As he stood calmly in front of reporters on the second and final day of the Blue Jays’ annual Winter Fest event, Anthony Alford was preparing to answer some of the same old questions. Mostly, he’d probably have to address his offseason progress, his attitude towards the upcoming campaign, and the rather disappointing decline of his prospect stock, all of which seem almost synonymous with him at this point in his career.
He’d been asked these questions before, many, many times, and he’ll undoubtedly be asked them through spring training and well into the 2020 season.
But, before speaking of his own development and progress, he was asked about the evolution of the team’s young core, namely Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio.
“I think they’re talented athletes, but they’re even better kids,” he said with a smile. After thinking for a moment about what he just said, he laughed sheepishly, “I say ‘kids’ like I’m so much older than them.”
In a way, he is significantly older than them, at least in baseball terms. At 25, Alford is shockingly the longest-tenured player in the Blue Jays organization, a fact that he admits he didn’t know until being made aware of it Sunday. The bizarre part of it is that he’s only appeared in 33 MLB games in parts of three seasons.
As strange as it may sound, Alford enters the 2020 season as one of the more experienced position players on the roster. Though Randal Grichuk, Brandon Drury, and new signee Travis Shaw have been around, none have ties to the organization nearly as deep as Alford, who was drafted in 2012. For whatever reason, whether it be due to circumstantial disasters or untimely injuries, he’s never truly been given a legitimate shot at regular playing time at the game’s highest level.
What he lacks in major-league experience, he makes up for in maturity and kindness, as evidenced by his participation in MLB Players Trust’s DREAM Weekend. DREAM is “a series of free youth baseball camps hosted by former and current MLB players to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.” The series was also founded by former Blue Jay Curtis Granderson.
This weekend’s event, which Alford wasn’t able to attend due to his appearances at Winter Fest, was held at his former high school — Petal High School in Petal, Mississippi.
“I’m excited about it, and [we’re] just trying to get more minority kids into the game of baseball,” he said. “It’s really for them to just go out there and be encouraged. It’s a day of just having fun for them.”
As a kid, Alford, who grew up in the small town of Columbia, Mississippi, was a big fan of Derek Jeter, and, by association, idolized his New York Yankee teammate Granderson.
He admits that, where he comes from, the majority of African-American athletes tend to gravitate towards football and basketball. While he notes that there are several notable active African-American major-leaguers from Mississippi — Jarrod Dyson and Billy Hamilton among them — he doesn’t remember many at the forefront of the sport’s landscapes when he was growing up.
“I remember watching José Reyes and I [saw] this black guy with dreads and I said, ‘I wanna be like him’,” Alford joked. “So, I was playing shortstop and I changed my number to number 7, and then I said, ‘you never see an African-American named Reyes, so this guy’s not [African-American].”
Rather bluntly, Alford told reporters that all the African-Americans he saw on television growing up were either football players, basketball players, or hip-hop musicians. Had he and his friends had these opportunities growing up, it might’ve encouraged them to at least explore baseball instead of automatically assuming basketball and football to be more legitimate paths to careers in sports.
“Those are the avenues we take because that’s what we see on the TV screen, we don’t really see African-American baseball players,” he remarked.
Alford is, above all else, aware. He knows he’ll likely face an uphill battle in trying to get consistent at-bats this year, fighting mainly with the likes of Derek Fisher, Billy McKinney, and brother-in-law Jonathan Davis for a shot at being the fourth outfielder. Things haven’t gone as planned for him, at least so far.
But, within all that, he still finds time and energy to humbly support those in the community in which he grew up. He knows he can’t help a young kid instantly become better at baseball — he even quipped, “you know how kids are, you tell them something and then five minutes later they forget it” — but, he knows that being there with them means something. Though they might forget how to properly take lead offs or field a ground ball, they’ll never forget encountering an MLB player in their hometown.
It’s clear to see that, beyond the occasional cliché mentions of a franchise’s culture, Alford exemplifies the type of teammate that is both valuable and revered. In fact, one Blue Jays official described Alford as an “easy guy to root for”, and, after hearing him talk so passionately about his efforts with DREAM, it’s not hard to see why.
And so, while his future remains perhaps as uncertain as ever, his character is as concrete and endearing as when he was first introduced to Blue Jays fans years ago.