Among the sleeve of tattoos on his left arm is a still frame from his favorite film, the neo-noir classic Le Samouraï. He wears his former Brewers number, 59, on his red Canadian jersey. He is two weeks shy of his 40th birthday.
By Nicholas Mainieri
It is the time-honored tradition of the relief pitcher to make ridiculous catches while shagging flyballs during pregame batting practice, and John Axford settles beneath a pop-up in shallow center, attempting a Mays-esque basket catch. He bricks it and the ball rolls free. He spikes his glove in the grass, gives it a kick—comedically, a show for the teammates watching and ragging.
First pitch in Team Canada’s 2023 World Baseball Classic match-up with Great Britain is two hours hence, here at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona.
Now Axford’s redemption lofts in the form of a short flare behind second. When he muffs it again he takes his glove off and punts it like a football.
As batting practice concludes, the grounds crew scurries and the Canadian ballplayers flee for the clubhouse. Ax jogs in from center to the pitcher’s mound. He toes the rubber and looks in for an imaginary sign and comes set. He is six-five-and-a-half, 240 pounds or so. Gone is the feathered lettuce that once cascaded from the back of his cap, and a full, significantly gray beard has long since replaced the handlebar mustache with which he first rose to prominence, thirteen years ago, as the endearingly aesthete fireballer closing out games for the Milwaukee Brewers. Among the sleeve of tattoos on his left arm is a still frame from his favorite film, the neo-noir classic Le Samouraï. He wears his former Brewers number, 59, on his red Canadian jersey. He is two weeks shy of his 40th birthday.
On the hill, he relaxes his stance and looks around the stadium, taking it all in. He cranes his neck, staring up the steep flights of the grandstand. Overhead, the retractable roof has shuttered like some otherworldly exoskeleton of giant steel plates and arching ribs. Commerce flashes in the hangared air, the jumbotron and banner LEDs, neon advertisements, cold beer. Beneath it all is the well-tended garden, the green Bermuda grass, the red-brown clay, the sharp white foul lines and equidistant bases. Old patterns softly abide an ever-glitzier world.
And this, gathering the view from the mound before the game, is a habit Ax developed during his rookie year in Milwaukee. There’s so much going on in a Major League stadium, and you don’t want the moment you’ve been called upon, in a tough late-game situation, to be the first time you’ve encountered it all. After he’s come off the field, Ax chuckles. “And it’s been a long time since I pitched in this ballpark.”
(It’s been eight years, in fact. He closed out a 6-4 victory for the Rockies against the Diamondbacks on July 5, 2015, striking out Paul Goldschmidt with the tying runs aboard.)
“I saw those basket catches out there,” I say.
“I clanked all of them!” he cries, and shows me his glove, a brand new and still inflexible Rawlings. He’d needed a new glove for the tournament—his old one had gotten too beat up over the last year while he coached his son’s youth baseball team—but he’d not had time to break it in properly. He muses, “I better use two hands if I have to cover first today.”
I am moderately terrified for him but try not to show it.
“I’m gonna go hydrate and get some of these nerves out. I think I’m in there today.”
And here’s exactly the thing. John Axford has pitched in 544 Major League games, but only one in the last five years. He massages the scar on his elbow and descends into the dugout.
The end of things—for all but the rare superstars who take retirement victory laps—is typically sudden or unexpected and almost always unceremonious, if not outright tragic. Time, I suppose, is undefeated. Smarter people than me have called baseball itself an antidote to that plain fact, but I’m not sure how you square it with the other oft-cited observation that baseball is best understood as a game designed to break your heart.
* * *
Ax and I have known each other since college, when we were teammates at the University of Notre Dame, more than half our lifetimes ago. Music is a defining social factor in baseball clubhouses the world over, and I remember well the encyclopedically eclectic mixes when he had command of the clubhouse stereo. The B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” was in frequent rotation one year. We connected, in part, because we both favored harder genres. We each also trafficked in the creative arts. Ax majored in film production and critical studies, and I watched a number of movies for the first time on his recommendation—the Korean mindbender Oldboy, for instance. Years later, in 2017, I’d written a novel and happened to be visiting a Toronto-area bookstore for an event. Three people showed – John Axford and his two children, J.B. and Jameson.
