Pirates' Axford overcame long odds to reach majors

| Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, 10:00 p.m.

When John Axford finished his short rookie season with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2009, he was given three jerseys.

The first one he kept. The second he gave to his father, Brian. The third jersey hangs, signed and enclosed in glass, for all the patrons at the Hamilton, Ontario East Side Mario's restaurant to see.

After all, it's a place near and dear to Axford. It's where he and his family stop by to eat once a week during the offseason and where his name always is brought up among the regulars when the 6-foot-5 reliever is south of the border. It's also where he held his last non-baseball job before making it big.

The Pirates' latest acquisition off waivers has more lines on his resume than most, both in the big leagues — where he plays for his fourth team in six years — and path to professional baseball, but he said the reward was worth the wait.

“It's a movie in the making,” said Mike Simoncic, Axford's friend and former employer at East Side Mario's.

As a young Canadian fireballer, Axford was chosen in the seventh round of the 2001 MLB Draft, but instead signed with Notre Dame, helping the Fighting Irish — as a freshman — to their first College World Series appearance in 45 years.

But in the fall before his junior year, in Notre Dame's annual Blue-Gold World Series intrasquad game, Axford ended his outing with a curveball for a strikeout, then walked off the field holding his right elbow. A torn UCL required Tommy John surgery and a full spring and summer off.

In his first year back from injury, Axford was nowhere close to form.

“He just struggled really badly with his whole arm action, and it was almost like he forgot how to throw a baseball,” said former Notre Dame and current LSU baseball coach Paul Maineiri. “It was really hard for him.”

Axford transferred to Canisius for his final year of eligibility, but left college without a professional contract and headed to Saskatchewan to play for the Western Major Baseball League's Mellville Millionaires.

The team name was a bit of a cruel joke — Axford said he “made some scratch” at the time repairing baseball fields and fences — but he was finally healthy enough to overpower his competition. A seven-inning, 19-strikeout performance was enough to earn a minor-league contract from the Yankees. He pitched in the Yankees system in 2007 before being released in December. He spent the holiday season selling cell phones for Telus, a Canadian telecommunications company.

The Brewers gave Axford a chance in 2008, but he struggled with his control and failed to make it beyond high-A Brevard County. In the offseason, he applied for a job at East Side Mario's, where he befriended Simoncic, who had been drafted by the CFL in the '90s.

“He had talked about giving up on his dream and getting a job,” Simoncic said. “I told him, ‘There's plenty of time for finding a job. You don't want to look 20 years down the road ask what could have happened.'”

Simoncic also made Axford a promise to be there for his major league debut, wherever and whenever it was.

That date was accelerated thanks to an adjustment made by former Pirate Lee Tunnell, then the Brewers minor league pitching coordinator, and Fred Dabney, the former Brevard County Manatees pitching coach, the following spring training.

“He was always a guy who threw upright,” said Dabney, now the pitching coach for the Nashville Sounds, the Brewers' AAA affiliate. “It just seemed like he had more in the tank.”

Adding more of a hip turn and a lower arm slot in one of his bullpen sessions, Axford said the results were immediately noticeable.

“Two days later, I was pitching in a game, and I was hitting 96 miles an hour,” Axford said. “When you see that happen that quickly, you want to keep throwing faster.”

Even more rapid from that point was his progression through the minor leagues. In February 2009, he was a bartender. By September, he was a Brewer.

Simoncic even kept his promise, traveling to Chicago to catch Axford's debut at Wrigley Field. After watching his former employee pitch from two rows back, Simoncic had one more question for Axford, who has been a major league pitcher ever since.

“So, do you want to come back and work, still?” Simoncic asked, then laughed.

“You know what?” Axford replied. “I think I'll take this offseason off.”

Andrew Erickson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at aerickson@tribweb.com.

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