January 27, 2011
When most baseball fans think of John Axford, they think of a hard-throwing right-hander who came out of nowhere to replace Trevor Hoffman as the Brewers’ closer last season. Many also look at him as the guy with the cool mustache, but there is far more to Axford than the 24 saves and the facial hair that is approaching cult status. A 27-year-old native and resident of Ontario, Canada, Axford teetered on the brink of baseball oblivion before making his mark in Milwaukee. He underwent Tommy John surgery while earning a film degree at Notre Dame, and subsequently found himself going from indie ball in western Canada to a minor-league stint with the Yankees, who released him after just one season. Signed off the scrapheap by the Brewers in 2008, he is now a bona fide big-leaguer and burgeoning online sensation.
David Laurila: How would you describe yourself?
John Axford: In a nutshell, I guess I’m a pretty easy-going and laid-back person. I try to stay low-key in everything I do and don’t make anything in my life into too much of a production. I like to keep things as simple as possible.
DL: What changed when you got to the big leagues?
JA: What changed? The fact that I was actually getting a paycheck I can live on. That helped a little bit. When I was first called up, I was able to put money toward my wedding and my honeymoon, and this past year we were able to purchase our first home. Otherwise, nothing, really.
DL: Do people treat you any differently?
JA: Not so much. I guess that when I’m back home, I might get the odd special treatment from certain people, but I tend to hang out with my friends, including the people I worked with when I was a bartender. I hang with people who don’t treat me special because I prefer to be treated normally. I want to be people’s friend; I don’t w>ant to be their baseball player-friend. I like to hang out with the people who talk to me about anything and everything; they don’t want to know all of the ins and outs of baseball, and they don’t think that it’s absolutely spectacular that I play baseball. I’m sure that they like it--they tell me that they do--but they don’t make a big deal of it.
DL: Is it difficult for players to maintain that attitude once they’re well-established?
JA: Yes, I think that it can be hard at times. I think it can get to your head, especially during the season itself. You can get caught up in things, and it can be pretty easy to at times, when you get special treatment from people and stay in nice hotels. You go to a restaurant in Milwaukee or in another city and you get “taken care of” in different ways.
I’m still fairly unknown, so I can go out without too many people recognizing me or seeming to care. And I prefer that, in all honesty. But I guess I am starting to get recognized more, and fans are talking to me more, so it’s a matter of not letting that get to my head.
DL: Do you ever wonder what your life would be like had the Yankees not released you, and you were playing in New York?
JA: You know, it’s tough to say just how my life would have gone. If I were still with the Yankees, I could still be in the minor leagues, especially if I hadn’t have had the breakout season like I did with the Brewers in 2009. But if I had a similar year with the Yankees--like I did this past year--it might have been different as far as people not knowing me. Milwaukee is one of the smallest markets in baseball, and New York is obviously the biggest, so I think it would be different as far as being recognized, and maybe getting opportunities to do certain things. But I’m not complaining. I like the low-key atmosphere and staying mostly anonymous while I still can.
DL: With your career path in mind, how fine of a line is there between pitching in the big leagues and being completely out of pro ball?
JA: Yeah, it is very fine, isn‘t it? It took me a long time to figure out how to actually pitch. I went through five years of college, surgery, and three years of minor-league baseball, including being released after my first year in the minor leagues. It took a while to figure things out, tinkering with mechanics and stabilizing myself mentally on the mound.
In 2009, I really started to focus on my mental approach a lot more. That came after I finally figured out the physical side of being able to pitch a little bit better and keep my walks down. Once the physical side was figured out, with my pitching coach and my pitching coordinator, the mental approach was the next step.
DL: Who are the pitching coach and coordinator you’re referring to?
JA: It was Fred Dabney, of the Brevard County Manatees--he was the pitching coach--and Lee Tunnell was, and still is, the pitching coordinator for the Brewers. They both helped me out a lot, with a big part of that happening in a game at Dunedin.
My spring training in ’09 had been horrific. I was just trying to find the strike zone, and in certain games I would just throw slop up there, basically. I was throwing like 86 to 90, just trying to throw a strike, and I was giving up runs and giving up walks. When I did try to throw hard--when I’d get it back up around 94--I was all over the place. Luckily, they gave me a shot. Luckily, they gave me a shot and they put me down into A-ball.
