players who were a year away from college, but Anthony was five-foot-11 and 180, 185 lb., and he just excelled. He had incredible speed, the ability to escape pressure, to run out of any trouble.”
Alford was as exceptional on the baseball team. “I don’t like to say that anyone is the best player I had, but he was the most impressive pure athlete,” says Larry Watkins, Petal’s head baseball coach for 36 years.
Watkins’s teams added state-championship silverware to Petal’s trophy case in Alford’s sophomore and junior years. Nonetheless, football remained Alford’s first love through high school. The town was home to 11,000 citizens, and 10,000 crowded into the old stadium on Friday nights. In Alford’s senior year, he threw for over 2,000 yards and ran for 1,700 more. In the state-championship game, he led his team 60 yards downfield to set up a last-second field goal that would have given the school its first 6A title, but the kick strayed wide. Still, at season’s end, Alford was honoured as Mississippi’s high school football player of the year. In the spring, he was named the state’s baseball player of the year, the first time an athlete had won both awards. Capping off his career at Petal High, MaxPreps named Alford the national Boys Athlete of the Year.
It looked like Alford was leading a charmed life. Away from the stadium and the diamond, however, he was caught in a maelstrom. In the fall of his senior year, some of the biggest names in NCAA Div. I football started chasing Alford. He sorted through recruiting letters by the hundreds. Daily, dozens of coaches phoned him only to hear his voicemail account was full. In the spring, there were MLB scouts trying to assess his ability and agents looking at locking him up before the June draft. They all wanted to know if he’d commit to baseball over football if an MLB team took him in the first two rounds and offered him millions in a signing bonus.
The atmosphere grew so oppressive that Alford sought refuge, moving in with Steve Buckley’s family. Alford let it be known that he wanted to play football, was determined to go to college, and had visited Nebraska and LSU. The decision didn’t have a signing-bonus price point. “I wasn’t going to let football go,” he says. “Where I’m from, football has always been No. 1, and it was for me. I couldn’t have signed with a major-league team and committed to baseball without always asking myself, ‘What would I have done if I stuck with football?’”
In February 2012, while Alford was still weighing offers, Buckley accepted a position as an assistant coach with Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, the Div. I program nearest to Petal. Buckley told Alford not to let that influence his choice of school. Nonetheless, on signing day weeks later, Alford declared for Southern Miss, which had gone 12-2 and finished 19th in the national coaches’ poll the previous year. “Other schools didn’t want me to play [NCAA] baseball my freshman year and wanted me to focus on football,” Alford says. “Southern Miss was open to me playing both as a frosh. That, and being able to stay close to home and play in front of my family, that decided it.”
What Southern Miss or other schools thought about Alford signing with an MLB team didn’t really come up. “I wanted to give myself three years to figure out which game I wanted to play [professionally],” he says. “I didn’t see signing with [the MLB team] that drafted me.”
That June, however, the Toronto Blue Jays made a bold play, taking Alford No. 112 overall then offering him $750,000 up front—others drafted in that range were signing for a bit over half that. Even so, the Jays knew money alone wasn’t likely to close the deal. So then-GM Alex Anthopoulos assured Alford that the team was fine with him playing football in the fall, hoping that eventually he’d see baseball as his future, even though it was his distant second choice at the time.
Alford signed with Toronto and was assigned to the Jays’ Gulf Coast League affiliate. His struggles, including a batting average below the Mendoza line, were offset by his first professional homer, four stolen bases and the fact that he was one of the youngest players in the league. But Alford’s GCL stint was limited to five games because he had to report to Southern Miss in midsummer for football practice.
At that point, things went horribly wrong. Alford had landed in a situation in complete disarray. The school had fired the athletic director. The football staff had turned over almost completely. Many freshmen redshirt their first season, but Alford, the Golden Eagles’ youngest player, stood under centre when games began. It turned out to be a historically awful season: 12 games, 12 losses. In nine games, Alford completed just 45 percent of his passes, throwing four interceptions against two touchdowns. Southern Miss fans turned on the former high-school phenom and five-star recruit. “He had no chance to succeed,” Buckley says. “The pressure and booing was so tough on him.”
The losses were the least of Alford’s woes. It was bad when he limped off the field with a foot injury in a loss to Marshall in Southern Miss’s homecoming game, but far worse when his mother, Lawanda Alford, was arrested in the stands and charged with disorderly conduct after arguing with a fan who had been booing her son. Video of the incident landed on social media, and the Alfords became a punchline in derisive stories in USA Today and other major U.S. news outlets. The Hattiesburg American reported that Lawanda had a history of outbursts: “She came out of [the] 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…. After showing her displeasure by screaming at the umpire, she was escorted from the stadium by school officials.” (Lawanda and her husband, Anthony Alford Sr., did not respond to requests for interviews.)
