Leighton Alley joined the Bananas 2020 campaign two weeks into the season. He was reunited with his Tallahassee Community College pitching coach Corey Pye, as well as one of his best friends and fellow TCC reliever, Nolan Daniel. Their final junior college season had been cut short due to the COVID-19 virus but now they had one more month to play together. As soon as I saw Leighton out in right field manning a bucket in his first Bananas batting practice, I ran out to chat with him. It turned out I had heard his story before without even knowing it. Corey Pye had told me about Leighton’s journey a few weeks prior, without mentioning his name or knowing that he would be joining the Bananas in the near future. Pye had told me the story purely because of how miraculous it is.
Leighton’s father, Scott Alley, was an All-American pitcher for Columbus State and he always saw a future for Leighton in baseball too. When Leighton was seven, Scott signed him up for football as well to make baseball easier for him. Leighton was dominant in both sports growing up, but up until the summer after his sophomore year at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra, Florida, baseball still looked like his future. That summer Leighton attended a football camp run by Florida State University. At the end of the last day of the camp, Scott had double parked and was trying to rush his son out to avoid any trouble on the street when an assistant coach called Leighton back saying coach Fisher wanted to talk to him. Of course, that would be Jimbo Fisher, the FSU head coach who had just won a National Championship a couple years earlier and had taken the ACC crown three years in a row.
“He (Jimbo) goes, ‘Leighton you’ve got a real shot, I’m real close to pulling the trigger on you right now,’” Scott said. “And of course, that changed everything.”
Leighton started getting offers from football powerhouses.
“He had a few big-time schools that kept saying, ‘Hey you’re in our top five or you’re in our top three.’ But one thing you learn when a school tells you that, is you’re number five or you’re number three, it doesn’t mean you’re number one or number two,” Scott said, chuckling.
“Baseball kind of became a hobby,” Leighton said. “I just played it in the spring to stay active and football was what I was pursuing as a future now.”
Although it had become “a hobby”, Leighton was still as dominant on the diamond as he was on the gridiron.
“His junior year he had a fantastic baseball season,” Scott said, clearly smiling through the phone. “He set every freaking record at his high school. They also won the district in football, he threw for over 3,500 yards, and it was on from there.”
Leighton had not committed to a college going into his senior year, and in the first half of the first game of the season, an offensive line that consisted of nobody bigger than the QB they were supposed to protect, failed to do just that.
“Leighton got tackled in the middle of a throw and two guys go down on top of him and his arm is up and pinned back behind him and we knew he was hurt,” Scott said.
Leighton played the rest of the game but afterwards he told his dad his arm was really hurt. A couple days later an MRI showed a significant tear in his labrum. Leighton didn’t want to let his teammates down though, and he toughed out nine more football games as their quarterback. He made it through the entire baseball season in the spring too but with wavering velocity, sometimes topping out at 88mph while other times not being able to reach 80. Even with fluctuating velocity he was dominant as ever, beating the best team in the state in the regional semi-final on Thursday, nailing down saves to win the region on Friday and the state semifinal game on Saturday, and then tossing a one-hit shutout to win the state on Sunday.
“That was the end of his high school baseball career,” Scott said. “I mean as good as you can get, but we still didn’t know anything about what was next.”
That question would be answered soon enough. Jimbo Fisher called Leighton and offered him a preferred walk-on spot as a quarterback for Florida State. Jimbo also said it would be okay for Leighton to go out for the baseball team in the spring. The stars had aligned. Leighton would get to walk-on as a QB at one of the top football programs in the country, at the school he had always dreamed of going to, and he would have a chance to continue his baseball career there too. Unfortunately, Leighton finally needed to have surgery to repair his torn labrum and he showed up to Florida State with his right arm in a sling.
“It just kind of threw me into a weird position,” Leighton said. “I was doing rehab, but I couldn’t really do anything on the football field and I basically lost my roster spot for that fall football season.”