Partway through the first month, they approached me for a bullpen to try to work on a few mechanical things. They made sure that I wasn’t as stiff, because I was pretty upright, up and down, and mechanical in my motion. They tried to make me a little more fluid and natural, where I was turning my hips more and getting into more of an athletic position. They got me to keep everything tight all the way through my delivery, straight to the plate. That actually helped to lower my arm slot a little bit, which helped me to gain strength and velocity as well. It helped me to maintain my strength throughout my delivery, and it helped me to throw strikes a lot easier.
DL: Had any of your previous coaches suggested similar mechanical adjustments?
JA: In college… I had surgery my junior year, so my senior year I was kind of rebuilding; I was trying to get my arm strength back. Just before the start of my senior year, my forearm kind of froze up on me--this was a year after surgery--which I guess can happen at times. It was a bit of a setback.
When I came back from surgery, I had a little bit of a hitch in my delivery. It’s what I have right now, a slight pause--a bit of a hitch in back--before my arm gets going and releases the ball. To iron that out, my pitching coach at Notre Dame and I worked diligently, but we couldn’t figure out a way to get it out of my mechanics. It was just too difficult. It ended up taking, literally, four years to iron that out a little bit.
I still have a slight hitch now, but it’s just a matter of what works for me, I guess. It took a few years with pitching coaches trying, even though it was the simplest thing—just getting into a more athletic position—that really helped me.
DL: From the sounds of it, why you were finally able to make that adjustment isn’t easy to explain. It just sort of all came together.
JA: That’s really it. Before, I was trying to figure things out on the mound at times, and that’s something you never want to do as a pitcher. You want to just trust in your mechanics and let it go, but obviously, if you’re throwing the ball up and around a hitter’s face, and the next one is down in the dirt… it wasn’t so much of an in-and-out, it was more of an up-and-down factor for me. I couldn’t figure it out, and if I tried to do that on the mound, it was just ruining my game and my mental approach to the game.
Like I said, once I figured out the physical side, it was just a matter of gaining the mental stability. I think it was there before, but I had to kind of tweak it, and perfect it, a bit more. I’m still not perfect. I have a ways to go with that, but it definitely helps knowing that I’m not thinking about mechanics anymore.
DL: What kind of pitcher were you when you played independent-league ball in Saskatchewan in 2006?
JA: I was a hateful pitcher. I was angry. I had finished my fifth year of school. I had graduated from Notre Dame--which I was happy about--and transferred to Canisius College, which was close to home, to start working on a master’s degree. I wanted to get moving toward a pro career again, but graduate school was a backup, just in case. Education is always important, but what I’ve always wanted is to be a professional baseball player.
After I had a bad year [at Canisius]--I think I was 3-8, with an ERA over 5.00--professional teams weren’t exactly knocking on my door. I needed a change of scenery, and I had never been out to Saskatchewan, so I figured I’d take a shot out there. A team offered me a spot, so I went.
I pitched quite well, and I think a big part of that was the change of scenery; I got to change my mind frame a little bit. Even so, when games didn’t go well, I got upset. I would get too fired up on the mound. I’d get too fired up at the hitters, or at the catcher, or even at the position players out on the field. The mental makeup still wasn’t there. But my game was slowly coming back. My velocity was coming back; my pitches were coming back.
My very first game up there, I ended up going 7 2/3 and I got a no-decision, but I struck out something like 16 batters. So I knew that my stuff was coming back. It wasn’t like a college league--it was a summer league with some ex-pros in there, guys who had played rookie ball and A-ball--so I knew that I was coming around. Along with my velocity, I could see that my curveball was coming around, also. That first game kind of built my confidence.
DL: I’m guessing there weren’t too many scouts watching you that summer?
JA: No, there weren’t, but there were a few here and there. We played in Lethbridge, just outside of Calgary, so we did play around some bigger cities. We played in the Winnipeg area. So you could potentially run into some scouts. I remember, actually, that a scout who had watched me and tried to sign me in high school was at one of the games and ended up signing a pitcher from the other team. I pitched against him that day and we both threw complete games. He won--I think it was 3-2--and got signed, while I kept playing in Saskatchewan.
