By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
MESA, Arizona – John Axford makes it look easy.
Coming into a different clubhouse with an entirely new group of teammates for his fourth consecutive spring training, the 32-year-old right-hander is unlikely to be seen without a smile, is often a conversation-starter, and has a way of making anyone and everyone feel welcome.
But it does take some added effort for the self-proclaimed introvert – if Axford didn’t say it out loud, no member of his baseball audience would ever be able to guess – and there certainly is a reason for the extra work.
“I am very much that way, so that’s why it’s very difficult,” the Oakland Athletics reliever said. “I can put on a pretty good front – [but] I don’t feel like I have to. I just try and make sure I am a little more outgoing when I need to be. It helps a lot in this atmosphere. I definitely like to be alone a lot, so that’s something that strikes a lot of people as kind of a surprise, when I am a particular way when I’m here.
“When I have my own time I want my own time and then I’m by myself and I can be that way and that’s something that I definitely enjoy. But it’s for a purpose, to make sure that I’m not all of a sudden blindsided by being on a team and being in the clubhouse and then trying to formulate a cohesive group, or the camaraderie that you need to be on a team, and a winning team.”
It hasn’t always been as hard for the Ancaster, Ont., native, who was more at ease in unfamiliar situations when he was fresh out of college, playing first at Notre Dame and then at Canisius College while he finished his master’s degree.
“Your personalities and things change as you continue to grow and continue to learn about yourself as a person,” Axford said. “So for me, maybe learning not to give too much of myself at times so I can have some for myself and have my own time is definitely a good thing. But you have to make sure that you’re open and good to the people who are around you too. That’s the way I look at it, including media.”
Accommodating every media request, it is likely that Axford’s engaging demeanour and genuine interest in the people he deals with in the workplace paint a different picture than the introverted one he portrays, but really he just doesn’t want to make anyone’s job harder than it already might be.
“I’m never one who’s going to shy away from doing an interview,” he said. “If you give it up one day, it’s pretty easy to walk away and leave it be, but people have a job to do and that’s what I respect and understand so I’m not going to leave them, as much as I might want to just go hide or not want to talk or be the introverted person I can be a lot of the time, I’ll respect the fact that people need a quote.”
After six straight spring trainings with the Brewers to follow his first in the Yankees organization, Axford then spent one with the Indians and last year with the Rockies, before heading into this season with Oakland. So as the people and the personalities change, the situation is becoming increasingly familiar.
“I guess I’m just used to that part now,” he said. “It’s definitely good to get a relationship with people and to be able to be there – that helps a lot when you have that and are able to bring that together in the clubhouse and out on the field, get to know each other and understand each other a little bit better when you’re around them a little bit more.
“So for me lately maybe it’s just lingering a little bit more, talking a little bit more, trying to talk to people and understand them a little bit, trying to spend time and learn as much as you can while you’re still here. Then when the season hits you won’t be blindsided by what’s happening or going on, you have a knowledge of the people and how things are going to go.”
On the field, the 6-foot-5 righty signed with the Athletics with an idea of how things might go, knowing that the squad already had a solid relief corps and was looking to potentially make it even better.
“When the team was talking to me, I didn’t know they were in the midst of signing [former Royals reliever] Ryan Madson,” Axford said. “And after they did, it was before I even committed and said I was going to sign here, and I agreed. After they signed him, it actually made me want to sign here more, realizing that is what they’re putting their effort into – getting a good back end of the bullpen.
“If you can shorten the game with more guys and more experience, and guys who have had those roles in the past, it’s going to be better. Sean Doolittle has been great in the back end. I know last year he was on the [disabled list] for a little bit and he’s in good shape and he’s been doing well this spring so hopefully he’s going to have a full season and be in the back end the whole time. I’ll just slot in wherever they deem necessary and hopefully we know where those roles are going to be and how it’s going to go throughout the season.”
Added Oakland manager Bob Melvin: “The bullpen was something we completely transformed; for good reason. We had some issues last year, No. 1, the amount of one-run games, and we started with Sean Doolittle being out last year and had to move some guys back, so we had some issues there. We also didn’t have – I think we were last in baseball in velocity coming out of the bullpen so we wanted to address that too.
“With [Liam] Hendriks, Axford, Madson, not only do we get some guys who throw hard, but also some guys who are veteran guys and have pitched – at least in Madson and Axford’s cases – have closed too. It was first and foremost for us to take care of the bullpen and we did a great job with it.”
Unsure of exactly what inning or situation he might be headed for to start the year with the A’s, where he fits isn’t as important to Axford as the consistency of his use.
“A lot of my career has been defined roles, so when it’s not defined I know mentally I have to try and figure other things out,” he said. “I just know I have to stretch a little bit differently and take care of myself mentally just a little bit differently, so those things you have to try to work on and actually focus on those aspects. It can be tough at times.”
Constantly learning from those around him, picking up pieces from almost every man he has shared each bullpen with over the years, Axford is currently gleaning a lot more about the mental side of the game from the man the Athletics signed just before he made his final decision.
“One guy I’m talking to is Ryan Madson, about the way he throws his changeup and his different approach,” Axford said. “He’s a guy who was out of the game for three years and then came back just as strong as he was before, and picks up a World Series. He signed a minor-league contract last year, but got the opportunity and did well and now he’s back on top again at the back end of the ‘pen, where he was before the injuries.
“So it’s great to pick his brain a little bit about where his mindset was during those times and how he was feeling and what he was actually thinking and experiencing, and then a little baseball stuff too. But that mental side is a big part of this game, definitely. It can take you as high as you want or keep you as low as possible in this game.
‘So to have a guy who was out of the game by injury for two years, and then just took a whole year off, and then came back and was able to pitch as well as he did last year, it’s great to be able to just kind of figure out what was going on in his mind to be able to do that.”
Learning from his peers and working once again on his extroversion, Axford is so far enjoying his time with his sixth team in four seasons, and looking forward to more of the same.
“It’s pretty easygoing and laid-back,” he said. “Those are the personalities I’m getting a lot of, which is right up my alley. It’s nice to experience that from a staff standpoint and a player standpoint and they’re really emphasizing that you don’t want to grind guys too hard right away and stress guys out right in spring training, so everything is really positive and the flow of everything is really great.”