John Axford: Baby on board, please let us in
* John Axford (Port Dover, Ont.) signed by Brewers scout Jay Lapp (London, Ont.) had trouble getting to spring training this season with his eight-month-old baby John Brian Axford but daddy and child arrived safely in Arizona ….
By Alexis Brudnicki
St. LOUIS – John Axford is an international man of mystery.
Okay, well maybe he’s not. He’s actually more like an open book, but the 29-year-old’s story is still intriguing.
His tale is the kind that ballplayers cling to when they think a career in the game that they love is no longer in the cards. Axford is a shining beacon of hope for anyone hoping to turn bartending into brewing, moving onto bigger and better things.
Of course brewing, in this instance, means joining the Milwaukee Brewers and eventually taking over the back end of a successful bullpen, not to mention converting 49 consecutive saves in the best season of his career last year.
But this is now. That was then.
Axford is from the community of Port Dover, Ont. He was born in Simcoe and says, “That’s where everyone always mixes it up.” He lived in the same house in Port Dover his entire life growing up; the same one that his parents still occupy.
He’s a proud Canadian married to another proud Canadian, though their young children aren’t yet citizens of his home country. The paperwork just needs to be completed. Until then, “They’re our ticket into the country when we need to get into the U.S.,” Axford said.
One might think that last year’s National League saves leader could punch his own ticket.
“I guess I can get in on my own,” he admitted. “But if they want to deny me, they can’t deny them at least. Although they did this off-season.”
That’s right. Axford’s then-eight-month-old son was denied access into the country that he was born in. The infant wasn’t carrying a passport, a big no-no for international air travel. Baby John was trying to accompany his father to Arizona for spring training.
“Apparently you’re not allowed in the country if you don’t have a passport, no matter what your age,” Axford said. “We booked everything, had everything set up and we got there and customs told us we couldn’t go.”
The Axford family had to resort to making a last-minute drive to Detroit in order to get to Phoenix for the following day. The Brewers reliever learned that anyone under the age of 15 can arrive by land or water with only a birth certificate.
“It was a nightmare to say the least,” he said. “Next year we’re going to know that we need two passports for two kids under the age of two. They’ll look nothing like their passports. We’re going to keep them for like six years, too, so they will have their baby photos on them. It will be awesome.”
From his roots in Port Dover, Axford started his collegiate career at Notre Dame. He finished it at Canisius College in Buffalo, just across the bridge from where he calls home. The right-hander is incredibly proud to have been a part of the blossoming program, led by fellow Canadian, Coach Mike McRae. Axford still continues to follow the growing success of the school he left behind.
“It was just close and a good spot to continue baseball in a program that was building up,” he said. “Now it’s completely built from where it was before. The year before I was there, they had nine wins. The year I was there we had 18, and after that I think they had 30 and then a couple years of 40 wins. They just lost in the MAAC championship a couple times.
“This past year was a heartbreaking loss in the finals. I was trying to follow it as much as I could. It’s amazing what [Coach McRae] has done with that program. That’s another reason I wanted to go there – to continue my education, but actually build up a program to a certain degree.”
Between helping to build up a college program and trying to make his way into pro ball, Axford also had stints working minimum-wage jobs such as selling cell phones and waiting tables. He never gave up on the dream, and now he’s living it.
Joining Axford in the Brewers clubhouse to live out his dream is fellow Canadian Jim Henderson. After nine long years in the minors for Henderson, both pitchers agree that their paths to the big leagues were less than ideal. And that perhaps it’s the Canadian in them that kept them persistent.
“We’re always trying to prove ourselves to a certain degree on a larger stage than where we believe we should be,” Axford said. “My path wasn’t the most-travelled path, that’s not the way you really want to go, but it’s the same with Jim, too…It takes a lot to be able to keep going after it the way you want to and try and reach that fulfillment, that dream of playing in the big leagues.
“And after nine years, it’s got to be tough when you’re down there. I was in the minor leagues only for a few years but it was the matter of getting into professional baseball that was the difficult part for me. I didn’t start playing until I was 24 and I couldn’t imagine being there for nine years, like certain people.”
Henderson’s call up to The Show came in the middle of Axford’s worst season to date. Last year’s bullpen leader has been struggling to find any sort of similar success to what he experienced in his career season. But he’s hopeful that the remainder of the year will give him a chance to get back on track.
“Things could definitely be better,” he said. “But there are so many lows that you can get yourself into. But your strength of character isn’t tested in your good moments. It’s tested in your bad moments. So hopefully I can just keep working the way I have, keep building myself up the way I’ve been trying to this year and things will get better over the last two months.
“The first four months were difficult. Just when I thought I’d find it, I’d catch a bad break here or there, or I’d pitch myself into a tough spot and I just couldn’t get out of it. Last year if I got myself into tough spots, it always seemed like I managed to get myself out of it.
“That luck just hasn’t been here this year; whether it was luck or whether it was just the way I’ve been pitching. I’ve been working as hard as I can to just do the best I can and hopefully myself, and the bullpen as a whole, we can come out of this hole that we’ve been in.”