It still looked like Leighton would have a future at Florida State where he could compete for the starting quarterback position. That was until the entire FSU football coaching staff left immediately after that fall season, many of them following Jimbo Fisher to Texas A&M where he would sign a 10 year $75 million contract, the most guaranteed money ever given to a college football coach at the time. The incoming coaching staff wanted a run-heavy offense with a gap slashing quarterback, but Leighton was a drop-back QB. He was at peace with his football career being over.
“I get a crazy, random, out of the blue call from Tennessee,” Scott said. “They’re offensive coordinator tells me they don’t have a quarterback, they’ve seen Leighton’s film, he can really play in the SEC, and they really need him in Knoxville.”
Scott was hesitant to even tell his son. Leighton was finally able to use his right arm again and he was going to try to walk-on to the FSU baseball team. But Tennessee was incredibly persistent, professing their massive desire to have Leighton as their quarterback that spring. Scott eventually caved and told his son the day after Christmas. Leighton had a week to decide, and he ultimately landed on giving football one more shot.
“It was my first time being back in action since my surgery, but I really wasn’t necessarily all quite prepared,” Leighton said. “I realized that college football is a 24/7 job and it just wasn’t something that I loved enough to keep doing.”
“He was never going to get an opportunity at quarterback, we learned that pretty quickly,” Scott said. “But he didn’t miss a day there, he never quit, he stayed the whole season. When he came home I told him, ‘Look, the high school career that you had, every kid that loves sports, you have lived that life, you’ve lived it, you’ve done it. There is nothing more you can do. I do not want you to think for a second that you need to do this for me. I am a fulfilled dad. I could not be a happier dad with what you’ve given me the last four years.’”
Leighton knew he did not have to keep playing sports for his dad, but he did want to keep playing baseball for himself.
“I had played baseball my whole life and I felt like I still had more in the tank,” Leighton said. “I told my parents, ‘I think I wanna go JuCo and try playing baseball because I think I’ll regret it if I don’t.’”
“He really wanted to go to Florida State but even with baseball, at that level he had to go backwards, and he wasn’t good enough to go to Florida State,” Scott said. “He was throwing 82 miles an hour at the time, over the top. His shoulder still wasn’t fully recovered I mean he’s got six anchors in that right shoulder.”
The best junior college option for Leighton would be Tallahassee Community College, right in FSU’s backyard. The TCC pitching coach, Corey Pye, was also a graduate from Nease and had seen Leighton play in high school. He had Leighton come to TCC to work out as a pitcher and a hitter in front of head coach Mike McCleod. Leighton tattooed the ball in his tryout and McCleod offered him spot on the team a two-way guy.
“Leighton hadn’t hit in over a year at that point, but he was hitting absolute bombs in that workout. When that fall came around it turned out he couldn’t hit 90 and a curveball,” Scott said, laughing. “He was hell in BP, but he couldn’t hit that.”
Leighton became a pitcher only for TCC but just like in his final season of high school ball, his velocity was inconsistent.
“At first his velocity was good,” coach Pye said. “But as the fall went on the velocity decreased from around 88 to 82. He was basically one of four guys going for our last roster spot for the spring and he got it because he threw strikes, and he was a great kid to have around.”
Less than two years earlier Leighton was carrying Nease High School to a state championship with his arm. Now he just had enough in him to nab the last roster spot at Tallahassee Community College. But the important thing was he got the spot. He was still playing baseball.
He got knocked around that spring, giving up 17 runs in the 17 innings he pitched for an even 9.00 ERA.
“That freshman year, I mean he got hit,” coach McCleod said. “He had decent stuff, but it just wasn’t really good enough to dominate hitters.”
“I told his mom, ‘When he comes home don’t be surprised if this is it,” Scott said. “He comes home, and I said, ‘What are you gonna do?’ And he said, ‘Oh I’m going back.’”
“Our pitching staff his sophomore year was way better than it was his freshman year,” coach Pye said. “We knew in the back of our minds that this was going to be an even tougher year for Leighton to make the team in the spring.”
