SPORTS

Blue Jays prospects head Down Under to hone their skills in winter ball

03/05/2015 07:00 EST | Updated 05/05/2015 05:59 EDT
DUNEDIN, Fla. - A former collegiate football player, Anthony Alford is new to pro baseball. But the Blue Jays prospect has already taken his bat and glove Down Under.

Toronto minor leaguer Jack Murphy, meanwhile, is somewhat of a baseball celebrity in Australia.

While both are currently in spring training with the Jays, Alford and Murphy have used the Australian Baseball League to hone their skills playing winter ball for the Canberra Cavalry.

"A great experience," said Alford, a soft-spoken outfielder who spent three months playing in Australia over the winter.

The Jays have sent prospects to Canberra the last four years with the 26-year-old Murphy enjoying three stints in Australia.

"I love the league there," he said.

"You learn how to play to win," he added. "And it gives the chance for some of the Blue Jays minor league guys to come down and develop and work on their skills so when they get back here, they're better off and farther down the road."

The 20-year-old Alford played quarterback at the University of Southern Mississippi before transferring to University of Mississippi to play safety. A third-round Jays pick in 2012, he told the team last fall that he was going to focus on baseball.

The timing was perfect for the Australian league.

"I was excited about it," said Alford. "I left football in the middle of the season, I didn't want to just sit around in the house and do nothing. I'd rather be playing somewhere, training."

Fellow Toronto prospects L.B. Dantzler and Christian Lopes also suited up for the Cavalry.

Lopes ranked second in the league in batting average at .371 last season. Murphy was third at .353.

Canberra is joined in the six-team league by the Adelaide Bite, Brisbane Bandits, Melbourne Aces, Perth Heat and Sydney Blue Sox.

"It's a bit in its infancy, I would say, but I've seen it grow substantially over the last three years that I was there," said Murphy, a catcher and Princeton graduate.

The teams play a 48-game schedule that runs late October through early February.

Murphy estimates the league is split 50-50 between Australians and imports from Canada, the U.S. and Latin America.

He says it's close to Class-AA ball, with a wide spread of talent.

"They've got a lefty down in that league who might not throw over 83 (miles per hour) but is in the league leaders for ERA (earned-run average) every year because he just knows how to pitch. He pitched up to Triple-AAA in the U.S. but hasn't been over there for five to six years. That doesn't mean he can't pitch any more. That's kind of the way the league is."

He says it's like a college baseball environment, with a Canberra full house at around 2,500.

"I've played in front of 20,000 and you're just as amped up in front of their 2,500 as you would be in front of 20,000 because they're right on top of you there. And they don't stop serving beer after the seventh inning like we do in the States, so those last couple of innings things are getting pretty rambunctious out in the crowd."

No stranger to minor-league bus rides, Murphy appreciates that his Australian team flies everywhere with the exception of Sydney, which is a 3 1/2-hour bus ride away.

Murphy was named the Calvary's MVP in January. He also picked up the club's Player's Player and Silver Slugger awards. At six foot four with a hard-to-miss moustache, the charismatic Murphy has a little of the young Tom Selleck in him.

An MLB.com profile in December 2013 was headlined "Blue Jays prospect Murphy a cult hero Down Under."

He believes each level of baseball has its lessons.

In a rookie league, it might be learning to hit the fastball. In some of the upper levels, you have to adjust to throwers who can mix their pitches.

Australia, he says, offers a mix of pitchers to have to adapt to, as well as a foreign environment.

"Each league serves its own purpose as far as development," said Murphy. "I can say I've definitely gotten a hell of a lot better playing in that league. Each year, I come back and I'm a better player."

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