We caught up on Zoom in early March, about a week before the World Baseball Classic. Ax was sitting in his home, in Burlington, Ontario, in front of a series of his photographs hanging on the wall. Each was the same shot, the western view from his place in Oakland, when he’d pitched for the A’s – the foregrounded bay, the distant San Francisco skyline, the vast, vertically arranged sky. But each had been taken at a different time, under different conditions, and the diminutive skyline floated in a spectrum of blue, orange, red, gray. Ghosts in sheets of fog. Each on its own was a fine photo, but together they struck me as a statement on patience, an argument for empathy and subtlety, how detail reveals itself to the dedicated, open mind.
“Oh,” Ax interrupted himself, hefting his iPad toward something, “can you hear that?”
Coyotes were howling in his backyard.
In March of 2020, he’d been a free agent preparing for Canada’s Olympic qualifiers when the pandemic put a stop to everything. He’d finally gotten healthy after two rough years—a broken leg with the Dodgers in 2018, and a Blue Jays’ campaign in 2019 that never began due to an injury in Spring Training and subsequent bone spur—but, with COVID lockdowns, he spent 2020 at home with J.B. and Jameson. He entertained himself by becoming a close study of the coyotes around his home, setting up his cameras by the window and observing them daily.
“I like to think they’re my buddies now,” he told me over Zoom.
It is not a coincidence that the uniquely pressured work environment of the baseball closer has tended to suit some of the modern game’s most idiosyncratic personalities. The famous axiom about the best players failing most of the time does not extend to this guy—it is the opposite, in fact, and at the extreme end of the spectrum—so neither is it coincidence that the role provides, arguably, the game’s most volatile career path. Late-inning relievers have been commonplace strategy for half a century, but only eight of 272 ballplayers enshrined in Cooperstown are relief pitchers. The Mariano Riveras and Trevor Hoffmans are few and far between. As a current MLB closer told me, in Arizona, “Relievers have to prove themselves time and again. People are always telling you that you can’t do it anymore.”
As the jobless pandemic wore on for Ax, he joined the Canadian network Sportsnet to contribute on-camera pitching commentary. By the summer of 2021 he hadn’t pitched in a Big League ballgame in nearly three years, but the Olympic qualifiers were back on so he laced up his spikes for his country. When he was suddenly blowing lively 98-mph fastballs past professional hitters again, the Blue Jays offered him a minor league deal, signing him right out of their own network’s television studio. He was 38 years old.
He spent July of 2021 with Toronto’s Triple-A farm team in Buffalo, NY, throwing as well as he ever had. He averaged 97-98 mph on his fastball, and in a month’s work he posted an 0.84 ERA and relinquished a grand total of two base hits, the second being a broken bat infield dribbler in his final minor league outing.
Another organization had called with the intent to bring him to the Big Leagues.
The Milwaukee Brewers.
* * *
Ax originally made his MLB debut in 2009 as a September call-up with the Brewers. He began the following year in Triple-A Nashville, and I saw him that spring when his team had come down to New Orleans, where I was living at the time. After a game, we met up for burgers and drinks at Port of Call on the edge of the French Quarter and then we walked Frenchmen St., go-cups in-hand. A brass band was playing on the corner. Music spilled out from the small clubs. Ax was sporting a ridiculous/excellent handlebar mustache but thought he’d alter the look soon. A few days later, however, Milwaukee called him up for good. The Milwaukee faithful loved the stylized lip sweater and its echoes of Brewers’ legend Rollie Fingers, so it stayed.
The media loved him, too. “Colorful, open—I enjoyed him a lot,” Ken Rosenthal told me of the times he engaged with Ax. “He made it fun, which is not always true.” The John Axford origin story was told repeatedly on broadcasts and in newspapers—how he’d begun 2009 as a bartender at an East Side Mario’s restaurant near his home in Canada, and how, the year before that, he’d been out of baseball entirely, hawking cell phones at the mall when he set up a pseudo-tryout that drew only a single regional scout, Jay Lapp of the Brewers.
