Friday, October 17, 2014

Anthony Alford: Anatomy of a Decision

   We've written at length about now former two-sport star Anthony Alford, who shocked many with his decision to leave the highly-ranked Ole Miss football program, in favour of reviving his career as an outfielder with the Blue Jays.  To be honest, after listening to his comments about the move earlier this week and comparing them with what he told reporters in August, we're left with more questions than answers.

   We're not down on Alford at all.  Drafted by the Jays in 2012, he fell to the third round, after a storied high school career on both the gridiron and the diamond, due to his college football commitment.  He was, in the eyes of many, a first round pick in terms of talent.  Even though his pro baseball experience has been limited to a few weeks between football seasons every year, Alford has displayed his premium athleticism, and is easily the top athlete in the Jays organization.  Not to give anything away, but he's gone from being a marginal Top 10 Blue Jays prospect to a minimum of right in the middle of that prospect picture.

   Alford was involved in a campus incident in which a gun was drawn after a largely disappointing freshman season at Southern Mississippi, and he transferred to Ole Miss for the second semester.  He had to sit out his sophomore season due to NCAA transfer rules, and appeared set on picking up his football career where it left off when he turned down a contract extension from the Jays in early July.

   Watching this video from August, though,  it's hard to think that Alford was anything but committed to football (fast forward to the 2:21 mark):


   When someone says. "Football is my first love," and, "even if I made $100 million from baseball, I'd still regret not giving football a shot," it's a bit of a shock to see them give up on that dream about a month later.

   On the excellent YourVanCs podcast, hosts Greg Balloch and Charlie Caskey asked Alford about the sudden change of heart.  Alford said that he "really considered playing baseball full time," but he had "a lot going on at the time (he turned down Anthopolous' July offer)."  Alford admitted that "football just wasn't working out," for him, and that he wanted to give football one last shot after his redshirt year, and that he didn't want to have any regrets about not giving football a try.  He realizes now, though, "that baseball is my future."

  So, why did Alford give up so quickly and so easily on his football dreams ?
It's hard to say, but here's a list of possible factors:

-Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous came back to Alford with a deal that he simply could not turn down.  Was this, maybe, a bit of a negotiating ploy by Alford and his agent ?  Was Ole Miss being used as leverage ?  Maybe not, but there's no doubt that whatever terms AA presented his similarly-monogrammed counterpart were enhanced whenever the next offer was submitted, likely in terms of dollars, and probably with some guarantees about the timeline of his ascension to the 40-man roster.

-Things went south for Alford at Ole Miss in a hurry.  In early August, Head Coach Hugh Freeze said that although his prize recruit was learning a new position in the Rebs' defensive backfield, he wanted the athletic Alford on the field as much as possible.  To that end, he had Alford take snaps at quarterback in practice, and gave him time as a punt returner.  After convincing triumphs over lesser competition in the first two games of the season,  Alford saw less playing time against tougher opponents, and no longer spent time at QB in practices, and was replaced on the punt return team. Disgruntled, Alford perhaps  had his agent contact the Blue Jays to see if they could make a better offer.  With a slew of tough games coming up against SEC opposition, Alford decided the wiser move was to accept the Blue Jays' apparently upgraded terms.

-Because of violations that happened before Freeze's tenure, Ole Miss has come under the scrutiny of the NCAA for a number of possible violations.  If sanctions were imposed, Ole Miss would miss out on any bowl games, and Rebel players would not have a chance to showcase their talents before a national audience.  Admittedly, that may have factored little in Alford's decision, but it likely didn't help. Seeing the writing possibly being on the wall, Alford decided to take the safe money.

-Having turned 20 (and about to get married) when he initially rebuffed the Jays, Alford may have been overwhelmed and made a bad decision.  We have written previously about his difficult upbringing, and that he may not have been surrounded by people who could offer him proper guidance during his formative years.  In the space of just a couple of weeks this summer, he went from the GCL to Bluefield to Lansing, where Anthopolous "made it difficult," for Alford to say no. Far from home, and maybe lacking counsel, Alford acted on impulse, and turned the Jays down.

-Maybe, just maybe baseball was his first love all along.  When you grow up in Mississippi and you are the 2nd ranked senior QB recruit in the nation, the pressure to continue with football must be immense, to say the least.  Despite his relative rawness as a ballplayer, Alford does demonstrate some outstanding skills and instinct for the game, especially on the bases.  We thought Dalton Pompey was fast when he rocketed past us down the first base line at Buffalo in late August, but Alford may be faster.  He told Balloch and Caskey that his goal next summer is to break fellow Mississippian Billy Hamilton's minor league stolen base record.  Perhaps the diamond is where his heart was all along.

  In the end, it may have been a combination of all of the above factors that weighed into his ultimate decision.  It might be fair to ask if he will stick with it if his baseball career doesn't develop as quickly as he would like.  Of course, that door may not be shut, but his window for returning to football has all but closed.
   Then again, maybe Alford was feeling on the fence about football to begin with, and when things didn't work out for him, suddenly the grass was greener on the other side of that fence.  We asked Hugh Kellenberger, who covers Ole Miss football for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, if there were any indications that Alford might be contemplating a switch:

                    Not right before it happened, but you certainly got the impression in training
                    camp (when he talked to us about the Blue Jays) that they were going to make
                    it tough on him  to stay at Ole Miss.  Money talks, and the Blue Jays have it.

   Alford reported to the Jays Florida base in Dunedin to catch the last week of Instructs, and will be heading down under to play for the Canberra Cavalry in the Australian Winter League, which should be a good opportunity for him to get some extra ABs and further refine his skills.  Alford said on the podcast that the caliber of competition there is about High A or AA, but we're a little doubtful about that - no disrespect to Jack Murphy, but if he can dominate that league and be an MVP, that estimate is a little on the high side.
   Next spring, Alford will likely be invited to the big league camp, and should either start at Lansing with a mid-season promotion to Dunedin, or he may start the season with the D-Jays.  Playing every day should rapidly accelerate his development and smooth the rough edges (pitch recognition, especially) in his game.
   Does this saga end here ?  Likely.  We're elated to see this premium athlete make the decision to switch full-time to baseball.  And once the Rogers Centre installs grass on the playing field, his knees will be thankful, too.

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