We were all over, too, so there were some pretty long bus rides, upward of eight or nine hours. But like I said, I had never been out that way, so it was kind of fun and kind of interesting. I remember waking up at 4:30 in the morning and it was completely light outside, because we were so far north and it was mid-summer, the longest days of the year. The sun is up there quite a bit longer than what I’m used to here in southern Ontario. It’s still the same country, but it was that much different in that respect. I had never experienced it before, so it was pretty cool.
DL: Did you spend much time looking out the window of the bus, pondering life after baseball and how soon that might come?
JA: I did. I debated what I was going to do if I continued my education at Canisius, or if maybe I was going to do some work online. I knew that baseball might not work out, so while I was going to keep trying to play, I also wanted to finish my master’s degree. I wanted to make sure I was stable enough to go out into the real world and get a job and start a new life.
As it turned out, I ended up signing in August of 2006. That summer, the Yankees caught wind of how I was throwing out there. In one outing, I threw a seven-inning complete game where I allowed one hit and struck out 19 guys. After that, the Yankees gave me a tryout and signed me for the 2007 season. Instead of going back to school, I took the fall of ‘06 to train and make sure that I was ready for spring training, so I don‘t have a master’s yet.
DL: You earned a BA in film, at Notre Dame. Why film?
JA: Yes, I got a BA in film and started doing my master’s of science in sports administration. Film was actually my fourth major. I had done a lot of TV and AV stuff in high school and liked it a lot, so after I jumped around from the teaching department, to sociology, to psychology, I settled on film. I absolutely loved every film class that I had at Notre Dame. I got to work hands-on. I got to make a 16-millimeter black-and-white silent film. I got to work on an old Steenbeck machine, where you actually cut the film itself and tape it together, and put all of the splices in it.
DL: What was the subject matter of the film you made?
JA: It was very dark. That’s one thing I discovered, I guess, about myself. I was kind of always into the dark media of film. Even from the novels I read--my wife will always tell people that when the subject comes up--but it was at Notre Dame where I realized that the darker films we watched were the ones I actually embraced and liked more. Those were the kind of films I wanted to make.
I would write screenplays or submit a synopsis of what I wanted to do, and most of the time they were usually too dark. My professors were always telling me that we should tone down here, or do this differently, or they would team me up with somebody who had a completely different idea--something happy. They knew that we would work together to make something a little more dramatic rather than either super happy or super sad, which was the way I would look at it.
DL: If you made a baseball film, what would it look like?
JA: I’m not sure, but I don’t think it would be like any baseball movie that I’ve seen. It wouldn’t be like Bull Durham, or Major League, or The Natural. It would be a more in-depth insight into the thoughts. I’d pick the brains of the characters about what is going on in their lives. Baseball can be lonely, and you can relate to that in certain aspects of your life.
That’s the approach I’d take, but that being said, I actually have written a screenplay about baseball. I’ve submitted it, actually, to a production company called Green Diamond Entertainment, which is owned by Todd Zeile, Jason Giambi, Mike Piazza, and a couple of other people in the baseball world. They’ve put out one movie, called Dirty Deeds, which is kind of like an American Pie movie.
I had this idea that I pitched to them about a Little League film. What happened is that somebody I knew from college called me and said he had met this guy who had something he wanted made into a film, but couldn’t really afford a screenwriter, so he was kind of optioning it out to other people. So I talked to this guy on the phone and got all of his ideas, and it ended up being a pretty cool idea, albeit not quite something that I would write. Like I said, I probably would have taken more of a darker look at the game, and this was a little more upbeat, kind of a Desperate Housewives-meets-baseball kind of thing.
Anyway, I guess that it was based on true events in this gentleman’s life, so I wrote it, got a copyright, and submitted it.
I’m pretty proud that I wrote a full 150-page screenplay and had it submitted to a production company--and they read it--even though they ultimately decided to go in another direction. They decided that the money wasn’t there, so they’re waiting for the next film to be made. Now that I’m in the baseball community a little bit more, maybe I can touch base with them again someday and see if we can make something happen.
DL: You said that baseball can be lonely at times. Why is that?