Before all of that, he’d been a pro-prospect in high school and college. I was there at practice in the fall of 2003, the beginning of Ax’s draft-eligible junior year, when he struck out a batter to end an intersquad inning and felt a sharp zing down his forearm. We tried to greet him with high fives at the foul line, but he answered us in a kind of vacant voice, “I think I just blew out my elbow.” He had Tommy John surgery soon thereafter, and surgeons rebuilt his ulnar collateral ligament with a part of his hamstring. The following summer I was often his rehab catch partner. Ax was lankier back then, something stork-like in the look of his skinny frame, and watching him learn how to throw all over again was like seeing a six-five baby bird trying to fly. His rehab was a slow one, and after he graduated from Notre Dame, he transferred to Canisius College to pursue a master’s degree and play his final year of collegiate eligibility.
All that’s to say the comeback is kind of a hallmark of John Axford’s pitching career.
* * *
Ax became the Brewers’ closer in 2010, replacing his friend and mentor, Hall-of-Famer Trevor Hoffman (there’s a delightful anecdote about Hoffman buying Ax, a rookie, his first ever complete suit when he’d needed one for the Big League airplanes). Before long, fake mustaches and foam axes were general among the Miller Park crowd, and the stadium rocked whenever his walkout music, the suitably eclectic “New Noise” by punk avant-gardists Refused, began to play. (And lest you think he came to this by inauthentic means, he owns the band’s 1998 album, The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts, on vinyl).
The following year, 2011, Ax set franchise records and led the league with 46 saves, which included a streak of 43 consecutive en route to Milwaukee winning the Central Division championship. He finished among the top ten vote-getters for the Cy Young Award and was named National League reliever of the year (an award then sponsored by Rolaids).
During the season, Jonathan Jackson—CEO of the nonprofit organization Milwaukee Film—learned through the Brewers Community Foundation that the team’s star closer had studied film and loved the arts. Nowadays, the Milwaukee Film Festival is a ten-day event in the spring that draws more than 100K attendees, but in 2011 it took place in the fall, during the Brewers’ postseason run. Still, Ax accepted an invitation to attend opening night of the festival and “somehow,” Jackson says, “cajoled several of his teammates into attending with him.”
Ax became a financial supporter of the nonprofit that next year, according to Jackson, “underwriting, specifically, our support for local filmmakers, especially student work.” When I asked Ax about this, he told me he’d thought back to his own undergraduate days and how production students had had to pay out of pocket to purchase and develop their film, so he’d wanted to help with awards that would stay local to Milwaukee and those who maybe needed a little extra help to make their art, hopefully making it easier for them to bring their talents to a wider audience.
For the Brewers, however, 2012 had been a disappointing year. The team stalled at the All-Star Break, left for dead in the standings, and Ax himself was removed from the closer’s role in July. In retrospect, his stat sheet is not that poor—he saved 35 games overall, good enough for sixth in the league—but in his own words, “I struggled a lot that year.”
As the season wore on, however, the team started playing better and Ax was reinstated as closer in August, where he converted 17 of his final 18 save opportunities. The team went into the final weeks of the season with an outside shot at the playoffs.
The Brewers visited Cincinnati, division leaders, for their penultimate series, and there was no room for error after splitting the first two games. On getaway day, Ax entered the game in the ninth with the Brewers clinging to a 1-0 lead. He quickly struck out Zack Cozart and Joey Votto to begin the inning, but with just one out to get, Todd Frazier hit Ax’s first pitch out of the ballpark to tie the game. Then Jay Bruce singled. Then Dioner Navarro hit a walk-off gapper, and the Brewers’ postseason prospects evaporated.
In the somber visitors’ clubhouse, Ax spoke with the media, showered, and changed. He was a professional, and today hadn’t gone the way he’d wanted it to. The team got on the plane and flew back to Milwaukee. Ax got in his car at the airport and started driving home.
