Axford's love for game never wavered
Grateful closer discusses his path to the Major Leagues
CINCINNATI -- There was a time, not too long ago, when John Axford didn't know if he'd make it to the big leagues.
You might not know it by looking at him, but the Brewers reliever didn't always close out ballgames. Instead, the mustachioed hurler closed sales on cellphones.
Axford also spent time tending bar. Now, he tends the Brewers' bullpen.
No, Axford's road to the bigs was definitely atypical.
But the one thing it was? Remarkable.
Axford's story begins in 2001, when he was drafted by the Mariners in the 42nd round of the First-Year Player Draft. Instead of becoming a Mariner, Axford opted to attend the University of Notre Dame.
But in 2003 of his junior year, he underwent Tommy John surgery, and then later lost his scholarship as a red-shirt senior in '05.
After getting his diploma in film, TV and theatre at Notre Dame, Axford was drafted in 2005, this time by the Cincinnati Reds. But after watching Axford pitch for Canisius College (using up his final year of college athletic eligibility after missing a year because of the surgery), the Reds passed on offering him a contract.
Axford then entered a college summer baseball league, where his skills caught the attention of the Yankees, who offered him a Minor League free-agent contract. After treading water with the Yankees' Class A clubs, Axford was released.
Finally, Axford snagged a contract to become a member of the team he's still with today, the Brewers. That's where the bartending came in, serving as a side job during the offseason.
After working his way through Milwaukee's farm system, Axford got the call to join the Brewers in 2009. After a rough first outing, Axford was back in the Minors to start '10. However, he didn't have to wait long for a second chance: He was recalled to Milwaukee that May and was handed the closer's role, one he'd never handled before.
But "The Ax Man" was up for the challenge. He compiled an 8-2 record with 24 saves and a 2.48 ERA in 50 games.
If 2010 was a good year for Axford, '11 was even better. His ERA improved to 1.95, and he set a franchise record for single-season saves (46).
Axford certainly took the road less traveled, but he said it's worked to his advantage.
"I think that path is what's actually helped me to a certain extent, to stay a little away from the game and humbled as well," Axford said. "It took a little while to get here, so I am not going to take anything for granted, that's for sure.
"It took many steps that I didn't think or anticipate, including bartending, including selling cellphones ... all those things helped though. They helped establish who I am; helped me get a little bit of a tough skin. And I think it really helped me with my perseverance."
Perseverance is something Axford needed quite a bit of on his bumpy road to the bigs. One might wonder what kept him going. That's a question Axford is quick to answer.
"Just my passion and love for the game [kept me going], in all honesty. It wasn't something I wanted to step away from immediately. [Leaving baseball] was something I thought about a couple times, but I was going to keep going through, keep enduring as much as I could," Axford said.
"You know, in the offseason, bartending pays a lot more than Minor League Baseball. It wasn't that bad of a gig. I was just going to keep working out and preparing for each season and whatever I could do to help pay the bills, that's what I was going to do."
And so, with that can-do attitude, Axford broke into the Majors. And as the righty soon found out, the road to success was better paved.
Even so, Axford doesn't take anything for granted. He's immersed himself in getting the most he can out of his big league experience. Axford, only in his second full season with the Brewers, didn't just get his feet wet, he chose to dive in -- all the way up to his famed mustache and long locks.
Part of that immersion involved becoming active on Twitter and Facebook.
"At first, I wasn't too sure about Twitter and social media in general," Axford readily admitted. "I was part of the Facebook medium when I was in college when that came out. As far as saying everything you needed to in 140 characters [on Twitter], just to tell people what you were having for breakfast, I didn't think that was really the thing.
"But then I realized Twitter is something more than that, something I could interact with fans, hear comments from them and actually be able to comment back. I just wanted the fans to see a different side of me than the baseball player, to see the family guy, the guy that likes to have fun, the guy that has a regular life outside of baseball."
As a converted social media skeptic, Axford said the positives of it outweigh the negatives.
"You know, with cameras everywhere, [it's] instant news, instant access all the time," Axford said. "If you do one thing stupid, it's going to be on there immediately; everyone's going to know about it. So that's a little bit of a downfall to it. But it's a good thing, too, because people want the information immediately, they want news immediately.
"If you can't watch a ballgame [or] you can't listen to a ballgame, you can jump on Twitter and see something like that. And if you want an update on a player or see if why they're not at a game like me -- like a couple of days ago [when] I was out for the birth of my son -- you can find out pretty quickly."
And when that baby gave Axford's wife contractions -- during a game in which Axford's 49-save streak ended -- Axford jetted to the hospital, leaving reporters a note explaining the circumstances in typical Axford style.
"Media: I put my wife into contractions with my performance tonight!" read the handwritten note on Brewers stationery. "So I had to run to the hospital. The streak is over, so now you can talk about it. The luck I've had in the past didn't show up tonight! All I can do is begin another streak and keep my head up! Cliché ... cliché ... another cliché. Gotta go! Love, Ax."
Indeed, Axford loves being a big leaguer. And as it turns out, the big leagues love him, too.
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.