BALTIMORE -- What seemed like a pipe dream five years ago, became a reality on Friday night when Blue Jays outfielder Anthony Alford was called up to make his big league debut in a 10-inning, 5-3 loss to the Orioles.
Alford is Toronto's No. 3 overall prospect and the No. 62 prospect in baseball according to MLBPipeline.com but there was a time when the Blue Jays weren't sure whether he'd stick with the sport. His stock in the 2012 Draft dropped because of a commitment to play college football, but the Blue Jays selected him anyway, in the third round, with the hope he would eventually change his mind.
It paid off. The 22-year-old dedicated himself to baseball full-time in the fall of 2014 and has been climbing the prospect rankings ever since. His first stint in the Majors is not expected to last long, with center fielder Kevin Pillar eligible to return from his two-game suspension on Saturday, but the promotion, and his recent success, validate the decision Alford made to put football behind him.
Alford struck out during his first at-bat, and hit a hard liner to left in his second at-bat. It didn't drop for a hit, and Alford finished the extra-inning loss 0-for-2, but the entire day was something he said he will never forget.
"It was still an unbelievable experience," Alford said. "Just to come out and play in this environment, and be out here competing with these guys, and try to help the team get a win. It was still an awesome experience. Unfortunately, we came up short, but it's a day that I'll always remember."
Prior to 2015, baseball was a part-time hobby more than anything. He spent a limited amount of time in the Blue Jays' system each summer, then left for NCAA football training camp. After he maxed out at 50 Minor League games in 2014, Alford had a change of heart that fall, and decided his best opportunity to succeed would be with baseball.
The initial results were very positive, as he excelled at Class A Lansing and Class A Advanced Dunedin in 2015 with a combined slash line of .298/.398/.421. The next year brought with it a pair of injuries that derailed his season and led to some disappointing results at the plate.
The turning point came later that year, when he took part in the Arizona Fall League. It was there that Alford began to figure some things out at the plate, which carried over into this season at Double-A New Hampshire. Alford earned the promotion to Toronto after hitting .325 with 10 extra-base hits, 11 RBIs and a .411 on-base percentage in 33 games.
"Everybody's goal is to get to the big leagues, but very few guys do," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "A lot of guys spend a lot of time with hard work and they never get that opportunity. When you happen to be a manager or coach on a team and it's the first time for a guy, that's pretty special. I'm sure he has a lot going through his mind, but I think he'll do great."
Alford's promotion brings his tumultuous year full-circle. His family lost their home to a devastating fire during the offseason, after which the Blue Jays and Minor League baseball communities joined forces to raise funds to help his family through its troubled time.
Heirlooms and photographs were lost for good, but Alford said his family is doing much better. His sister, who fled the house in the middle of the night, was in attendance for his big day on Friday at Camden Yards, even though the news came on short notice.
"I found out late last night when I got off the bus," Alford said. "My manager pulled me to the side and pretty much told me I was coming up. I thought he was talking about me going to Triple-A and I was like, 'OK, I'm going to Buffalo.' He said, 'No, you're going to meet the team in Baltimore. You're going to Toronto.' It was really exciting for me, and I still feel like I'm dreaming, but I'm just trying to take it and enjoy the moment."
Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.