“As I’m on the highway, I start feeling like I’m going to lose it. And then, Yeah, it’s gonna happen. I start crying and I pull over to the side of the interstate and park and put on the hazards and bawl for, like, five minutes, thinking, I fucked this up, I fucked this up for the whole team. If I’d just pitched better this year, or if I just didn’t blow this last one, then we’d have a chance to get into the playoffs again after such a big year last year.”
It was the culmination of an emotionally taxing year, inextricable from the broader fate of a city’s baseball team. But from another vantage, this is also a prosaic if often hidden moment of deeply human overwhelm, to which pro athletes are not, of course, immune.
“Anyone can have a moment like that based on anything. Mine just happened to be because I felt like a failure for giving up a home run to Todd Frazier.”
Ax wiped off the tears, put the car back in drive, and drove home.
By the trade deadline the following season, 2013, the Brewers would deal him to St. Louis, where he’d prove himself anew amid a Cardinals’ World Series run. Eventually, he would pitch for six other Major League teams – Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Colorado, Oakland, Toronto, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. No matter where he was pitching, however, he kept close to Milwaukee Film and returned annually to the city in order to remain involved with the Film Festival.
One year he introduced The Princess Bride at the children’s film series. Several other years running, not in the children’s segment, he presented rare prints of Kubrick films, 2001 and Dr. Strangelove, and in 2015, when he was with the Rockies, he returned to Milwaukee to present The Shining on 35mm for the film’s 35th anniversary. He conscripted his pal and Milwaukee barber Jess and one of her friends to dress up as the Grady girls, while he put together a spot-on Danny Torrance costume and rode an adult Big Wheel onto the stage. “That Big Wheel is still somewhere in Milwaukee,” Ax says, laughing. In 2016, while with Oakland, he co-curated a sports documentary series for the festival, presenting the film Fastball himself. And, of course, he’s sponsored and presented the entries in the Cream City Cinema Program, the festival’s series of local films and the awards for Milwaukee’s undergraduate filmmakers.
Over the years, Ax says, a lot of those young filmmakers have blossomed and gone on to keep making bigger and better things, “and I love seeing that.” It’s easier for artists to keep working hard, he says, when they know that others out there care, when others take an interest. “I think that’s why I keep coming back to the Film Festival. I just kind of like being there for that.”
But when he flew back to Milwaukee on the morning of August 2, 2021, it was due to the fact he was suddenly a Brewer again. People greeted him warmly in the hotel lobby and on the street, “properly friendly interactions.” He received avalanches of text and social media messages. At the ballpark there were many familiar faces in the clubhouse and a lot of memories in the home bullpen. In truth, he was a bit overcome by it all. He considered asking Brewers manager Craig Counsell—who’d been his 2011 teammate—for a day just to process everything. “But then I was like, Nah, I’m not that guy. I’m just ready to go.”
So that night the call came down to the bullpen: Ax, you’ve got the ninth.
One imagines what Counsell must have been thinking. The Brewers had a comfortable six-run lead over the Pirates, the perfect opportunity for the big guy to finish a game in this ballpark again. He’d done it for the Brewers 179 times before. What a cool moment this will be.
The frenetic guitar riff, the bass amassing behind it like a thunderhead—the opening notes of his old walkout music told the 23,563 in attendance all they needed to know, and it was muscle memory, nostalgia, as they rose to their feet, chopping their arms like axes. When the bullpen door opened and John Axford stepped out, the stadium erupted, the song’s first lyric—Can I scream?!—perfectly in sync. The jumbotron flashed decade-old highlights, graphics of cartoon axes, fan-drawn signs of mustaches and slogans like the ax man cometh.
On the broadcast they exclaimed:
“The Ax Man!”
“Man, I got goosebumps!”
“John Axford, trying to finish off a game for the Brewers in 2021.”
“And bringing it still!” as his first pitch, a 95-mph sinker was fouled off by Bryan Reynolds, the Pirates’ all-star centerfielder.
To Ax, however, the two-seamer had stayed flat. And while the velocity was still high, it was a few mph beneath what he’d averaged for the previous month in Triple-A. Things usually worked the other way around, a boost due to the adrenaline. A few pitches later he was more concerned—no sink to the sinker, no cut to the cutter. Yet he felt OK physically and thought he could just battle through it. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, he started a sinker inside on Reynolds, but it stayed straight and drilled him, “which I just don’t do.” That’s pretty much true; of 2305 batters-faced in his MLB career, he registered only 16 hit-by-pitches.
