CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Football players taking hacks in exhibition games has been a bit of a novelty around the Grapefruit League this spring. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson made his Yankees debut in Tampa earlier this week. Former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow has been toiling on the back fields
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Football players taking hacks in exhibition games has been a bit of a novelty around the Grapefruit League this spring. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson made his Yankees debut in Tampa earlier this week. Former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow has been toiling on the back fields of Mets camp in Port St. Lucie.
Blue Jays outfielder Anthony Alford knows what they are going through. Alford was a college football star before turning his attention fully to baseball, first as a quarterback with the University of Southern Mississippi and then transferring his junior year to play cornerback for the University of Mississippi. Alford has some advice for the pro quarterbacks as they transition to the diamond.
"Just being able to carry that natural ability, that natural athleticism onto the baseball field, just having that football mindset that you want to win every at-bat, make every play in the outfield," Alford said. "That's the biggest thing that helped me coming from a football field to the baseball field."
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Alford said playing in the secondary on a football field gave him a lot of the tools that help him succeed on a baseball field, particularly when it comes to playing defense.
"I was able to go backward, flip my hips and run people down, and that is something that has helped me out in the outfield," he said.
Since being drafted by the Blue Jays in the third round of the 2012 Draft, Alford has built on his raw athleticism to become the organization's No. 3 overall prospect according to MLB Pipeline. Last season, Alford advanced from Class A Advanced Dunedin all the way to the big leagues, hitting a combined .299 with 20 extra-base hits and 19 stolen bases in 77 games across three Minor League stops.
Despite an 0-for-2 day Sunday in a game against the Phillies, Alford has carried that success into the spring, where he is batting .313 (5-for-16) with a home run, a stolen base and four RBIs. Thanks to a crowded outfield situation in 2018, the 23-year-old Alford is likely to start the season at Triple-A Buffalo.
"An athletic football player that is playing baseball. I think that is what a lot of people thought of me as," Alford said. "Now I can say I'm truly a baseball player."
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons has seen the transformation from pure athlete to genuine prospect firsthand.
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"Probably the biggest turnaround I've ever seen as long as I've been in the game," Gibbons said. "From two or three years ago in Spring Training when I've seen him until now, he was a raw kid with tremendous athletic ability. Now, he's really turned into a baseball player. He's got a great swing. He's still figuring some things out, but the sky's the limit."
Alford said he would love seeing football players like Wilson and Tebow succeed and is rooting for them this spring, especially Tebow, with whom he played in the Arizona Fall League.
"[Tebow is] one of the best athletes in the world," Alford said. "One thing I think is going to be helpful for him is he is a true competitor, and I think that's what you've got to be in the game of baseball. He's athletic, and he's a competitor."
Tebow, who spent part of the offseason as a television analyst for SEC football games, picked up his first hit of the spring on Friday -- a single off Washington's Erick Fedde. Alford understands that switching mindsets between sports can be one of the biggest obstacles to overcome. Wilson struck out on four pitches in his debut against the Braves.
"I know how it is when you step away from the game of baseball," Alford said. "It's not easy to pick up a ball and a bat and start off where you left off."
"It's hard to do for those guys that are football guys. If you're from the south, they want you playing football," Gibbons said. "Kind of like hockey up north."
J. Scott Butherus is a contributor to MLB.com based in St. Petersburg.