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Brewers closer John Axford is upbeat, accomodating and highly appreciative

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Michael Hunt
March 1, 2011
— Early one morning, John Axford was sitting at a table in the middle of the Brewers’ spring training clubhouse with a big stack of fan mail in front of him.

He carefully opened each by tearing the edge of the envelope and, like Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent character, blew inside to make sure he found every last piece of correspondence.


Letters, baseball cards, whatever, the Brewers’ closer took time to read, respond and/or sign everything.


Of course, a guy like Axford is not going to receive the volume of something as archaic as snail mail as, say, a Prince Fielder or a Ryan Braun. But there was a certain quaintness about seeing a big-leaguer still going through the process.


“The fans are important, and it’s important that we recognize that,” Axford said. “It’s amazing to have the kind of fan support we have in Milwaukee. We were drawing 35,000 a game last year when we were under .500.


“You cannot complain about the atmosphere. It’s like that all over Wisconsin, especially after the Super Bowl. The fans are great. They deserve it.”


This is not to set up, if you’ll pardon the pun, Axford as the Humanitarian of the Year next to staff ace Zack Greinke, who doesn’t do autographs and would prefer to be left alone.


The range of personalities in a baseball clubhouse is as wide as in the general population. It’s not a matter of better or worse. It’s just different. And that’s good.


The point is how Axford’s upbeat, friendly and accommodating personality has helped him to finally be successful in a job where ultimate failure is part of the deal.


“From what I hear, he has the right mentality to do the job,” new manager Ron Roenicke said. “It’s way different. You have to accept the fact that you lose the ballgame, and that’s not easy to do.


“Lose it in the ninth and have to walk off the field; that’s the hardest part.”


By now, you know Axford’s story.


Drafted in the 42nd round in 2005 by Cincinnati, he bounced around the minors with the Yankees until the Brewers took a flier on him a couple of years ago. By the middle of last May, without having closed a game in his career, Axford followed maybe the toughest act in the game. He was given the job when the ultra-popular Trevor Hoffman’s Hall of Fame career reached its end.


Axford quickly won over the fans with his Rollie Fingers-style handlebar mustache and his typically Canadian affability, but they liked him a whole lot more when he finished the season with 24 saves, 76 strikeouts in 58 innings, an 8-2 record and a 2.48 ERA.


“He’s been through the ups and downs,” Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. “He’s been signed, injured and released. All that he’s been through lends a certain reality.”


For Axford, who’ll be 28 on April Fool’s Day, it also lends a certain appreciation for the fact that he’s now the guy after years of setbacks.


“A calming factor” was the way he put it.


Some players become instant millionaires at 18 because they were born with a golden arm. Some guys have to persevere with what they’ve been given.


Even when Axford got food poisoning just before training camp, he rolled with it. Wouldn’t you know it, he was taking his pregnant wife—their first son is due June 24—out for sushi when he somehow found the one bad piece.


“The one that did me in,” he said.


The closer’s job often has the same effect.


How many have the Brewers been through in the last decade? Except for the freaks of nature that are Mariano Rivera and the now-retired Hoffman, it is a role that chews up players and spits them out as insurance salesmen.


While there is no guarantee how long Axford can do the job, the guess here is that his spirits will hold up long after his arm gives out.



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