Brewers' Axford still learning from Hoffman
Hoffman, who retired this offseason, sent a text message to Axford after hearing about Axford's illness to start camp — hoping to remind Axford he'd faced bigger obstacles last year.
Before Axford's ascent last year, the 27-year-old right-hander's spring training began with a massive pileup in Nebraska when whiteout conditions sent more than 40 cars careening into each other.
Axford, a mustache maven for his Rollie Fingers look, had been on the way to workout with Hoffman in San Diego just before the start of spring training on a three-day drive when he spent about four hours waiting for help and a lift. His first calls were to his wife and the Brewers trainer before he began helping direct other wrecked motorists to safety.
"There were over 100 accidents over a five-mile stretch," said Axford, who wasn't seriously hurt. "We were all huddled in snow up to our waist."
Axford never made it to San Diego, but reported to Maryvale Baseball Park early. A month into the season, he was called up and then saving games when Hoffman began to struggle. Axford converted 24 of 27 save opportunities his rookie year with a 2.48 ERA and was so good the Brewers didn't pick up Hoffman's option.
While Hoffman's appearances dwindled, he talked to Axford and the other relievers and continued to work with them on what it takes to have a long career in the majors.
"Every other day or something there'll be a comment or something, what he's done for the team," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "His name comes up a lot. Hopefully it carries on a lot. From what I gather, he's pretty tough to replace."
Axford spent the offseason at his new home in Hamilton, Ontario with his wife, Nicole, who is expecting the couple's first child in June. At times, his baseball career appeared to be nothing more than a minor-league journeyman.
He got an offseason job as a bartender because the former New York farmhand had "Yankees" on the resume and the boss was curious if it was true. The tip money he received went to buy an engagement ring.
"It was a tough market out there for a guy with a B.A. in Film and part of a Master's degree," Axford joked.
He's also sold cell phones at big box stores and worked at special events, all while battling command on the field until this past year.
Axford is still behind on the mound this year because the food poisoning set him back several days, but manager Ron Roenicke said Saturday it won't take as long to get him ready for the season because of the limited innings he'll need to pitch over the exhibition slate.
Axford's path has kept him grounded.
He's become an immediate fan favorite for his use of Twitter (johnaxford) and his ability to connect because of his blue-collar background and shrewd sense of humor.
He lamented not owning a snowblower this winter or a ladder long enough to knock off the five-foot icicles from the side of his multilevel home because the extra length from a 17-foot ladder to a 21-foot version cost $200 more.
Axford's version of a gym was working out in an unheated garage in the Hamilton area, where the average January temperature is 23 degrees, by using a squat rack and a few other items. His trainer was the boyfriend of his wife's maid of honor.
Axford is more secure knowing there will be a role for him on the Brewers after he weathered the tough path of replacing the all-time saves leader while establishing himself on the major-league level.
"I'm still trying to go through spring really similar to last year to prove myself," Axford said. "There's a little bit more of an ease. I've got a lot of weight off my back knowing there is a spot in the 'pen for me."
It's a big spot.
Axford will be counted on to help a bullpen that finished 26th in the majors in ERA last year at 4.47. Milwaukee signed free agent Takashi Saito and the Brewers hope LaTroy Hawkins can return this year after injuries hampered him last season.
"LaTroy had a phenomenal year the year before in '09. If he comes back healthy, everybody's looking for huge things from him again," Axford said. "Everyone expects great things from each other."