The next three Pirates ripped the ball, a lineout and two singles, loading the bases. Oh, Ax recalls thinking, this is not going well. He hadn’t seen solid contact in a month, but here was one laser after another. He rationalized—these were Big League hitters again, after all—but with the next batter, pinch hitter Ben Gamel, “That’s when I really started feeling it.”
He missed outside, 94 mph.
He missed further out, 93 mph.
The velocity continued to fall with the next pitch, and in the video his mechanics seem more labored, as if the baseball was suddenly heavier.
The fourth ball to Gamel was way outside, and “I felt it go.”
Instead of a zing down the forearm like in college, this was a shock through his triceps. He’d later find out that the reconstructed ligament in his elbow, the hamstring tendon that had been put there 18 years before, had calcified to the point where it simply broke apart.
Ax waved Counsell out with his glove. On the broadcast, you can see a quick flash of disbelief, or anguish, on the manager’s face. He walked out with trainer Dave Yeager.
“It’s my elbow,” Ax told them. “It’s not good.”
When Ax walked off the mound, his eyes were downcast. Early in his career he’d noticed that when he looked into the crowd after a poor outing he’d immediately find the guy who was yelling at him. But now, walking off the field for potentially the last time in his playing career, he wanted to look, to take it all in for a moment longer. He raised his face and scanned from the outfield to the dugout. To a person, the Milwaukee fans were on their feet and applauding. Ax lowered his face again, for different reasons.
On Zoom, a week before the 2023 World Baseball Classic, Ax tried to describe this feeling for me. “I’ve never been able to, really, like—” He stopped and collected himself. “I’ve wanted to figure out, for quite a while now, how to thank the Milwaukee community and the fans within it for embracing me the way they did in that one game again.”
I’d contend that his support for the city’s young artists is one way he’s already done so.
* * *
In Arizona, he’s down there in the Canadian bullpen, sort of milling about. He’s up and down, stretching, snacking, hydrating, joking with the other pitchers. The nerves are intense, how it’s always been waiting for the call. It’s been a lengthy, high-scoring game, ever since the British lads knocked Canada’s starting pitcher, the Cleveland Guardians’ Cal Quantrill, out of the game in the first. But now Canada extends their lead over Great Britain late in the game, and the call comes to the bullpen for Ax to get hot. Everything steadies for him, like it always has.
But prior to arriving in Arizona, his rehab and hopeful readiness had been touch-and-go, quite frankly. He’d taken himself through a series of ramp-ups and rest periods, but the interval between necessary rests seemed to be shrinking. He’d thrown off a mound only a few times. About two weeks ago, he’d thrown 40 pitches and tried to heat it up like a real game. Went as well as it could, he texted. Haha. Arm is still attached! He’d gotten his fastball into the upper 80s and topped out at 91, not bad for where he was in the process nor his age, but still a far cry from where he used to be (or needed to be, if he wanted to be able to get professional hitters out). He told me he thought he’d run into some physical or mental barrier, and his body simply refused any more velocity. “We’ll see what happens when a hitter gets in there.” Still, his elbow was angry, and he’d relied on massage therapy and dry needling to flush the inflammation. On Zoom, he chuckled and indicated his elbow, saying, “Hopefully it’ll fight its last fight.”
* * *
“Axy,” Bob Uecker had said in the Brewers’ clubhouse kitchen, a couple days after Ax reinjured himself against the Pirates. “People just don’t fucking get it.”
Uecker is one of the only people who calls him “Axy,” he says, “which I love.” He’d confided in Uecker that he was confused about whether he should undergo a second Tommy John (TJ) surgery. Many had told him there’d be no point. He was 38 years old, after all, and he’d made it back for that one game with the Brewers—maybe that was triumph enough? But it was hard for Ax to accept that he’d worked as hard as he had during the last few discouraging years only for his elbow to give out in a single incomplete outing.
