The Blue Jays, Anthony Alford and baseball's lost opportunity

By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer
Anthony AlfordMidway through the third round on Tuesday, you heard this: "With the 112th pick of baseball's First-Year Player Draft, the Toronto Blue Jays select outfielder Anthony Alford; Petal High School; Petal, Mississippi."

Alford, although a gifted, toolsy outfielder who's universally regarded as one of the top 40 or 50 talents in the draft, will likely wind up a forgotten choice. Alford, you see, is a football commit to the University of Southern Mississippi, and he's probably going to wind up there.

Largely, that will be because the Blue Jays won't meet his bonus demands. Sure, the Jays can afford him in terms of the balance sheet, but MLB's slotting system, which, per the new collective-bargaining agreement, has real teeth in it for the first time, won't abide it. Maybe if the Jays fail to sign their picks in front of Alford, they'll be able to reach an agreement with him, but that seems unlikely. But this isn't really about Alford. What this is about is MLB's failure to seize the moment.

Baseball and football so often compete for the same prep talents. Sometimes you have a John Elway, who chooses football. Sometimes you have a Joe Mauer, who goes with baseball. And sometimes you have a Bo Jackson or a Deion Sanders, who find the time and physical reserves for both sports. Most often, though, it's an either-or proposition for the amateur talent. Recent events, though, could cause the balance to shift.

Football, you may have heard, is entering what figures to be a long period of upheaval, and that upheaval will almost certainly lead to sweeping change or the demise of the sport as a major entity. Because of the unfolding head-trauma epidemic -- whether the single, transformative blow or the countless sub-concussive impacts endured by players -- more and more parents are forbidding their sons to play. As a consequence, football is at its most vulnerable at the lower levels. Therein lies the opportunity for organized baseball.

While baseball can appeal to the young athlete's sense of self-preservation (however muted such instincts tend to be within teenagers) by pointing to the fact that a life in baseball is orders of magnitude less harmful and diminishing than a life in football, cash is what really matters. Now, though, MLB, by punishing those teams who exceed slot money, is limiting the ability of its teams to compete not only with one another but also with organized football.

In the case of the Blue Jays and their selection of Alford, it's almost certain they won't be able to buy him out of his football commitment. It's possible, of course, that he's a Drew Henson-style, two-sport "flop in waiting," but it's also possible there's a future All-Star within. We'll likely never know.

The larger issue is that baseball, given football's fraught state, has a chance to reestablish a cultural foothold at the lower levels. In some cases, growing fears over football's dangers will be enough, but in other cases it's a business decision. So never mind that baseball's parity "problems," which the hard-slotting system is designed to address, have always been an illusion. Forget that the new system really hurts baseball's underclass teams. Then ignore that healthy competition among teams for young players is a good thing. Focus, instead, on that business element.

MLB was rapidly catching up to the NFL in total revenues even before the concussion narrative reached full pitch. (Leave the facile TV-ratings comparisons to those who traffic in apples and oranges.) This is an opportunity for baseball to attack football at its most exposed point -- the competition for future talent. But baseball's shortsighted draft rules -- advanced by a commissioner who sees labor costs as expense rather than investment and a players' association eager to bargain with the rights of those it does not represent -- make that more difficult. This is a potential "foot on throat" moment for baseball insofar as the weakening game of football is concerned. But baseball is getting in its own way. Regardless of whether you think amateurs "deserve" lofty signing bonuses, there is a loosely defined market for contested, two-sport talent, and MLB teams are now hamstrung when they'd otherwise be poised to take over that market.

So, yes, this is about more than merely the Blue Jays and the 112th-overall selection of the 2012 baseball draft, a future quarterback named Anthony Alford ...


(Image courtesy of PerfectGame.org)


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