By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
TORONTO, Ontario - For John Axford, currently in his 10th season in the major leagues, joining the Toronto Blue Jays has made the game more personal than ever before.
The Simcoe-born native of Port Dover, who currently resides in Burlington, Ont., is wearing a maple leaf on his jersey for just the fourth time in his career, after playing for Team Canada in 2001, 2003, and then most recently at the World Baseball Classic in 2013.
But this time, he gets to live in the same home all-year round, occasionally take in his sons’ baseball games, and fight the Greater Toronto Area traffic on his way into work. He loves it, and so do all of his closest loved ones.
“My friends are all Jays fans, and then they became fans of whatever team I was playing for,” Axford said. “Same with my parents [Vera and Brian]. I got my parents tickets to the playoffs in 2015 here when I was playing for the Colorado Rockies. They came here and watched those games all the way through until the Blue Jays were eliminated.
“So now my friends and family are talking more openly obviously about the Jays than they would before. It’s fun for them that they can be fans of the team that I'm playing for and not fans of another team anymore as well. Having conversations with them and seeing that fandom and excitement, it makes me happy. It makes me smile.
“It’s something that I was unsure of at times in my career, if I would ever want to play here, based on the closeness to home and how that would be and what that would be like, and it’s been fantastic. It’s been great.”
There have definitely been moments in his career when Axford has made attempts to keep the personal completely away from the professional, with fears of how life at home might affect life at work and on the field, leading to doubts about playing in his home and native land, but he’s since realized that he was missing out on the ways the crossover can be an amazing part of his life.
“Some of those things can be challenging and difficult but it’s something I've worked on pretty diligently over the last few years, especially with everything that’s been going on in my life,” the 35-year-old right-hander said. “Maybe earlier in my career that’s why I was always uncertain of being able to play here and if I would be able to do that or handle that, and being older and a little bit more mature - I hope I can say that about myself - learning a few more things and being a little wiser, I've learned how to handle those things and be able to come to the ballpark and separate the two, but also embrace the two when possible.
“This past weekend, I had my sons with me at the ballpark from nine-thirty to twelve-thirty, on the field with me the entire time, we were hanging out in the kitchen, having breakfast, playing out here the whole time, out here during batting practice until twelve-thirty, when I stood on that step [next to the stands] and handed them over to my parents...
“They’re getting older and they realize who the Jays are and their friends are fans of the Jays, so being able to have them come and see the games, and talk and enjoy those moments, whether it’s giving them a piece of gum or a baseball or whatever it might be, it’s connecting those two things. Those are really great and important things to have, but obviously when I'm on the mound, that’s a whole separate connection you don’t want.”
Last season, Axford experienced much of that connection that he didn’t want during his time on the mound. His season with the Oakland Athletics began later than he would have liked and ended much more abruptly than could have been expected. At best, it was a learning experience that allowed him some extra time with his boys, JB and Jameson, turning seven and six next month, and at worst, it was a disaster of a year and a season.
“There were a lot of things that were pretty hard,” he said. “I mean, I went on the [disabled list] to start the season for the first time in my career, so that was already a tough thing for me to deal with, especially since I knew I did it to myself and it wasn’t an issue in which my body was failing me because I was getting older. It was an issue because I didn’t take care of myself in the weight room and I actually did too much...I learned from that mistake and when I maybe need to back off.
“So that was pretty devastating to start the season that way for the first time in my career, going on the DL and then coming back, feeling good, feeling strong, throwing the ball well, but the results weren’t really there and then I was just kind of scrambling. It was the end of May, beginning of June and I’d only had a few outings but I was just giving up runs. I didn’t feel like I had the time to see this through and I had to figure it out now, but I was getting in my own head about it too much.
“Everything else away from the field was really getting to me a little bit as well, weighing on me and it was coming with me to the field, and that’s what you don't want to happen. There are some moments where you can bring those two things together and you want that, but over the years, especially since last year, I've learned how to separate those two.”
Axford’s season with the Athletics ended where it began this year with the Blue Jays, at Rogers Centre. He enjoyed the high of an amazing homecoming with his boys during the road trip north of the border, before experiencing a career low just hours later.
“My last outing here was one of the best days, because I had my kids here and they were running around and everything, but I pitched that day too and there was stuff going on outside the field that I was allowing to affect me when I was out there on the mound,” the reliever said. “Then the day I was actually [designated for assignment] I had my kids out on the field and they were running around, stretching with the pitchers, we were doing races, and it was great.
