Axford overcame a great deal

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:52 AM ET

It's the kind of story that baseball movies are made from.

This one still has plenty of endings available, most of them good.

Will John Axford eventually pitch in a World Series? Will he eventually win an award as the Major League's top closer?

No matter how it ends, it's been a hell of a story getting there.

From Canadian pitching phenom to college scholarship to blown-out elbow to Tommy John surgery to working at WalMart and behind a bar to rehab to resurrection to Major League success story.

The 27-year-old Simcoe native will finish his rookie season in the majors on Sunday with his Milwaukee Brewers taking on the Reds in Cincinnati.

Wednesday, the hard-throwing righthander earned his 23rd save for the Brew Crew.

"From a personal standpoint, it's like a dream come true," Axford said from New York. "To have this kind of rookie year . . . the past wasn't quite the way I expected but it worked out. All the hard work has paid off."

Axford has pretty much been through it all. He was on his third year of a scholarship at Notre Dame in 2001 when he hurt his elbow. His scholarship was not renewed but the Reds drafted him anyway. In the end, Cincinnati released him.

"It was a hard hit and hurt my pride," Axford said. "Professional baseball was something I was destined to be a part of and it wasn't going in that direction at all. That was the biggest moment I thought it wasn't going to happen for me."

It took a while for Axford to get over the surgery. He went to Canisius College in Buffalo and pitched 70 innings, striking out 75 and walking 75.

He went home to Simcoe and wound up pitching in the Intercounty Baseball League with Brantford and then went to the Western Major Baseball League.

"It wasn't in me to stop," he said. "Things weren't going right. I needed a different view. Played in Saskatchewan in the Western League. I found my groove at times. My velocity started to come back and I guess baseball people heard how I was doing out there."

But he wasn't back yet. In 2006, the Yankees signed him to the minors, but Axford still had control trouble.

He was released after the season and went home, where he continued to work out indoors. He could tell things were getting better but there was no guarantee he'd get another shot at pro ball.

So the meantime, he was trying to make ends meet. One summer he sold cellphones at Wal-Mart and Best Buy. The winter that marked his return to pro ball, he was working as a bartender.

The Brewers heard about his indoor workouts and took a chance. In 2008, they signed him to single-A.

"When you're selling cellphones and working as a bartender, it gets to be a little bit of a grind. It's a little difficult to think you're going to do this professionally for the rest of your life, but you have to fight through it."

There was no doubt Axford's arm was sound and he threw hard, but still there was that control problem.

In 2009, everything fell into place. He became an overnight success after five years of hard work. He flew through three levels of the minors, getting a call-up in September.

He had a great spring this year but there was no room on the big league roster so he was sent down to triple-A.

But when Brewers ancient closer Trevor Hoffman, the all-time save leader in Major League Baseball, blew five save opportunities, Axford was called up in mid-May.

"Everything has been phenomenal," he said. "And I couldn't have a better mentor than Trevor Hoffman."

From all reports, the Brewers love Axford's temperament, his attitude and, no surprise here, his arm. His tenacity is unquestioned because he could have packed it in many times when he was struggling to get back.

"I've never been a closer before but being in the situation right now closing out games, it's exhilarating," he said. "I love stepping on the field in the ninth inning, the fans are yelling at you. The game is dependent on you at that point to see how the result is going to be.

"Sometimes you fail but luckily for me, most times this year I've been successful."

Successful is an understatement. To go with his 23 saves, he has an ERA of 2.53 and an 8-2 record. In 57 innings he's struck out 74 and only walked 26.

"You can be in this game today and gone tomorrow," he said. "Because I worked as hard as I could and because I didn't break in until I was 26 years old, I'm going to live and love every single day I'm here. When I go to the ballpark, I want to get there early. When I go to a ballpark I haven't been to, I walk through them to see what the stadium's all about. I'm loving the whole year and the whole atmosphere and I think that's what's really helping me.

"I worked so hard to get here and now that I am here, I'm not going to take anything for granted."

morris.dallacosta@sunmedia.ca


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