*RHP John Axford (Port Dover, Ont.) went 46-for-48 in save opportunities and it took a long road to get to the majors with the Milwaukee Brewers. 2012 Canadians draft list
By Bob Elliott
ST. LOUIS - The music meant only one thing.
Vera and Brian Axford’s son was headed to the mound.
Miller Park P.A. announcer Rob Edwards said: “Now pitching ... No. 59 ... John Axford,” as 44,122 fans in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the National League division series rose to their feet.
Milwaukee Brewers fans react to the music the way fans did in the movie Major League when Wild Thing was played.
After all the game is in the bag ... Axford was 46-for-48 closing, winning the National League Rolaids award and setting the franchise saves record — passing Francisco Cordero, who had 44 in 2007.
Chicago Cubs broadcaster Bob Brenly said earlier this season, Axford’s entry music, Refused’s New Noise, was loud enough to make ears bleed.
Watching from the 18th row of section 118 the hearts of the parents began to beat quicker, while the proud father, who had not been at a game since June, readied his new video camera.
They’d been standing like everyone else — as the roar greeted Axford entry.
Nicole Axford, John’s high school sweetheart since their days at Brantford’s Assumption College, sat covering the ears of their four-month-old son, John Brian, known as J.B., and named after John’s father-in-law, his father and John himself.
Axford closed this one on a Miguel Montero grounder.
The Axfords high-fived each other while teammate Ryan Braun’s grandparents turned and said “Oh, we’re so proud of your John,”
“I get a nervous stomach, I don’t know why I get so nervous,” said Vera, mom of the Brewers’ can’t-miss closer. “I get emotional. It’s hard to believe we’re watching our son in a major league game. Sometimes I tear up.”
Goose bumps on goose bumps is the way Vera described it.
The parents were both wearing blue Axford 59 t-shirts, like so many others. There was even a picture of their son on the back of a bus.
“It’s so overwhelming to see people walking by, wearing the name Axford, all these people like our son,” said Vera, after Brian and her made the nine hour and 20 minute return drive to Port Dover.
The popularity pecking order of Brewers players amongst the cheese heads goes like: Nyger Morgan, Braun, Prince Fielder and Axford.
Only one has been released.
Only one has a strong story of perseverance.
Only one was signed during a snow storm: John Benton Axford, of Port Dover, Ont.
• • •
It’s best to start at the start: When John was ready to play ball, there wasn’t any in Port Dover.
Dad Brian was one of the men who got baseball going again with help from the Lions Club in 1990-91.
Brian’s father, Berton, played short nearby for the Delhi Tobacco Men, who won OBA intermediate C championship in 1952 and Brian still has a silver tea service the Tobacco Men were presented for beating Bloomfield.
“My father gave me the bug,” Brian said. “We’d sit, watch and I’d ask him about things.”
Brian never played himself as weekends were spent at a family cottage in Muskoka.
And then Brian’s father, a hard-working farmer, was gone, passing at the unfair age of 54, leaving Brian fatherless at 18.
Brian sat and watched games with his son, John, carrying on a family tradition.
“John would watch Sesame Street but he liked the games on TV,” Brian said.
Once an announcer mentioned Jackie Robinson breaking the colour line in 1947.
“John looked at the TV, tilted his head and asked ‘dad, why wouldn’t they let black people play?’” recalls the father. “I told him because people were stupid back then.”
• • •
Mark Winegardner’s fine book on scouting, Prophet of the Sandlots: Journeys With a Major League Scout, is about Philadelphia Phillies scout Tony Lucadello and laments a lack of fundamentals in youngsters.
Lucadello, who signed Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Fergie Jenkins, proposed youngsters could improve skills by throwing against a concrete wall to work on arm strength and field grounders at the same time, without supervision, the way young hoops players spent hours shooting.
Brian had not heard of Lucadello, but says “that’s where his arm strength came from.”
John would take his small glove onto the patio and throw and field a tennis ball off the wall at different angles for hours.
“We had a fence about 15 feet away,” said John the other night in Phoenix. “I’d bounce the ball off the patio and the wall so it would be going over our fence. I’d jump and pretend I was stealing a homer.”
Just like George Bell his favourite Blue Jay.
• • •
Axford’s first mentor lived just beyond the right field fence of the local ball park.
“When I was young, I thought he lived in right field,” said John, who met Doug King when he was tyke age.
King, who signed with Pittsburgh Pirates in 1948, showed up nightly when the Axfords went for a game of catch. Axford’s bantam year the Southern Counties played all-star games at every age level, inviting pro scouts to the event.
Marc Picard, then a New York Yankees amateur scout who coached with Team Ontario, showed up for the tourney in 1997 as did Jay Lapp, who was working for the Major League Scouting Bureau.
The best from Caledonia, Simcoe, Delhi and Port Dover played the best from Tillsonburg, Aylmer, Ingersoll and Langton.
“John took the mound, although somewhat wild he could throw hard and had decent mechanics,” Picard recalled.
Picard asked Axford and catcher Jon Bridge to join Team Ontario the next season which they did.