“It was honestly the best day I could have had, but then it turned into one of the worst days that I could have had. I went to have breakfast with them...we went to Casa Loma and wandered the entire thing and we got to go up to the top and look over all of Toronto, so it was a beautiful day in that sense, to be able to have my kids and do that with them. Then obviously the professional side became the worst. Taking those two months off - I had opportunities to play - but the best thing I could do last year was to take that mental break. I needed it.”
That same night, not long after the transaction had been made, technically in baseball purgatory and no longer a member of the team, Axford experienced a prolonged uncomfortable period with his former teammates, sharing their charter back to Oakland.
“The worst part about it was the flight home,” he said. “Toronto to Oakland is a long flight. All my stuff was there and it was a matter of trying to figure out if I was going to play, so I needed to go back and get ready for that. So on that flight, I was crawling out of my skin. It was the absolute worst. I just wanted off the plane.
“I wanted the plane to land immediately so I could just get away. It wasn't a matter of being with the team, because the guys were great. They were really sympathetic and I was getting lots of hugs and they were all talking to me. But on a plane, I generally just want to watch movies and do nothing. I couldn't even focus on that. I remember trying to watch these two movies and I was just so scattered. I was freaking out about it. I didn’t know what to do.”
His indecision didn’t last long. Axford went through a three-day grieving period for his career in that moment, and then realized pretty quickly what he wanted to do with the rest of his summer.
“The next day, I didn’t go to the field,” he said. “We had a game, I didn’t go, and it’s like, what do I do? I’ll go out and do something and just occupy my time. The next day, I thought I would occupy my time a little bit more. I started feeling good about what I was doing and not just occupying time. Then the third day, I started documenting it through Instagram stories and saying, ‘Unemployed,’ and that I was going to buy a cactus, or that I might go watch a movie in the middle of the day just because I can, and I'm going to eat popcorn and have two brunches because I don't have to go run later.
“I was doing stuff like that and having fun with it, and by the third day I thought it was actually pretty good, I didn’t mind it. I liked having no pressure of having to go to the field with everything else going on, but I still wanted to play. So when teams were calling and my agent was telling me, ‘This team’s interested, there are playoff teams interested, they want you to maybe go to triple-A for a couple days and throw in a couple games and then you’ll be up with the big club; this is just a good opportunity for you,’ the big thought for me was that I had already worked out that my kids were supposed to come out for 12 days.
“We had a 10-game home series in August with the A’s and there were off days wrapped around the 10 days, so they were going to be out there that whole time. I kept looking at other teams’ schedules and thinking I wouldn’t be able to have my kids, I wouldn’t be able to see them, I wouldn’t be able to do that. So that’s what it ultimately came down to - I would rather see my kids right now than go play somewhere else...
“I wanted the time with my kids and I had the three-day grace period of the stages [of grieving], with anger, and I went through all those, and by Day 3, I was in the acceptance stage. I accepted what was happening, especially when I was eating popcorn and milk duds at four o’clock in the afternoon watching a movie.”
During that much-needed time in California with his sons, the three Axfords compiled a list of things they wanted to do and accomplish during their vacation, checking off the Golden Gate Bridge, mini-putting, fishing, and much more throughout the trip. And with dad right at home now, they’re able to do things like that a lot more often.
“I’m exploring things that I haven’t been able to explore before,” Axford said. “Victoria Day, I had a little picnic with my kids and some friends, and we went down to the Hamilton-Burlington beach area. There’s Adventure Village down there and we were out on the water just skipping some stones.
“I had never actually been there before, despite the fact that it’s only 10 minutes from me. We had a picnic in the grass, had some food and hung out, skipped stones on the beach, went mini-putting, and had some ice cream. It’s an area I had never been to despite living so close because in the fall and winter it’s closed...I like exploring and enjoying things that I don't get to, especially in the summertime.”
And while Axford now has a chance to watch his sons play their games - JB in rookie ball and Jameson playing t-ball - the youngest players in the family couldn't be more excited to head down the highway and watch their dad in his own, no matter what happens.
“They like watching the game,” Axford said. “The older they get, the more they pay attention; the more they focus. After a game in Oakland, they were watching it on TV at my house and my parents were with them.
“When I came home, I'd had a bum game, it was my worst game of the year, and when I got there my oldest son immediately ran up to me and hugged me and said, ‘You’re the best pitcher ever. I love you. I saw you on TV!’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I am the best, you’re right!’ It was great. That’s what they see and what they love about coming here. They have this idea that I'm the best no matter what and that’s obviously fantastic to get to have them here.”