What a Long, Strange Ride It’s Been for John Axford

Axford went from hero to goat in Milwaukee

What have you done for me lately?

For the better portion of 2012 and essentially all of 2013, Milwaukee Brewers fans have asked exactly that of the man with the glorious mustache, the man who looked like he could have also been Captain Morgan (I've never seen them in the same room together), and the man who played an integral role in the team's 2011 success story. 

That man is John Axford, and he pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals now.

So how did it come to this?

Brewers' beat writer Todd Rosiak prefaces the move perfectly, saying: “Nothing about John Axford's major-league career has ever followed protocol, so why should his trade from the Milwaukee Brewers have been any different?”

Axford's journey to the majors began at the University of Notre Dame, but Tommy John surgery in December of 2003 kept him out until the end of 2005, when he then transferred to Canisius. 

After performing very well at a summer league in Canada, he was given a chance in 2007, as he was signed by the New York Yankees organization. At the end of the season, however, he was given his release.

Enter the Milwaukee Brewers.

In 2010, as a rookie at the major-league level, Axford began building what would be become a strange legacy. He started off by replacing Trevor Hoffman, a living legend — who at the time was baseball's all-time saves leader. 

He went on to convert his first 14 save opportunities before finally letting one slip away. He ended the 2010 season with 24 saves, posting an impressive 2.48 ERA. He had done enough; John Axford was here to stay.

A comment from that article in 2010 read: “John Axford, I love to read your story. Milwaukee loves you! Keep doing what you're doing.” Milwaukee loves you … hang onto that thought for later.

By the beginning of the 2011 season, the closer role was Axford's to lose. He blew his first save of the season on his first opportunity, taking the loss in an April contest against the Cincinnati Reds. From that game forward, though, he was nothing less than perfection.

Axford's 2011 season made for a wonderful story. He came from relatively out of nowhere to earn the closer role over an aging, fading legend in 2010, then posted a 1.95 ERA with 46 saves in 2011 in roughly 74 innings of work. 

That stellar season saw him crowned as the Rolaids Reliever of the Year. In fact, he carried a consecutive saves streak of 49 into May of 2012 before having it snapped by the Chicago Cubs.

Axford's run of perfection had ended, but he was as classy as ever after the game even though he was nowhere to be found. You see, on the evening of May 12th Axford's wife needed to go to the hospital because she was eight months pregnant. So, what did John Axford do to remedy his absence? Well…

axford's note

And that's why you always leave a note.

Class, a sense of humor, and humility never left Axford's side, but for the rest of the 2012 season into the beginning of the 2013 campaign, Axford's ability appeared to. Although he converted 35 saves last year, he blew nine other chances and his ERA ballooned to 4.67. 

Even more staggering was the loss of his control. In 74 innings in 2011, Axford walked just 25 batters. In 69 innings of work in 2012, he walked 39 batters. Currently, in 2013 with just 56 innings of work, he's walked 24 batters.

After only four appearances in April of 2013 and with an ERA of 24.00 to show for them, Axford was removed from the role of Brewers' closer in favor of fellow Canadian Jim Henderson.

Axford never quite returned to his lights out form of 2011, but he never took his frustrations out on anyone but himself. Whether it was having to deal with reactions like these, his inconsistent performances, or eventually losing his role to Henderson, he always took it in stride.

On Henderson, Axford says: “This year didn't go exactly as planned, or as I had hoped, but at the same time someone else is stepping in and doing something similar to what I did and hopefully Jim can hang onto that role and run away with it, and continue the success that he's having.” 

He also didn't seem bitter about the trade, adding, “I completely understand where the Brewers are coming from, and I'm nothing but appreciative of everything the Brewers have ever done for me.”

Since arriving on the scene in 2010, there's one word that should be used to describe John Axford: professional. He's been a class-act through and through. Now, he finds himself in the middle of a tight pennant race with the St. Louis Cardinals as they look to hold off the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates to clinch the National League Central Division crown.

General Manager of the Brewers Doug Melvin had this to say: “We gave him the opportunity and he capitalized. We wouldn't have been in the playoffs — wouldn't have even sniffed the playoffs in 2011 without John Axford. I hope people remember that instead of the few games that he blew or whatever.”

Not many will, Doug. Unfortunately, that's not how fan culture works, particularly in sports. It's always now, now, now. His teammates will miss him, especially Henderson. And sure, you'll get the faithful fans never-ending support, but fickle outnumbers faithful almost every time.

I know I don't speak for everybody — especially the countless angry fans of Milwaukee who went from loving a man to hating him in less than two years, but Axford deserves to play for a winner. He deserves that second chance.

Here's to hoping he returns to the form that made him very special to us in Milwaukee. You will be missed, Ax-man.

By: Shaun Ranft
Twitter: @ShaunRanft

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