At the Area Codes Games in Chicago in 2000, Notre Dame Fighting Irish recruiter Brian O’Connor was one of 30-to-40 scouts and recruiters behind the plate and spoke to Picard.
John threw 87 mph and O’Connor mailed off his first ever letter to Port Dover.
Back home, besides working on pitching mechanics, King would take his pupil for lunch to tell him what to expect along the road.
At the 2000 Canada Cup in Stonewall, Man., Axford pitched against British Columbia’s Adam Loewen, who a bit was younger.
That’s when Greg Hamilton selected Axford to pitch for the Team Canada junior national team.
The next May, at the Major League Scouting Bureau camp in St. Marys, the Axfords were like the prettiest girl in class. Everyone wanted to talk to them.
A month later Seattle Mariners GM Pat Gillick selected Axford in the seventh round of the draft.
Teams thought they could buy Axford out of his scholarship, since this wasn’t a player from Illinois whose great grandfather and grandfather attended Notre Dame. But they were wrong.
“Education was the key,” John said the other day in Phoenix. “Their number kept climbing. The final one was $200,000, plus a schooling package or maybe it was $280,000, they kept shifting numbers around.”
Axford decided on Notre Dame and his first two years was 5-2 with a 3.99 ERA in 2002 and 9-3 with a 4.31 ERA the next spring.
King, the family’s best friend, would come to the house and listen to John’s Notre Dame games on the internet.
We recall watching the College World Series from Omaha and ESPN broadcaster Harold Reynolds saying “if this guy was draft eligible this year, rather than next June, he’d be a first rounder.”
Life was good.
• • •
The next season Axford injured his right elbow and needed Tommy John surgery.
All that talk about four-year scholarships is bunk. It’s four one-year scholarships. An injured Axford transferred to Mike McRae's Canisius College in Buffalo, no longer part of the Notre Dame program.
Father Brian contended his son would have come back quicker if King, who died in 2003 was still around. At the time John had plenty of voices telling him what to do.
Axford would go to the Hamilton Cardinals school at Sir Alan McNab Rec Centre in Hamilton to work with former National Junior Team coach and Jays scout Jim Ridley during the winter.
Axford began 2006 with the Brantford Red Sox of the Intercounty League but there were only a few games a week. Not enough innings for a man in a hurry.
Garnet Keller, who ran the Melville Millionaires of the Western Major League called and Axford headed west to pitch in the summer college league. For zero pay. Now announcer joke he may be able to some day buy the Millionaires.
The New York Yankees gave Axford a look at a tryout camp in Staten Island later that year and signed him to a 2007 minor-league contract.
He bounced around, appearing in 27 minor league games with a combined 3.29 ERA.
At the end of the year the Yanks released him. But he did not give up
An audition was arranged for scouts at The Baseball Zone in Mississauga. But, a snow storm and icy roads cut the crowd down to one.
Jay Lapp, who made the drive from London, liked what he saw and Axford was invited to the Brewers camp in the spring of 2008.
In his down time Axford sold Telus cell phones at Best Buy and Wal-Mart and worked as a bartender at East Side Mario’s in Ancaster.
• • •
He spent the 2008 season at class-A Brevard County, making 14 starts in 26 games. The next season he started at Brevard, was promoted to double-A Huntsville and triple-A Nashville, working 45 games all in relief. He made his Brewers debut as a September call up.
And in 2010 with Trevor Hoffman approaching a career 600 saves, Axford was the set-up man.
Except Hoffman stalled on 594 and manager Ken Macha gave Axford the job.
“I’m not the closer, not as long Trevor Hoffman’s here,” Axford told us a year ago in Denver.
Hoffman came to Game 3 of this year’s division playoffs, and was spotted by Arizona GM Kevin Towers. They’d been together with the San Diego Padres from 1995-2008.
“Thanks for coming,” Towers said. “Oh, I know why you’re here, you’re not here to support the Diamondbacks, you’re here to see Axford. You have to love his size, his velocity -- he always pitches on a downward plane.
Axford lists the most influential people in his baseball career as his parents, King and Hoffman, who still sends him text messages if he notices something about his delivery.
Now on winter days Axford arrives early at McMaster University to throw the ball against the wall.
Just like being in the back yard except in the auxiliary gym he can from 60, 90 or 120 feet.
* * *
Vera was driving west out of Port Dover past the Harry Meisner diamond where it all began the other day. Usually sings along to Kenny Rogers on the CD.
This day Vera was not singing, but something took her breath away.
There stood a mobile sign reading ‘Cheer on Port Dover’s John Axford’ in red and white, the colors of the Port Dover Minor Baseball.
Shutterbug Brian went out took a picture of it and send it to their son and their three daughters: twins Marsha and Michelle, and Theresa,
The streets of Port Dover are lined with Ax-Man Cometh signs, erected by the Norfolk pros, which include ex-NHLers Rob Blake, Nelson Emerson and Dwayne Roloson.
• • •
Back at their Milwaukee hotel after Game 1 of the NL division series, Brian hooked up his new video camera to the TV to watch the day’s events.
When they got to the ninth inning, Vera asked “why is (the picture) shaking all over the place?”
“It was my hand,” proud papa Brian Axford said. “I was the one shaking.”