In November, Alford’s unhappy season hit its nadir. A day after Southern Mississippi’s first-year head coach was fired, police levelled charges against Alford and three others involved in a fight on campus. One of those charged—not Alford—was reported to have waved a gun in the air during the incident. No shots were fired, and Alford’s role in the incident was minor—afterwards, he had given a ride home to his brother, Jasper Brown, who was wanted for questioning by law enforcement after the incident.
Nonetheless, Alford was charged with aggravated assault, which would have carried a 20-year maximum sentence with a conviction. While severe, the charge did not require Alford to own or wield the gun—he only needed to be tangentially involved in the gunplay to be booked.
The school immediately suspended Alford and the other students involved. “When I heard about it, I thought it couldn’t be Anthony,” Watkins says. “Anthony being caught up with [a gun], that wasn’t him at all. He was serious, religious, never in trouble. I thought it had to be a case of an innocent kid in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
As it turned out, that was exactly the case. Weeks later, the charges against Alford were dropped down to a misdemeanour and, in a plea agreement, he avoided trial, agreeing to perform 300 hours of community service.
Among those later convicted, however, was Brown, Alford’s brother, who was not a student at the university. A year after the incident, a grand jury handed down charges against him including possession of a weapon on campus; hindering prosecution; receiving stolen property; and possessing a .40-calibre handgun. A few months later, while he was awaiting trial, Brown was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana and trafficking oxycodone. His bail was revoked, and he’s currently serving a five-year prison sentence. (Anthony Alford Sr. was also convicted of selling oxycodone but was given no jail time and is currently on probation.)
Alford now admits the charges against him and his family’s travails gave him a new perspective on life. “I grew up poor,” he says. “There’s a lot I don’t like to talk about. People I knew are doing life in prison. Some are in the streets. Some are dead. I was always sure God had a plan for me. But I had never been [in a position] where it looked like something could get in the way of that plan.”
Though he was reinstated as a student, the atmosphere at Southern Mississippi was toxic. Early in 2013, Alford filed to transfer to the University of Mississippi, better known as Ole Miss, and that summer he again reported to the Jays’ GCL affiliate for a stint in rookie ball—this time for just six games. Even though he was going to have to sit out the season at Ole Miss, he still had to report to the school for the start of summer practices. Further complicating things, Alford’s new coaches wanted to move him from his natural position to safety, where he was going to have to compete with other players for a starting spot. And yet he was still willing to wait to don shoulder pads and helmet to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL.
Flash forward to November of 2014, midway through his sophomore season, when Alford was still being spotted into the Rebels lineup. Alford met with the Ole Miss coaches and told them he was going to leave the team and give up football. The Jays’ patience had been great, but it wasn’t unlimited. They wanted Alford to go to instructional league and then to the Australian league in advance of spring training. He had played only 14 games with the team’s low-A affiliates the previous summer, and his window for development was narrowing—others from the 2012 draft class already had more than 1,000 professional at-bats. What’s more, the Jays had given him financial incentives to give baseball his undivided attention. “It wasn’t just what I wanted to do but what was good for my family,” he says. “My wife, Bailey, is very smart and talented in music. We married two years ago, and she’s taking some time off school. I want to be able to pay for her to go to college, and the same thing for my little sister. I had to think about their futures.”
Though it took three years, the Jays had to be over the moon about Alford’s first full professional baseball season: a .298 batting average, a .398 on-base percentage and 27 stolen bases in 107 games divided between single-A Lansing and high-A Dunedin. The key number: He was still only 20. And what can’t be measured by numbers is the team’s belief that he’s still learning the game.
Alford is taking extra BP at the Jays’ minor-league complex in Dunedin, Fla., hitting a bucket of balls in the unrelenting sun. In counterpoint to other prospects who settle for the expected effort, Alford focuses on each and every cut like it’s a game situation—like it’s his last at-bat and his season is on the line. He says he wants to make the majors “sooner rather than later.” Yes, he knows he’ll remain in Dunedin in high-A in early summer, but he also knows others in recent seasons—Daniel Norris and Dalton Pompey—started there and spent their Septembers with the big club.
There’s no waiting for his eye to develop. He’s already as patient as a 10-year veteran at the plate. Don’t suggest he’ll have to get in 1,000 minor-league at-bats before he’s major-league-ready. Don’t point out that he’s been a full-time pro for only one season. “Others went right to the majors, so why not me?” he says when he heads back to the clubhouse. “I want to get established as a major-leaguer in a few years. I see myself leading off and playing centre field. That’s the take-charge position, like quarterback or safety.”
When asked about who he wants to be off the field, Alford again reaches back to his favourite game. “I always felt that I was thankful for everything, but it’s when it might go all away that you really learn,” he says as he checks his phone for messages from his wife, his parents, his coaches back in Petal, former teammates. “I look at [former Baltimore Ravens linebacker] Ray Lewis. He was in jail, charged with murder. He was innocent, but that experience made him a better man, a God-fearing man, a positive role model. That’s who I want to be, someone who appreciates the opportunities God has given and tries to help his loved ones and others.”
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