"When you're serving peach belinis to a table and getting a two dollar tip," Brewers closer John Axford was saying one afternoon in Pittsburgh, "you're not really thinking about getting to the big leagues and someday pitching in the World Series. You're kind of removed from that reality."
This was John Axford's reality two springs ago: he was serving peach belinis at a joint called East Side Mario's in Hamilton, Ontario in his native Canada, making $8.25 an hour as a bartender. That was after he worked an $8-an hour gig selling cell phones for a Canadian telecommunications company at local Wal-Marts and Best Buys. "They gave me a cell phone when I started, and I sold it on eBay for something like 250 bucks," says Axford, who was released by the Yankees in 2007, after one season in the minors. "I needed the cash a lot more than I needed than the cell phone."
Axford was 24, struggling just to scrape by. "There were a lot of times where I couldn't get money out of the ATM because I didn't have enough. Those moments, you're asking yourself, 'What's going on here? What am I doing?'"
How Axford went from Best Buy to the Brewers bullpen is one of the most remarkable stories in baseball. Today he is one of the top closers in the game --- he is second in the majors in saves with 37 and hasn't blown a save since April 18 --- and now, with his Brewers cruising toward October with a Secretariat-like lead in the National League Central, the 28-year-old righthander is poised to become one of the postseason's breakout stars. Last October it was Brian Wilson and The Beard. Get ready for The Ax Man and The 'Stache.
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Two days in Dunedin. That's all it took for the great transformation of John Axford.
Axford had been drafted twice, once in the seventh round by the Mariners in 2001 and then, after an itinerant college career at Notre Dame and Canisius, by the Reds in the 42nd round in 2005. Yet it wasn't until 2007, with the Yankees, that he finally began his pro career, pitching at four levels, including a one-game cameo at Triple-A. After he was dumped by New York and began selling cell phones, Axford trained on his own and held a session for scouts at a local facility to watch him pitch. A snowstorm hit the area, and just one scout showed up. That scout convinced the Brewers to sign Axford, but in 2008 at Class-A, Axford looked more like the pitcher he was with in New York's system than a future star --- a wild thrower (he walked 73 in 95 innings) with an average fastball that topped out in the low 90s.
Then, everything changed over two days the following spring in Dunedin, Fla., where Axford was working with Class A Brevard County pitching coach Fred Dabney and Brewers pitching coordinator Lee Tunnell.
Recalls Axford: "The first thing [Tunnell] said to me was, 'We want to work on something. Do you know who Roy Halladay is?' I'm like, 'Uh, yeah.' He had worked with Halladay [in the Arizona Fall League], and he says to me, 'I want you to throw like him right now. Try to think about how he throws and emulate his mechanics.' So I did a little bit of a turn -- my back was always very straight up and down, so I just kind of had a little bit more of a knee turn, and my back immediately went down and my arm slot lowered. Obviously, I didn't look anything like Roy Halladay, but in my mind I guess I kind of did. I kept on throwing and I threw a couple two seamers that actually moved, which had never happened before.
"I used to throw 89 and as high as 92, 93 on my fastball. But my next outting, which was the next day, I don't think I had a fastball that was lower than 93 or 94, and I was topping out at 96. The way the coaches put it was this: I needed to stay more athletic. I was just too mechanical, too up and down, focusing too much on trying to throw strikes. I needed to stay more athletic out there and throwing strikes. And everything kind of changed after that."
The new John Axford was in The Show by the end of 2009, and when Trevor Hoffman struggled to start the season in 2010, Axford was called on to split closing duties with the alltime saves leader. "I was never officially told I was going to be the closer," says Axford. "It wasn't until we finished playing catch one day when Trevor said, 'Hey I don't know if you read the paper, but people are trying to say things and stir up controversy, but don't listen to them, don't worry about what's going on. You're the closer. You're going to be the guy. Don't think anything different.' To have him pull me aside and say that was kind of surreal and pretty awesome. It meant that maybe he saw something in me that I had the capability to keep doing this."
Axford has been so good this season that there wasn't a similar controversy when Francisco Rodriguez, who owns the single-season saves record with 62, arrived from the Mets in July. An introspective, laid-back Canadian with an ever-evolving moustache that's just as spectacular as Brian Wilson's beard, Axford has turned out to be a perfect fit in one of the loosest clubhouses in the majors. "He can order the finest pale ale around, discuss Salvador Dali art and review nearly every movie ever made to boot," says his agent, Dan Horwits of the Beverly Hills Sports Council. A serious film buff (he's more of a Michael Haneke than a Michael Bay guy), Axford has a film degree from Notre Dame and has been trying to find 20, 30 minutes a day this summer to work on a screenplay that's "definitely not baseball related. When I describe it to people, I tell them it's not really linear. If it comes out the way I want it to, it's going to be fairly sad and tragic and observational, kind of along the lines of
How will the story of the Brewers' 2011 season end? Milwaukee's fortunes could very well rise or fall with the most unlikely closer in baseball.