Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Let's bring this city to life, to light, tonight

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John Axford has seen a lot over his 10-year Major League career. Drafted twice without signing, traded, designated for assignment (twice) before totaling more than 140 career saves, including one season where he received Cy Young and MVP votes, all came before he found his way onto the team he cheered for as a kid growing up in Port Dover, Ontario, the Toronto Blue Jays.

He’s onto his nineth different big league teams and has called more than 400 different players his teammate. One of those teammates and Axford’s biggest mentor, Trevor Hoffman, was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, this weekend.

The day before Hoffman’s bust was unveiled, Axford achieved something his teammate in Milwaukee never did during his 18-year career: Axford started a big league game after 537 consecutive appearances out of the bullpen, throwing three perfect innings against the White Sox in Chicago.

Stepping in for the Blue Jays after they traded starter JA Happ to the Yankees, this wasn’t just another day at the office for the big right-hander. “I tried to hide as many smiles as I could,” Axford admitted post-game.

It’s another conversation piece for the Jays unofficial bullpen leader, a job he relishes as it allows he and his fellow relievers to “discuss different baseball lives.” More than just the de-facto leader of the relief corps, Axford is also the Blue Jays bullpen dad.

Axford is father to two sons at home, but at the ballpark he jokingly referred to himself as “Papa Ax,” a nickname that stuck with at least one teammate. He is the well-traveled fount of wisdom and cat-herder-in-chief for meals and events on the road.

More than just serving as the guy who knows where to get the best steak, Axford can lean on everything he learned from a Hall of Famer like Hoffman, who Axford credits with instilling the value of good habits at the beginning of his career.

“He watched me warm up and then talked to me after, “Why did you warm up like that? How many pitches did you throw? Why did you do it like that?”

Learning to conserve his energy and make every throw count is one of the tips Axford relays when his teammates ask him how he has maintained his velocity (he averages 95.5 miles per hour on his fastball at age 36, just a hair off the velocity he featured during his career best seasons in 2011 and 2012.)

It was a process that Axford honed over time, learning from mentors like Hoffman or LaTroy Hawkins, who pitched well into his forties. “I was skinnier, not as strong. My hands were moving, my body was moving to try and generate that power. Now I have more strength, definitely more dad strength.”

Axford is no run-of-the-mill baseball dad. He’s also known as a cinephile famous for his Oscar picks (a perfect ballot in 2014!) as well as his eclectic musical tastes, which skew “Tattooed Elbows Dad.” While many of his teammates are playing Fortnite, he’s listening to Refused records and posting video evidence to Instagram.

(Full disclosure: I, a fellow southern Ontario-raised, Refused enjoying Dad, once introduced myself to John Axford at a Run The Jewels show in Toronto.)

From listening to Dad Rock to expounding on the value of rest, Axford is the bullpen dad baseball didn’t know it needed. As the game gets younger, bullpens are the last bastion of corny older dudes in a sport long home to the boilered and otherwise unathletic among us.

Axford, who signed a minor league contract this winter before earning his way onto the Jays squad in Spring Training, has rebuilt a lot of his value in 2018, pitching well enough in a setup role to earn a trade to a post-season contender, as the Los Angeles Dodgers pulled the trigger on a deal for the big righty with mere moments to go before the trade deadline.

He’s walking fewer batters per nine innings than he has since 2011, his breakout season in Milwaukee, limiting hard contact while also inducing more softly hit balls than any other time as a big leaguer.

Outside a rocky first appearance with the Dodgers and before a freak leg injury put him on the disabled list, Axford looked very much like a player with a lot to offer the game, both as a productive player and valued veteran with a lot of wisdom to impart on the next generation of fireballers.

As the game evolves, Axford thinks relief pitchers are going to evolve right along with it, pointing to current Jays bullpen were a group that was both a throwback and future-looking, a group that “can do a little bit of everything, from right and left side and age, too.”

From his dad rock to dad vibes, Axford knows there’s more wisdom to glean from the game than what pitch to throw in what situation. Crossing paths with so many different players, from Hall of Famers and lifers with 1000 big league games under their belt, he appreciates those who don’t try to take too much from a life within the game.

“Maybe that’s dad strength, know when it’s time to pass it on to someone else.”

1 comment:

  1. The fact that Refused: The Shape of Punk to Come could be considered Dad rock would have been enough to send the 17 year old I was when that record came out in to a legitimate coma. Nobody wants to see Dads moving to the New Beat. 2 kids later, and 20 years on I can't really argue the point. It's such Dad rock now.


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