When I think of Bob Uecker I think of Harry Doyle in Major League or the father in Mr. Belvedere or the YouTube clips of him on Johnny Carson, so I forget that he was a Big League ballplayer before all of that, which must mean—self-deprecating humor aside—that he’s got an extra competitive gear or two under the hood himself. My point is that Uecker must be naturally hilarious in the same way that people keep telling me Ax is empathetic or erudite or fun; it simply means there’s a whole other level of intensity hidden beneath it all. I spoke with Mariners’ catcher Tom Murphy, for instance, before Canada’s exhibition against Seattle in their spring training complex. In 2015, Murphy had been a rookie catcher with the Rockies when Ax was their closer. He described Ax as a great teammate and as someone who dressed funny on the planes, “kind of artsy,” who kept things loose and always had cameras with him. But when Ax came in to pitch, it was like he “flipped a switch,” and his presence changed. He was intimidating. “I was just a rookie,” Murphy said, “trying not to mess things up for him.”
I think that’s what Uecker meant when he told Ax people wouldn’t understand why he wanted to get the surgery, age and prospects be damned. If the injury was the thing he had left to compete with, then that was what he was built to do.
“Yeah, that’s how I feel about it,” Ax remembers saying. “If I don’t get the surgery, it would feel like giving up. If I do and nothing comes from it, well, at least I gave it a shot.”
“Fuck yeah, Axy,” Bob Uecker said. Or something like it.
Still, John was realistic. At least 2281 TJ surgeries have been performed on professional ballplayers, dating back to the very first one, on pitcher Tommy John, in 1974. This is according to data maintained by the baseball writer Jon Roegele. Six of the 2281 were players at Ax’s age or older, and of those, only one, long-time closer Joe Nathan, had had the surgery for a second time. Perusing those individuals’ career stats demonstrates extremely diminished professional returns, as one might expect. “In my mind,” Ax says, “it was never, I’m going to have Tommy John surgery and come back and play professionally again. It was always, I’m going to do this because I’ll feel like I’m giving up if I don’t. Then I’ll make the best of what I can with it.”
He had the procedure on September 1, 2021. Surgeons took a tendon from his other hamstring this time and reconstructed his UCL. They built an internal brace around it, essentially a collagen-dipped Kevlar shoestring that they drilled into his arm bones. They put him on a conservative 18-month rehab program, standard for repeat TJ recoveries, “even though, as they told me, my original Tommy John was older than some of the people who are getting the surgery now.” He looked at the calendar and saw that 18 months would put him exactly at the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Maybe that would be it, he thought. Maybe that’s what I’ll work toward.
In the summer of 2022, before he had even started throwing again, he attended Baseball Canada’s awards banquet, celebrating the recent inductees into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. At the reception he approached Ernie Whitt, the former Big Leaguer who’s managed Canadian national teams for more than two decades. Ax had pitched for him before.
“Hey, just so you know,” Ax told him, “all I’m going to be preparing for is the World Baseball Classic, so keep me in mind.”
On the field in Arizona, Whitt was asked how it had come about, that John Axford was on the team again. “Well,” Whitt quipped, “he’s a lot bigger than me.”
* * *
Sixteen of John Axford’s family members are in the crowd at Chase Field when Ax starts his jog in from the left-field bullpen, including his three sisters and their spouses and their children. His dad, Brian, wears a #59 Brewers T-shirt. Ax’s mom, Vera, scoots to the edge of her seat and recalls watching his elbow injury on television, “and I know he’s a grown man but I’m still his mother and I wished I could have reached through the TV to hug him.” Ax’s children, J.B (11) and Jameson (10) are on their feet, cheering, waving Canadian flags. They remember their dad hobbling around the house post-surgery, since TJ recovery is also recovery from having had a part of your hamstring removed. Last summer, J.B. was his dad’s first rehab catch partner.
Ax makes his warmup pitches on the mound—sinker, cutter, curveball—but the scoreboard isn’t registering velocities yet. A few days ago, when he’d faced three batters in a successful exhibition outing against the Chicago Cubs, his warm-up tosses maxed out at 87-mph.
