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Anthony Alford focused, at peace after 'emotional roller coaster' with Blue Jays

Good luck getting Anthony Alford to pick up the phone.

The Buffalo Bisons outfielder and heralded Toronto Blue Jays prospect has set his cell to “do not disturb.” He quit checking Twitter. He stopped following the major league team’s transactions.

“Because, for me,” he said, “that could be a distraction.”

Alford is trying to focus these days after unfulfilled expectations and yo-yoing between the majors and minors left him flailing throughout a disastrous first month of the season.

The 24-year-old, who left the Ole Miss football team to dedicate himself to baseball in 2014, was ecstatic to make the Blue Jays’ opening day roster this season for the first time in his career. He shared his excitement with the world on social media that morning in Toronto. But before the first pitch, he was crushed to learn he was being sent back to minor league spring training.

“There wasn’t a 100 percent chance that I was going to be activated for opening day,” Alford said earlier this month in the Bisons’ clubhouse. “But there was a misunderstanding, because I was under the impression that I would be.”

After a couple of days in Florida, he reported to Buffalo, and after one night in Western New York, he was called back to the majors. Alford appeared in one game with the Blue Jays, going 0-for-3 at the plate in a 2-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles on April 2. He spent the next game on the bench and was demoted once more to Triple A.

“So it was just an emotional roller coaster,” Alford said.

Back in Buffalo, his season began to crater.

Alford batted a woeful .127 (9 for 71) in April, mustering one double, one triple, two homers and eight RBIs in 21 games. He struck out 32 times and walked six, always keeping an eye on Toronto’s transactions.

The Blue Jays have used 12 different players in the outfield this season, including Alford, who described his struggles as “more mental than anything.”

“I’m just really just getting back to focusing,” Alford said, “and just going out there and trying to help the team and have more obtainable goals every day, as opposed to just going out there and saying, ‘I’m trying to get three or four hits.’ You know? So I’m just trying to go out there and I’m trying to have competitive at-bats and help the team win.”

Alford hit .276 (27 for 98) in March, with seven doubles, a triple, two homers and 15 RBIs in 21 games. His strikeouts were down (26). His walks were up (10).

And most importantly, he knows why.

Alford said fixating on his ultimate goal of playing in the majors made it easier to overlook some the smaller steps he could take on a daily basis to help him get where he wanted to be.

But that mindset was difficult to embrace.

“Especially during that first month,” Alford said, “seeing a bunch of different transactions. And trying to keep up with what’s going on at the major league level, you kind of lose sight of what you’re supposed to be doing here. Because no matter where you’re at, whether it’s Buffalo or Toronto, you’re still obligated to do a job. And there’s 20-some guys in the locker room who are relying on you to do your job every day, no matter what locker room you’re in.

“As long as you have a jersey, you’re obligated to do that job.”

Through Monday, Alford had raised his season batting average to .237. He has 12 doubles, two triples, four home runs, 24 RBIs and leads the Bisons with 11 stolen bases.

Buffalo manager Bobby Meacham said Alford’s improved focus has been the catalyst for his resurgence and continued growth.

“When you’re distracted by, ‘Man I want to get up there and play in the big leagues,’ or you’re distracted by, ‘Man, I can’t believe I’m only hitting .180,’ or you’re distracted by ‘They’re really only going with two full-time outfielders up there,’ you get distracted from things that can help you get better,” Meacham said. “Those thoughts about that aren’t going to help him get better and become a better player, and I think he’s been able to push those aside.

“He’s obviously focused on becoming the best he can be in every area. I’ve seen him improve in the outfield. I’ve seen him improve at the plate. All that hard work is paying off and it’s really fun to watch.”

The 6-foot-1-inch, 215-pound Alford, named both Mr. Football and Mr. Baseball in Mississippi as a senior in high school, was destined for the majors once he gave up the gridiron two years after the Blue Jays drafted him in the third round in 2012.

Alford likely would have been drafted higher, but teams were reportedly concerned about their ability to sign him. Football was his first love.

Alford played quarterback in nine games as a freshman at Southern Mississippi. But the team went winless. The coaching staff, which included his former high school coach, was fired. And Alford was suspended and barred from campus after an arrest for an on-campus altercation between several students, one of whom reportedly brandished a gun.

The charges were reduced, and Alford transferred to Ole Miss and sat out the 2013 season. He was married in the summer of 2014 and appeared in four games as a backup safety with the Rebels before deciding his future, financially, was in baseball.

He said he occasionally misses football.

“Sometimes I miss things about it, like the atmosphere, the adrenaline rush, things like that,” Alford said. “But as far as like waking up with headaches and being sore, your body banged up the next day, I don’t miss that.

“People can talk about how tough football is, but there’s no pain like getting hit with (a 97 mph pitch) in the ribs or 97 in the leg. That hurts way worse than getting hit on the football field.”

Alford made his major league debut against the Orioles on May 19, 2017. He went 1 for 8 with a double and three strikeouts in four games.

Last season, he returned to Toronto, batting .105 (2 for 19) with three runs, a steal, an RBI and nine strikeouts in 13 games.

He spent the bulk of the season – 105 games – with the Bisons, when he hit .240 with 22 doubles, a triple, five home runs and 34 RBIs in 375 at-bats. He had 112 strikeouts and 30 walks, 52 runs and 17 stolen bases.

This season, after making the opening day roster, Alford thought his nascent major league career was taking off, only to be sent back to Florida, report to Buffalo and get called up again, appearing in just one game before another demotion.

“I can sit there and be frustrated and be (upset) about it, but I can’t control that,” Alford said. “But what I can control is what I’m doing here. I didn’t do a very good job of that the first month. So I really just had to take a step back, and it was like a reality check for me, like, ‘Don’t (waste) your season away because you’re salty about what happened.’ But it was tough. I’ve never really experienced anything like that. But it’s part of the game. It’s part of the business.”

For now, he’s locked in.

His social media presence went dark.

His phone remains silent. It’s just a distraction.

“The only thing is, is I don’t want to have it on ‘do not disturb’ late one night and Meach tries to call me saying, ‘I’m going up’ and then he can’t get ahold of me on the phone,” Alford said. “That’s the only thing that’ll suck. But other than that … ”

Alford shrugged.

“I’m at peace right now,” he said. “I feel like I’m progressing in the right direction.”

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