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Kelly: The sky’s the limit for ‘freakish’ Blue Jays phenom

When he was a freshman in college and believed he was still headed to the National Football League, Anthony Alford took his spring break at the Jays minor-league training facility.

The native of Petal, Miss., had never played a full season of baseball – at any age or level. He was good enough at his off-season hobby that he was still projected as a first-round major-league pick.

He told every team that wanted him that football came first. Some guys go from baseball to football. Very few manage it the other way around.

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Only the Jays agreed to let Alford become a part-time pro. They took him in the third round of the 2012 draft.

When he first showed up in Florida, he was an 18-year-old quarterback with no intention of changing jobs.

This was when Montreal Expo legend and current Jays roving instructor Tim Raines first laid eyes on Alford. He'd heard stories about his freakish athleticism (that's what they called him back in Petal – "the Freak"). His expectations were high.

How'd he look?

"Raw," Raines said Wednesday.

Anything else?

"I thought to myself, 'If this kid doesn't choose baseball over football, it will be an incredible injustice to his talent.'"

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After the Jays spent several seasons emptying out their farm system to build up the big-league team, Alford stands out as the club's current starlet. The 21-year-old outfielder is the only Toronto minor-leaguer included in this year's Baseball America Top 100 Prospects (at no. 25).

The football career didn't work out. Alford switched schools (from Southern Miss to Ole Miss) and positions (to defensive back). By his third college season, he was drifting out of the game.

Now he's working on a backup plan he'd never really considered. He looks like you or I would if dropped into a big-league clubhouse – amazed at the forks in life's road and just a little baffled.

During the first few days of camp, the at-capacity Dunedin dressing-room functions like a high school cafeteria.

The big-league regulars get their pick of lockers, and usually choose a corner (so that they have only one neighbour) or something isolated in the back. They exceed their allotted footprint, filling the surrounding area with dozens of swag-filled boxes – gloves, shoes, vitamin supplements. The minor-leaguers show up with the clothes on their backs.

The veterans are the only ones permitted to be loud. They spend their downtime huddled together gossiping – all the cool kids in one noisy knot. Everyone else is careful not to stare.

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As someone with no seniority, Alford has one of the worst cubbies in the joint – in the pathway between the gym and the back offices. He's constantly scooching his chair forward, so that passersby aren't bumping into him.

Though he should be afforded a little juice based on future-star standing, Alford doesn't use it or seem to care. He says hello to everyone. He offers his hand to strangers – an unusual deference in baseball.

He's a shy man, but when he gets to talking, he likes to talk about football.

"People worship football in Mississippi. You're representing your hometown. Everybody knows you," Alford said. "Playing under the lights on a Friday night? I've played in some big games since, but it wasn't nothing like playing on Fridays."

The population of Petal is 11,000. Average attendance at Alford's high school football games? Ten thousand.

"I miss hitting people, but it's not even that," Alford said. "I miss the locker-room environment, or being on the field [in college] and seeing 100,000 people up there screaming. It's the off-the-field stuff I miss."

Alford played his first full season last year. The Jays expected him to struggle. Instead, he put up a remarkable slash line in low and high-A ball (.298/.398/.421). Consider that he had played a total of 25 baseball games in the previous three years.

He still thinks about football. Or, at least, remembers how he used to think about it. People he didn't know would tell him all the time to switch sports. Alford figured they didn't get it, were "from up north or something." He says he gets it now. Not that it would have changed his mind.

When you talk to people about Alford, they say the same thing – that he's "learning" baseball. He is less experienced than many young teenagers. Much of the nuance escapes him. At the highest level, baseball is almost all nuance.

That part is doable. Alford has more potential than anyone in the Jays' system (or, perhaps, any other system). He's already showing four of his five tools. The power isn't there yet, but it should emerge in time. Physically, the Blue Jay Alford resembles most is Jose Bautista – just noticeably bigger and a lot quicker. Eventually, one might replace the other.

In between, the hard part is doing something counterintuitive – talking yourself into falling in love. Alford crosses his arms across his chest and squeezes hard as he tries to explain it.

"I'm trying to be that kid I was at 13 or 14 – just playing baseball to play it. You ever watch a kid playing baseball? They don't think about the stats or the outcome. They think about having fun. That's how they find success. That's what I'm trying to do."

Few people are more fit to judge what Alford might become than Raines. Both played football first. Both have that easy Southern charisma. Both were unusually blessed in their physicality. Raines turned his gifts into a Hall-of-Fame career (even if Hall-of-Fame voters haven't had the sense to acknowledge that yet.)

Do you see the similarities?

"Skillset? Sure," Raines said. "Size and strength? Not even close. He can do pretty much whatever he wants to on the field. The only thing he's lacking is reps."

What's his ceiling?

Raines leans back theatrically. This is a man whose first language is Body. He makes a great show of considering something momentous.

"Gold glove. Stolen-base title. MVP. The sky really is the limit."

A Tim Raines-level player?

Raines grabs my arm, hard, and bends forward this time – mock affronted. Then he sneaks a look back up, grinning.

"Maybe even higher."

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