JA: It’s just a tough life at times. Everyone looks up to you as a great role model, and they expect you to be at the top of your game all the time. They expect you to do a certain thing for them, whether it’s sign something, or pose for a picture--they just want you to be there and smile for them and be happy, but something might not be going well that day. You can’t show that to the fans, and you can’t show that side of you when you’re on the mound. When you’re playing the game, you have to hold those emotions in. Outside of the game, you can maybe let them go a little more.
At the same time, if those emotions are bothering you on the road, and your family is not with you, it can be lonely, and it can be difficult. I think that a lot of players go through that. Everybody goes through it, but because of the eyes that are watching you, in baseball, it can feel lonely. You’re out there on the mound on your own--or you’re out there at a position on your own--and even though there are 45,000 people screaming for you, or at you… you’re definitely not alone, but you can be lonely. That’s how I perceive it at times, but I guess that’s just some of my dark nature coming out again.
I realize that I seem to be making baseball into this brooding and depressing sport, but it's really not. I have great teammates, and I love hanging out with them. There's nothing I love more than being out on that mound and being able to close out a game. The camaraderie and friendship far outweighs any isolation that you may feel.
DL: On your Facebook page, you recently wished a happy birthday to Edgar Allan Poe. Why?
JA: I just find it really interesting that people would come by his grave, every year on his birthday, and wait patiently outside the gates just see a hooded, cloaked man with a white scarf walk to his grave and lay roses down and half a bottle of cognac. He was a fairly horrifying writer, but a lot of people find this particular event to be beautiful. They’re finding good in something that is kind of sad and distraught for many people. His legend lives on through the people that go to his grave as well as through his writing, so I find the whole story and embodiment of Edgar Allan Poe pretty interesting.
DL: Is that combination of sad and beautiful analogous to baseball?
JA: It definitely is. It’s a simple game, but at the same time it is beautiful. There are so many nuances to baseball that are perfect, even if the game itself isn’t. I think that goes back to the individual aspect of the game, where it can be lonely. You can put yourself into a little corner just by the things that you do. Certain guys have different superstitions--and superstitions are usually done alone--and they kind of reinforce the beauty of baseball. That’s a part of the game that many people never really see.
One of my favorite parts of going down to spring training is getting a chance to smell the leather of a baseball glove, or a brand-new baseball. It’s not like I’d take a ball and bring it up to my face and smell it on the mound, but I’d do it on my own. It’s the same with the sounds and smells of different ballparks. All of these things are unique to each individual. Each person takes away something different from each ballpark, and from each game, and that’s what’s great and beautiful about it.
DL: You’re on Twitter and Facebook. Why do you feel it’s important to interact with fans in those media?
JA: I actually thought the exact opposite, originally. When I was first approached with the idea, I thought it was a terrible idea. I wasn’t interested in the least, especially with Twitter. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in talking to fans, it’s just that I don’t feel people really need to know what I’m eating for breakfast, or what I’m doing each and every day. But the more I thought about it, Twitter isn’t necessarily all about that. I kind of post outside of what I’m doing throughout the day. Maybe I will once in awhile, if I think it’s fun and somebody might actually be interested in it. I’ll post what I like to listen to, maybe.
I guess I just want people to see and understand what is beneath the baseball player. It’s a huge difference in perspective from what you’re seeing on your TV or at the ballpark. There you only see the one side, the baseball side. Here they get to see a different side of me, and a different emotion of me. It opens me up a little as well, and breaks me out of my shell. It also helps me not to take things too seriously.
I’ve actually been on Facebook since it first started. Notre Dame was one of the first schools who got it; they were one of 20 or 25 that did. You had to have that .edu at the end of your address to be on it back in 2003, or 2004, and I remember that I enjoyed it. I figured that since Facebook is much bigger now—it’s huge—it would be a good way to reach out to fans.
Of course, there are some players out there who aren’t using their own Facebook--their own fan pages. The same with Twitter. So it’s pretty important to make sure that you’re actually monitoring it, or at least letting the fans know how you feel or what you’re doing once in awhile. At the same time, maybe you need to clear the air about something that was wrongfully said about you. You can definitely clear the air on the internet.