How Strange-Gordon became a mentor for Alford

March 17th, 2022

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Demotions aren’t desired. They signify, generally, a lack of performance. They can be demoralizing. When found himself back in the Minor Leagues, he was looking for answers. In that search, he found a mentor in .

“It was a blessing to be able to play with him and learn from him,” Alford said. “Not just about hitting and defense, but the mindset of trying to accomplish what he’s accomplished in the game.”

Alford was in a great spot last April. He was named the Pirates’ Opening Day center fielder, and for someone who seldom had consistent playing time, the milestone was, at that point, his peak. Out of the gate, Alford struggled. He struck out at least once in each of his first eight games. He didn’t get a hit until his 24th plate appearance. On April 21, Alford was designated for assignment. How quickly circumstances changed.

No team picked him up. He cleared waivers and went to Triple-A Indianapolis. The demotion, in short, was tough. It was in Indianapolis, though, where Alford and Strange-Gordon crossed paths.

When Strange-Gordon signed a Minor League contract with the Pirates, he already had a résumé most ballplayers dream of possessing: two-time All-Star, one Gold Glove, one Silver Slugger and a batting title. He had a wealth of knowledge. In Alford, he found a protégé.

“It makes or breaks some people,” Strange-Gordon told “Everybody who has been pretty good in this game had somebody mentor them, and a lot of guys missed their opportunity in the game because they don’t take on that mentorship.”

Strange-Gordon spent only 16 games with Indianapolis, but he and Alford quickly formed a bond. They talked ball. They talked life. With Strange-Gordon, Alford had the opportunity to learn. Strange-Gordon taught Alford to shut down his mind after games, to remain present during them. Alford recalls how Strange-Gordon, for all that he has done, still played with an insatiable hunger.

"I'm just trying to make sure everybody gets a piece of the pie," Strange-Gordon said. "We all play baseball to make money for our family. I wanted him to be as good as he can be, and be able to do that for his family."

As teammates, their most memorable adventure was a 12-hour car ride, along with Strange-Gordon's cousin, Mykel Gordon, from Indianapolis to Minneapolis for a series against St. Paul. The trip featured plenty of music and live performances. Strange-Gordon introduced Alford to rappers Kodak Black and Money Man. But Alford and Strange-Gordon also talked about their pasts, how they grew up and what they had in common. As they cruised, the two connected on a level deeper than baseball.

“When he opened up to me, it made me more comfortable to open up to him about some stuff,” Alford said. "[We had] two totally different backgrounds [and had] so much in common.”

Alford and Strange-Gordon's time as teammates ended shortly after. Strange-Gordon was released on Aug. 1, while Alford returned to the Pirates on Aug. 7. Based on Alford’s performance after rejoining Pittsburgh, the outfielder may have internalized some of those lessons.

In Alford’s first game back, he recorded three hits. It was a sign of things to come. To finish the year, Alford hit five home runs with a 114 wRC+ across 38 games. On Sept. 3, Alford had his first multi-homer game. Along with the bat, Alford provided great defense at the corners. Alford, finally, found consistent success.

"Watching him play well, and then watching him go to the Major Leagues and play well, it was pretty exciting," Strange-Gordon said.

Alford and Strange-Gordon's time as teammates is over, but their relationship outside the lines only matured from there. This offseason, Strange-Gordon invited Alford and his family to Orlando, Fla., where they participated in Jemile Weeks' kickball tournament that featured Rickie Weeks Jr. and CC Sabathia, among others. The two still communicate, and with Strange-Gordon being a non-roster invite with the Nationals, they may have an opportunity to link up and reminisce.

For now, Alford is down in Bradenton, trying not just to start on Opening Day, but to keep that spot for good this time around. Nothing, of course, is guaranteed for Alford. Manager Derek Shelton said that there will be position battles at the corner outfield spots. But after finishing the season like Alford did, he is one of the favorites.

Maybe he builds upon his late-season success. Maybe this season is his best to date, one that earns him some staying power. And maybe he, just like Strange-Gordon, can kick the game to the next generation.