DUNEDIN, Fla. – The recent drama over the decision by Oakland Athletics first-round pick Kyler Murray to declare for the NFL draft felt familiar to Anthony Alford, who faced a similar choice between sports back in 2014.
Though the stakes weren’t quite as high for the Toronto Blue Jays outfield prospect when he decided to leave Ole Miss and focus on baseball – he wasn’t a Heisman Trophy winner expected to be a first-round pick like the Oklahoma quarterback – the inner conflict and turmoil he experienced were quite the same.
"I knew what he was feeling, I knew the situation he was in," said Alford. "It’s an interesting situation, it’s fun to be in that situation, and it definitely brought back some memories. At the same time, I know the challenges he’s facing, too."
Alford would likely have been a first-round pick in the 2012 baseball draft if not for his plans to play quarterback at Southern Mississippi, but the Blue Jays selected him in the third round anyway, paid him $750,000 and let him play both sports as he decided on a career path.
He was 57-of-127 passing for 664 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions in nine games, five of them starts, during his freshman year, and after sitting out a season transferring to Ole Miss, appeared in three games as a backup safety and punt returner in 2014 before leaving for pro ball.
Surrendering the allure of a direct path to the NFL wasn’t easy, but by then Alford realized the best opportunity he had was in baseball, and understood that was the best way to provide for his family.
"That’s one of the reasons I was pushing for football early on, coming out of high school – it’s instant gratification," said Alford. "Nobody wants to go through the minor-leagues for years, you know? Nobody wants to go to the GCL, nobody wants to go to extended (spring training) but a lot of people would love to play in the big-leagues. I love both sports. I was more passionate about football at the time, and say you get that call, you’re already there, even if it’s in the late rounds, you’re still in the NFL. It’s not like there’s a minor-league system you have to go through."
During brief baseball cameos while he was playing football in 2012 and ‘13, Alford collected only 50 plate appearances and once he left Ole Miss, he got 14 games in with rookie ball Bluefield and low-A Lansing before he headed to Australia for 37 games.
The transition on the field was jarring, as was the change off of it.
"I miss the things that come with football more than actually playing," said Alford. "The adrenaline before the game, hanging in the locker-room environment, it’s just a different kind of atmosphere. Baseball is way more laid back. Football is not so laid back. What I don’t miss is there are a lot of big egos in the locker-room. It’s not a humbling sport like baseball, and I like that everybody is way more humble because the game humbles you."
Now with 516 games and 1,861 plate appearances under his belt, Alford fully feels like a baseball player, a product of the struggles he’s had to overcome trying to make up for lost time on the diamond.
In football, he carried himself differently, with a different mentality.
"When I was in the locker-room I kind of had a big ego myself," said Alford. "In football, you know if you’re a guy, you know if you go out there you’re going to succeed. In baseball, you can’t be too results-oriented. You can do everything right and not get the results you want."
That’s a lesson he relearned during a difficult 2018, when a hamstring injury late in camp derailed a strong spring and left him chasing his season. The 24-year-old made his big-league debut in 2017 and was intent on building upon it, but instead grinded through a difficult campaign that left him disappointed.
At camp this spring, he looks to be on the outside looking in at a crowded outfield that includes incumbents Kevin Pillar and Randal Grichuk, along with the combination of Teoscar Hernandez and Billy McKinney tentatively set for left.
"Early in the season, I put so much pressure on myself," said Alford. "I had that setback and I felt like was behind mentally. I was telling myself, oh, I have to get this done, I feel behind, I wanted to go out there and compete. I don’t want say I rushed myself back, because I was ready to go, but mentally I felt like I was playing catch-up. I put pressure on myself, and then I started chasing hits, I started being results-oriented, which usually I’m not, unnecessary pressure on myself to try and get back to the big-leagues.
"I settled in in the second half, started swinging the bat better after the all-star break. It was a process and I learned a lot, just living in the now, trusting in the process."
One that’s served him well since leaving football behind.