When Leighton returned to TCC that fall his velocity was back and better than ever. He was sitting at 89 with his fastball. There is a sophomore showcase every fall in Lakeland, Florida, for Junior College players. It’s the day that most guys get locked into where they will go next for their college baseball careers. Leighton topped out at 81mph in Lakeland. He didn’t have any coaches approaching him with offers, and the probability that he was even going to make the TCC team for the spring was at an all-time low.
“I always really liked Leighton,” coach McCleod said. “I always recognized him as a competitor and he was always throwing strikes, even if he was getting his head knocked off, he was out there challenging hitters. He just didn’t have good enough stuff.”
It killed them to do it, but coach McCleod and Coach Pye brought Leighton in to tell him he wasn’t going to make the spring team.
“We owed it to him to let him know so that he could try to possibly go somewhere else if he wanted to play,” coach Pye said. “Although I knew in the back of my mind, he was probably just going to hang it up and go to Florida State.”
“We’re in the middle of a sort of chopping off conversation,” coach McCleod said, “and all of a sudden all the guys we’ve dropped down to sidearm from over the top pop into my head and I said, ‘Let’s try something.’”
“Out of nowhere, Coach Mac suggested maybe dropping down my arm slot,” Leighton said. “I said, ‘I don’t have any offers to play after this, I’ve got nothing to lose, mine as well try it out.’”
When he got out of the meeting with his coaches, Leighton called his dad. Scott picked up:
“I said, ‘Hey how are ya?’ And nothing. He doesn’t say anything, and I can hear him on the other end. I say, ‘Are you okay? Have you had a
wreck? What’s going on?’ And he’s like, ‘They’re gonna cut me.’ That’s all he said, ‘They’re gonna cut me.’ And I said, ‘Oh my God son, I’m so sorry. What did they say?’ He said, ‘They love having me on the team. I’m one of his favorite players he’s had, he loves my mental toughness and the way I play the game, but I just can’t help them. They’ve got 10 freshmen throwing 86-88 and I’m a sophomore throwing 82.’ I said, ‘I’m just so sorry I don’t know what else to say. You gave it one hell of a try and I’m just so proud of you for trying.’ And he goes, ‘Well he did ask me if I’ve ever thrown sidearm before.’ And I just started laughing, I said, ‘Well what did you say?’ He said, ‘Well I told him you taught me how to throw sidearm when I was 10 and that was my out-pitch when I was 10.’ I couldn’t believe he said that to him, and I asked if he thought he could do it now and he said, ‘Well I’m gonna try.’”
The first bullpen Leighton threw sidearm was in front of coach McCleod but not coach Pye.
“Our head coach was always a big Leighton Alley fan,” coach Pye said. “And I was always like as a person and as a competitor, a huge Leighton Alley fan but I didn’t see the big potential as a pitcher like he did. And coach comes up to me after that first pen and says, ‘Oh Corey we found something right here!’”
Coach Pye agreed that he had to see the next sidearm pen that Leighton would throw. According to all parties involved, that second bullpen was not as promising.
“The first day it looked good. The second day it looked terrible. And after that he just got the feel for it and it got better and better and better and better,” coach McCleod said.
Leighton had one opportunity to show he could take his sidearm from the bullpen into a game. He gets one inning in the last game of the fall. Two strikeouts and a bouncer back to the mound. Just like that, Leighton secured the last spot on the TCC baseball roster for the 2nd year in a row.
TCC had an exhibition against Valdosta state a few days before their spring season opener. There were nine pitchers scheduled to throw an inning each. Leighton was not one of them. Scott was watching the game for the first five, but he had a birthday party of a family friend he was missing and Leighton told his dad it was certainly cool to head there since he had no chance of coming in. Scott got a text from Leighton about an hour into his drive home.
“The guy that was throwing the 6th inning didn’t get an out and hit four batters,” Scott said. “Leighton came in with the bases loaded, got four warmup pitches, and struck out the side. From that point on Biko, Leighton threw the 7th and 8th inning of every ballgame TCC had.”
