Henderson, Axford joined at their Canadian hips
* Jim Henderson (Calgary, Alta.), above, and John Axford (Port Dover, Ont.) had not met until being together in the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen. They immediately shared a bond ….
By Alexis Brudnicki
St. LOUIS — Everybody has a story.
And every Canadian in baseball has a story about growing north of the border.
They’ll tell you, whether you ask or not. It’s important to them to acknowledge where they came from and how it helped them to get to where they are.
“It’s always a different story for each person,” Milwaukee Brewers reliever John Axford said. “I thought I always wanted to be a hockey player until I realized I was better at baseball. That’s one of my stories.
“Certain guys realize that hockey wasn’t their thing, because that always seems to come up. People are always asking, ‘well did you play hockey? Did you do this? Was baseball always No. 1 for you?’ I think that’s one of the important things to note. Certain players did play both sports but they realized and recognized that baseball was more to them than hockey was.”
When Axford was joined in the Brewers clubhouse by Calgary native Jim Henderson, the two didn’t know each other, but immediately shared a bond that separated them from everyone else.
“Within the Brewers system we have a bunch of Canadians,” Henderson said. “Me and Ax, we were familiar with each other, we didn’t know each other before we were with the Brewers but then once I came here and he was here there was that instant connection, the Canadian connection.
“So it was nice to be up here and chat about Canadian stuff. And when anybody cracks on us, now he’s got some backup for some Canadian jokes.”
One topic of conversation that came up immediately between the two right-handers was the upcoming World Baseball Classic qualifying round. Canada will have to take out Great Britain, Czech Republic and host Germany in September in order to qualify for the Classic in March.
“We definitely will [be watching the qualifier],” Axford said. “It’s something that we were both talking about when he was first up, wanting to play for Team Canada next year and seeing what our opportunities would be like.
“If we could, when we could, and every question you can ask yourself about wanting to play for Team Canada. We want to make sure that Canada gets into the WBC obviously and hopefully we can be there at some point next spring and represent.”
Though the roster has yet to be finalized for the upcoming competition, it would make sense that many of the players that Henderson teamed up with on his most recent Team Canada tour in October will be the ones he’ll be watching.
“I’m going to try to watch it,” the 29-year-old said. “Hopefully they do well. I know the countries that we’re playing against aren’t big powerhouses but hopefully Greg Hamilton will put together a good squad.
“I know it’s going to be difficult. It’s difficult for him every year to get the best players but he does a pretty good job. There’s a good core group of guys that I’ve played with for the last three years that have already been talking about going so they’ll be good.”
As difficult as it may be for the national teams’ director to put together a successful squad, the hope is that Hamilton can work the same selection magic he did 10 months ago. Henderson’s team won bronze at the World Cup in Panama before grabbing gold at the Pan Am Games in Mexico, the best finish in senior men’s national team history.
“That was awesome,” Henderson said. “That’s probably the highlight of my baseball career so far. Just playing against USA, too, in the final was awesome and being able to beat them, and it was great to have the Mexican crowd behind us. It kind of gave us goose bumps. It was an amazing experience.”
The support from the Mexican fans was the highlight of the tournament for Henderson, after winning gold of course. The whole experience is something that he doesn’t think he’ll ever forget, even if he doesn’t have the same set of keepsakes as the rest of his teammates.
“My jersey disappeared the last day,” he said. “Greg said you could keep your jerseys and I was hesitant to give it to the helper, our clubby guy, to wash it but everybody was doing it and it never got back. I’m disappointed about that. I want it back. But it’s somewhere in Mexico I think. We were making a bunch of trades that last day with police officers and workers and I think it probably got thrown in the shuffle somewhere.”
With the success of the Canadian team of late, both Henderson and Axford believe that it will help baseball in their home country. When they were both younger, they knew what was happening with baseball north of the border, even though it wasn’t as prevalent as it seems to be now.
“You knew Larry Walker and a couple of the homegrown boys, the Butler boys, Rich and Rob, when they were with Toronto,” Axford said. “Being a fan of the Blue Jays growing up you get influenced to a certain degree by the Canadian players but there weren’t very many.
“If there were a few, you didn’t hear about them unless they were the greats, like Larry Walker. Now you get to hear about a lot more players with a lot more recognition up in Canada … with Team Canada playing as well as they have in the past and being at the World Baseball Classic the last couple of times out, certain players are getting more recognition.
“That’s something even 10-plus years ago when I was trying to start to play with Team Canada when I was 18, that’s not something you ever really saw. So it’s nice to know that there’s a little more recognition out there for baseball players rather than just hockey players.”
Henderson’s Canadian baseball education began when he joined Team Canada.
“I started really paying attention when I was on the junior national team,” he said. “They do a good job of kind of teaching us the history of Baseball Canada and everything so I was well aware of Stubby Clapp and some of those guys that came up. My experience with Team Canada the last three years has been amazing. We’ve been able to achieve higher than expectations and it’s been awesome.”
Axford believes that the attention on more Canadian baseball players is helping the recognition of the sport, while also allowing for each story to be told.
“Certain faces are becoming more recognizable, not only in baseball but in the country of Canada, when you have Canadians playing for the Jays once again,” he said. “That’s just a great thing for the country in general … It’s a hard road to get here and for certain people it’s more of a challenge than what they think and what they expect, and just for the public to see where your roots began [is important].
“They began either in a small town in Canada or you started playing with Team Canada at a young age. It’s good for certain people to know that you don’t go from one spot to the next. There are places you need to stop along the way and for me, Team Canada was one of them.”