Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Reconsidering Alford

  In our day job, we spend a lot of time trying to understand, predict, and deal with the behaviour of young people.  And while behaviour is a product of a complex and variable set of physiological, psychological, and environmental factors, it can usually, to some extent, be rationalized.  With that as a backdrop, we would like to take another look at two-sport star Anthony Alford, who is currently toiling in the lowest levels of the Blue Jays system as a promising but raw outfielder.
   Alford, a product of small town (pop 10 000) Petal, Mississippi, was drafted by the Jays in the 3rd round of the 2012 MLB draft.  Alford led Petal HS to a pair of state baseball championships, but given his stated desire to play Quarterback for Southern Mississippi, and most scouts' aversion to the state, where football is king, and the level of baseball competition uneven, to say the least, most teams had accordingly ranked him far down their lists.  The Blue Jays, with their gambling approach to the 2012 draft, took Alford in the 3rd round, and gave him a $750 000 bonus, and their blessing to chase his football dream in between baseball seasons.
   Alford was one of the most sought-after high school football recruits in the country.  He was rated a 4-star prospect by and, and was the state Gatorade Player of the Year as both a junior and a senior. He led his team to the state 6A title in his senior year.
   His  2012 football season with Southern Miss, as has been well documented, was nothing short of a total disaster.  Alford was one of 4 quarterbacks who stumbled their way through the season for the Golden Eagles, scuffling along to an 0-12 record which cost coach Elliot Johnson his job. The Golden Eagles offense, according to the Hattiesburg American, was a mess.  Alford's high school coach, Steve Buckley (whose hiring,  the American suggests, was a major reason for Alford's signing), was thrown into the offensive coordinator position when coach Rickey Bustle had to step down because of health reasons.  Buckely, according to USA Today, "has not been up to the task."
   In October, Alford's mother Lawanda was arrested by Hattiesburg police  after getting into a verbal altercation with a pair of fans who were berating her son's play during a 59-24 loss to Marshall. While we all can appreciate a parent's wounded pride, this was not the first time his mom had been involved in such an incident.  The American reported:

   "This past spring, she came out of 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 against Harrison Central. After showing her displeasure by screaming at the umpire, she was escorted from the stadium by school officials."

   Things only continued to get worse from there.  On the evening of November 28th, with the football season finally put out of its misery, Alford was charged with aggravated assault after a campus incident. Teammate Korey Hathorn was charged along with Alford.  The charges were eventually reduced to conspiracy to possess a firearm on campus and hindering prosecution.  Two other students, who were presumably in conflict with Alford, were later arrested on unknown charges.
   The Southern Miss student newspaper, The Student Printz, reported that an incident developed as a late-night fight between Alford/Hathorn and two other students.  According to University Police Chief Bob Hopkins,

  “As calls continued to come in, it developed into an issue where an individual apparently drew a weapon and made some threats,” Hopkins said. “It [the altercation] seems to be a  simmering problem that’s been going on for a few weeks.” 

   The pair of football players were suspended.  Alford, apparently, didn't wait around for the outcome of the school's investigation, and left campus.  He was released from his scholarship in December.  According to the American's Stan Caldwell, Alford was actively shopping around his services and was looking to transfer out of Southern Miss before the incident. In the New Year, Alford signed on with Ole Miss, and attended spring practice as a defensive back.
   So, if we want to look at environment, even based on a few newspaper accounts, it's likely that his upbringing may not have been the most balanced.   Mom, we think it's safe to say, may have been one of "those" parents - for us mapleheaded pucksters, the kind that yells at pretty much everyone in the rink - refs/players/other spectators. They mean well, but their emotions get the best of them, and they get wrapped up in the events of their kid's game. They let their emotions get the best of them. A bad call here, or a bad break there, and they lose it.  And they lack the resiliency to get over such  disappointments.  Luckily, our parents were not like that, because it's hard to imagine growing up with that kind of pressure, and that kind of burden - your poorly behaving parent.
   For an athlete like Alford, who had experienced nothing but success on both the ball diamond and the gridiron, the 0-12 season must have been a major humiliation, and again, there's not a lot in his background to suggest that he was equipped emotionally to deal with it. All athletes must learn to deal with adversity at some point. He may not have had the support he needed to put the disastrous season into perspective.
   Our fellow blogger Charlie Caskey, who writes a great blog about the short season Vancouver Canadians, the Jays' Northwest League affiliate, interviewed C's catcher Matt Hill, who was Alford's roommate for a few weeks at extended spring training this year (because of spring practice with Ole Miss, Alford didn't arrive until late May).  Paraphrasing Hill, Caskey writes about the November incident:

  Regarding the arrest. I don’t think I’ll find out exactly what happened unless given the opportunity to speak to Anthony himself, but by the sounds of it, he felt unsafe on campus. For lack of a better word, he was bullied, having received a 750k bonus from baseball, drove a nice car, etc. Is it an excuse? I’m going to reserve judgement until I know more.

   It's easy to see how an 18 year-old from a very small town deep in the American south felt unsafe on a university campus in a bigger city.  Given the poverty of Mississippi (the per capita income of Petal is 18% below the national average), and the difference in crime rates between Petal and Hattiesburg, Alford may have been unable to handle the responsibility that would come with having such a huge amount of cash thrust upon him, and  became very mistrustful of most people around him.  And it's easy to for us Canadians to forget that there is something of a climate of fear in the U.S. that seems to grow as you move further south.  One could suggest, of course, that maybe putting that $750 large in the bank would've been a better idea, and maybe spending some of it on, say, an Escalade, might invite the sort of bullying Alford was supposedly subjected to, but our bet is that he didn't have many (if any) people around him recommending that sort of thing.
   The Jays, for their part, have been very patient with Alford, allowing him to leave in early August last year and this in order to get ready for football season.  He is starting the season with the GCL Jays, where he had a brief trial last year, and may be accelerated to either Bluefield or Vancouver, depending on his progress.
   Chris King of Baseball Prospectus watched Alford in a GCL game this week and came away impressed:

   Sportsnet's Shi Davidi offers the following insight:

‘There’s a school of thought that the environment in Vancouver plus the day-to-day life of professional ball combined with the reality that Alford must miss a year of football because of his transfer (he also will be switching to cornerback from quarterback) may convince him to focus exclusively on baseball.’

   None of this is meant to excuse Alford's behaviour last fall.  It is meant to remind us, however, that he is very young, and may not have come from an upbringing that left him best prepared to deal with the circumstances he found himself in last fall.  The Jays, for their part, seem to be catching on to the need to surround Alford with positive role models.  Hence his rooming with Hill, who is a college grad - Alford acknowledged that he learned a great deal from Hill in his short time with him.  Keeping him in the GCL, which is the lowest level of baseball's minor leagues, where there are sparse (if any) crowds for their Florida afternoon games, is also sheltering him a bit.  Alford had told Jason Munz of the American that he figured he was bound for Vancouver after extended spring training (which would be two levels above the GCL). Given his stalled professional development, however, keeping him in the GCL is perhaps the best idea, at least until he has shown that he has outgrown that level.
   The thing to remember, of course, is that small-town boy Alford just turned 19 years old, and was handed a great deal of the spotlight and money before he was really ready to handle it, and didn't have anyone around him giving him the right kind of advice and support.  On various Jays forums last fall, many posters complained about Alford's lack of character.  And that's really not fair, because it's a judgement not necessarily made with all the facts. 
   In some earlier posts, even though Alford has all-world athletic ability, and has been labelled the best athlete in the Jays system, we've been hesitant to rank him as a top prospect because of his football commitment.  It's cost him some precious development.  At the same time, his development as a young man in more important.  Hopefully, the Jays are considering that as much as they are his ability to hit breaking balls.
   Again, this is not an apology for Alford's actions.  It's an attempt to understand it.

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