“I had no idea how it was going to work or how effective I would be,” Leighton said. “But once I started getting some outings, I gained trust with the coaches, I was throwing a lot of strikes, and just filling that role of a sidearmer. It’s pretty unique because you’re just gonna get one-and-a-third to two innings max, so you have a short time to do your job and I got really comfortable with it.”
“He had a great year for us, I mean he was the man,” coach McCleod said.
“He was really, really good. He was a consistent 84-86 sidearm and he was freaking lights out for us,” coach Pye said.
Leighton threw 22.1 innings before the season got cut short, striking out 30 while only walking 9 and giving up just 5 earned runs for a 2.01 ERA.
“We had such a great combo in him and Nolan (Daniel), I mean if we had the lead after 6 it was over,” coach McCleod said. “Leighton was so competitive, and we put him in some untenable situations. Bases loaded, two balls on the hitter, no outs, and he would figure out a way to get us out of that. You just always knew he would throw strikes and he was really tough to hit.”
COVID-19 cutting Leighton’s phenomenal season short was another bump in the wild ride that was the last few years of his sports career. He had offers to D1 schools that he was really excited about, and it was an enormous leap from where he was just months before, but it looked like his dream of pitching for Florida State would go unfulfilled.
In early April, Scott and Leighton’s mom, Mary, were playing Uno at the kitchen table. Neither could remember the rules so they were arguing about almost everything that was happening. Leighton and his best friend were playing Madden football in the den off the kitchen. All of a sudden, Leighton jumps up and runs outside with his phone to his ear.
“Leighton’s on the phone for like 15 minutes and he’s animated,” Scott said. “When he gets off the phone, he just lets out a scream. He comes back in the house and says, ‘That was Junior and he just made me an offer.’”
Junior, by the way, is Mike Martin Jr., the head coach of the Florida State baseball team. Leighton had told coach Martin that he would think about it. Scott couldn’t believe what he had heard.
“I said, ‘What the hell are you talking about you told him you’d think about it?! You’ve been wearing Florida State gear since the first week of your life. It’s the only place you wanna be. You went to TCC so you could at least go to Florida State to finish your degree when your two years are up. Why do you have to think about it?!’ And he said, ‘Well I wanted to talk to y’all first.’ ‘Oh well that’s pretty nice I appreciate that, now pick up the phone and call him back!’”
Leighton called coach Martin back and secured his spot as a pitcher on the Florida State baseball team.
“His goal from day one was to go to Florida State as a baseball player,” coach Pye said, “and if there were Vegas odds on that and you put $100 down you would have won a lot a lot a lot a lot of money, I’ll tell you that!”
“I couldn’t be happier because Leighton made it happen,” coach McCleod said. “He bought into throwing sidearm 100% and he started getting easy outs I mean it was easy for him out there. I’m just very happy, because his athletic career had taken a couple bad turns. First at Florida State and then Tennessee says he fits their offense perfectly and he gets what, two snaps that spring. He just got lied to and I didn’t wanna be that guy for him too. You know his stuff was really average freshman year, but he always competed. You get guys who will fight and compete like Leighton did and you’ve got something.”
What kind of a chance did coach McCleod give Leighton of getting to Florida State when he came to TCC?
“Uh about zero,” coach McCleod said, chuckling. “Yeah I didn’t think that was gonna happen and I couldn’t be more pleased that it did because that’s a lifelong dream of his and when you see a kid like that fulfill his dream there’s nothing better for a coach.”
“Leighton’s a great kid, he’s a great student, and he just does everything right,” coach Pye said. “They say good things happen to good people, but with Leighton I mean it was crazy how it all worked out. It’s one hell of a comeback story.”
