By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
DENVER, Colo. – It’s easy to forget.
When John Axford is standing on the mound at Coors Field, or when he’s been on the hill at PNC Park, Progressive Field, Busch Stadium, Miller Park, or any of the large number of mounds he’s thrown from as a visitor, he is a Major League Baseball player.
He is almost literally on a pedestal, standing above the other millionaire athletes whose talents and dedication have opened a door for them that only a select few are privilege to. The 32-year-old right-hander is just looking to throw strikes, record outs, and either bring his team back to bat as quickly as possible or to close the game out and go home with another win under their belts.
Fans await his next save – the native of Ancaster, Ont., has 141 of those so far in his seven years in the big leagues – and critics look for blown opportunities – there have been a few of those too. But for many of the people in the stands, or watching at home, that is all for Axford. Those appearances every couple of days are everything they will see of him.
So it isn’t hard to understand why people don’t always remember that out there on those mounds, living the dream that so many can only watch from afar, is also a father of two, a husband, a proud Canadian, a man with other interests and hobbies, and another life outside the stadium. He may even bring that life with him to the ballpark, no matter how hard he tries to avoid doing so.
When Axford’s youngest son Jameson was bitten by a rattlesnake during spring training in Arizona, there was an outpouring of support from across baseball and beyond. It was something that had never happened before and there was no precedent for such an outreach. But in a family’s – and a baseball player’s – time of need, the encouragement was overwhelming.
Now three years old and six months removed from the incident, Jameson continues to get better each day. He still has skin grafts on his foot that are healing and he continually works on his stability when walking, missing a little bit of a tendon that helps to stabilize the ankle and its movement, so he wears a brace. In a couple of years he might need more surgery and a tendon replacement but his dad reassuringly says, “He’s been doing great with it.”
Almost an entire baseball season has passed since Jameson’s meeting with that snake in the backyard, and many of the stories and questions have started to fade for his father, now once again the closer of the Colorado Rockies. But every day, before and after he takes the mound for his team, Axford retreats back into this other life, into these often-ignored and considered-secondary moments, the ones that really mean everything.
So how? How is it possible to separate these worlds, for him to shut out his home life and concentrate on a job that is really like no other? To accomplish feats and meet expectations that are hard to understand but easy to critique from the outside?
“It can be really easy to lose your focus,” Axford said. “Especially when you’re in the bullpen, because guys have a good time for a little while down there but it’s just a matter of the grind of the season. You’re going through so many different things away from the game obviously, like I have this past year, and you really have to try to compartmentalize and separate the baseball from whatever else may be going on.
“Any small bit of small lack of focus can definitely change any part of your season. I don’t know if that’s exactly what happened for me, but a lot of things did start piling up and things got difficult off the field, but then they obviously seemed to transcend over to on the field as well.”
But focusing can’t just be hard when times are tough. There have to be some moments when a man’s thoughts stray from the diamond and flutter over to some of the good times. After Jameson and his older brother J.B. threw out the first pitch at a Rockies game, it would be near impossible to not think about that moment every time a ceremonial first pitch occurs.
How does a father play a game immediately after his heartstrings are so firmly tugged?
“I remember when I was out there before it happened, thinking I was going to tear up and just bawl my eyes out the whole time I was there,” Axford said. “But I was good. I kept it together. I was really happy. I was just so happy to see both of them and how excited they were despite the fact that Jameson was in a wheelchair at the time and couldn’t walk.
“It was just great to see the smiles on their faces, being out there and hearing the crowd cheer for them. My oldest son J.B. knew, I kept telling him, ‘There are going to be a lot of people cheering,’ and he was really excited to know that fans were going to be cheering for him and Jameson.
“But it wasn’t until after I started watching it after the game – watching the video highlights, seeing it on SportsCenter, seeing it on Baseball Tonight, seeing all the pictures – that it actually started catching me a little bit. That’s when I started getting choked up and tearing up, but in the moment I was just enjoying it.”
Axford seemingly personifies the idea that there are just some ordinary citizens of the world who pursue their extraordinary talents. As opposed to being a baseball player, he seems to be a regular guy who happens to play baseball.
He is a dad tearing up at his sons’ happiness. He is a college graduate with a degree from Notre Dame and a Master’s from Canisius College. He’s a film lover, a producing and directing hopeful, a photographer who works on season-long series of shots showing other sides of baseball – last year he put together views from his hotel-room windows and this year he’s been shooting every stadium with his fisheye lens.
But his vocation is baseball. For a while he didn’t feel like himself on the mound, a mechanical issue plaguing him – probably not the only thing. The ball was coming out of his hand differently and he had to make a small adjustment to get back to normal, a simplistic solution that seems like a magic potion in comparison to getting the rest of his life back to normal over the course of the season.
At work this year, Axford has appeared in 58 games, throwing 53 2/3 innings, posting a 4.36 ERA, notching 25 saves and striking out 59 other baseball players. He’s had a combination of success and failure, as he has in every season.
“It’s definitely been a mix of emotions for me,” Axford said. “A lot of things going on personally, away from baseball, so I’ve missed a lot of time on the field. But also I’ve had a lot of ups and downs on [the field], a lot of great success early and then some tough spots and then an absolute horrendous stretch of about two weeks and then things feel like they’re getting back on track again.
“I’m feeling like myself again. So it’s similar to every other year I’ve had – ups and downs, and really good moments and tough moments – but those are all going to happen and come no matter where you play or what you do.”