“You gotta have a few minutes to hear the story because telling you just a little bit, it’s just no good,” Scott said, laughing. “If there’s one thing people can take from that kid, he’s just a mental monster. He went through so much when you think about his last couple years of high school up until now and I’ve said it over and over again, but I just couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Leighton didn’t sit around and bask in the glory of his ultimate success after getting that all-important call from coach Martin. He was working out and throwing bullpens when his new pitching coach at FSU, Jimmy Belanger, called him up and said he needed him to get some live innings. Leighton shot a message to his old pitching coach, Corey Pye, seeing if the Bananas needed any help and coach Pye jumped on the offer.
“I talked to Nolan to see if Leighton could stay with his aunt for a host and she said yes and then I told Gillum, ‘This is a no-brainer. I don’t know how sharp he’ll be after not throwing to live batters in months, but I know he can throw strikes and the guy’s going to Florida State.’ It was really an, ‘Alright let’s make this happen’, kind of thing.”
Leighton was just as advertised for the Bananas, throwing 5.1 innings in 5 outings, striking out 5 batters while only walking 1 and giving up just 1 run for a 1.69 ERA. As happy as coach Pye was to get another dependable arm in his bullpen, he may have been even happier to get Leighton into the entertainment side of things.
“I threw him out in a dance the first night,” coach Pye said, chuckling. “Leighton’s that quiet guy with a very mature personality, he knows what he has to do to get the job done. If I told him to do a backflip off the dugout, he may not be able to, but he would try to figure out a way to do it.”
“People may not know it but Leighton’s a bit of a practical joker,” coach McCleod said. “He kept the boys laughing in the bullpen and he’s happy to take on any task you give him, so I knew he would fit in well in Savannah.”
“It was a ton of fun and it’s a special place to play honestly,” Leighton said. “I’m not as big into the limelight as some of the other guys, so I wasn’t too excited to see my name on the dance list, but I got it done and Maceo always did an amazing job of teaching us and performing the dances.”
Scott was as enthused as ever getting to see Leighton play more baseball, but for him the Bananas extracurriculars were the real treat.
“The baseball part is just a bonus for the Bananas, the real show was watching him get out there and dance and really enjoy himself. I was prouder of his dance moves than his strikeout to walk ratio,” Scott said, laughing.
Unfortunately, Scott couldn’t make it up from Jacksonville for a game, so he watched Leighton pitch on Bananas Insiders. From everything he saw online and what he heard from Leighton, he was really happy his son got to be a Banana.
“By gosh what an incredible experience you all have set up there it’s just fantastic. Plus, his host, Nolan’s aunt was unbelievable. They would get back in at 3:00am from road trips and she would have hot ribeye’s waiting for them! He went up there to throw a few innings and he didn’t come home because he loved it so much.”
The Grayson Stadium fans, the shenanigans surrounding the games, and the top tier talent he was playing against were certainly big highlights of his time in Savannah, but it was the teammates he got to play with that Leighton enjoyed most.
“The guys were all really welcoming. Playing against some of the toughest competition I had faced yet in my life was awesome but really just getting to meet all the guys and making friendships with people I probably never would have met was a really cool thing.”
The Bananas were a quick, albeit memorable, pitstop on what has been a nearly inconceivable journey for Leighton. He is as happy as can be after his first fall at Florida State, and from what his TCC coaches have heard, he was stellar on the mound facing his new Seminoles teammates. After a full year of college football at two different power five universities, one full season of junior college baseball and another cut short due to COVID-19, Leighton is only a red-shirt sophomore in his first year back at Florida State. He can still live out his dream of pitching at FSU for three more years. With such a promising future in Tallahassee ahead of him, Leighton is now looking to get better in every way possible.
“I’m officially a year into throwing sidearm now, I still have so much I can learn and improve on. I just need to focus on what I can do at this point and keep figuring out new things.”
Leighton said he isn’t thinking about playing at the next level and he just wants to make the most of his time at Florida State. Whether it is his next goal or not, one thing we know about Leighton is he will continue to improve throughout his time at FSU. If Vegas came out with odds on the possibility that he does play professionally, you would be a fool to bet against him.