Britain’s DH, Justin Wylie, steps into the box. Ax looks in as the Canadian catcher, the Guardians’ Bo Naylor, flashes a sign. Ax sets and throws, a sinker for a strike.
The scoreboard registers 94 mph.
Ax attacks Wylie with a mix of sinkers and cutters and when the count is 2-2 he reaches back for a high fastball. The scoreboard flashes 95 mph.
“I saw that,” Ax tells me later, laughing. “I almost retired right there.”
He comes back with a curveball and gets a swing and a miss for the strikeout.
Britain’s next hitter, catcher Ural Forbes, gets three straight sinkers, grounding the third between first and second base. Canada’s first-baseman, Dodgers all-star Freddie Freeman, ranges to his right to field the ball, and Ax thinks to himself, Just go! He races to cover first, standard pitcher’s-fielding-practice routine. My breath catches as I recall his clanked basket catches during pregame, his brand new baseball glove. And here’s Freeman’s overhand feed—firm, accurate, professional—and Ax thinks, OK, just catch it with your hands. Now find the base. Aaaaand we’re good. Two outs. He and Freeman share a knowing look, a quick grin.
Britain’s third batter, pinch-hitter Alex Crosby, swings at Ax’s first pitch—a hard sinker—and lines out softly to shortstop.
There it is. A quick, clean, 12-pitch inning.
We don’t best the gods. But we might coauthor their final entry in the ledger.
Ax steps off the mound and pounds his fist in his glove a couple times. As he crosses the foul line he looks up toward his family, his kids, where they’re on their feet and cheering. He raises his glove and waves. The moment lingers, and then he disappears into the dugout.
* * *
Two days later, before Canada’s game with Colombia, his elbow is still red and swollen, the joint full of fluid. He can neither touch his own shoulder nor straighten his arm completely. If he’d been on a normal rehab progression, he would have been throwing low-intensity live-at-bats on a back field at someone’s spring training complex. Instead, he’d dialed up 12 max effort pitches. His arm didn’t react well. He won’t pitch again in the World Baseball Classic. Canada goes into the final day of pool play with a 2-1 record but they fall to Team Mexico, who’s already beaten the US team and will ultimately advance to the semifinal against Japan.
So what’s next for John Axford?
Some relaxation and catching up on movies at home, first. Then he’ll be in Milwaukee again this spring, for the Film Festival.
And after that?
There’s been discussion, sure. Coaching or a front-office gig or maybe something outside baseball entirely that involves lenses and shutter speeds and a creative eye. But who knows? Ax isn’t even retired from playing yet. To be honest, he’s not the kind of guy who will need or want to say it so definitively. None of his favorite films end so declaratively, after all.
If this were a Hollywood movie, it might end with a shot of J.B. and Jameson coming home from school to be surprised by the rescue dog their dad has promised them once he quits playing. But if this were a film in the style of John Axford’s favorites, its dénouement would be more enigmatic—something evocative and open-ended and absolutely unyielding.
So, it’s morning in the empty ballpark at Peoria Sports Complex in Arizona, spring training home of the Seattle Mariners. Oh, the rhythm of this quiet garden, the grounds crew at their meticulous, loving tasks. A pushbroom returns scattered clay to the base paths. The batting practice cage appears from its hidden alcove, the grounds crew herding it like a giant furtive turtle. Back inside the Mariners’ clubhouse a ping pong battle is underway, pitcher versus outfielder. English and Spanish fly as their teammates cheer and rag and goad. Soon, the calculating front-office types will levy fate. But not yet. And outside, the Canadian buses have arrived, parking beyond the fence in the right-field corner. The red-clad players slowly filter in and lounge in the outfield grass, bullshitting. Here comes the dirt-splattered Workman, its gas fumes, its bed laden with rakes, brooms, the ground crew’s tamp. Up on the concourse, stadium workers in their matching shirts have gathered for marching orders. The fryers come on at the funnel cake booth atop the berm, and now music flits somewhere. The manager, the old ballplayer, has joined his guys in the outfield—he leans on a fungo bat and tells stories. The Workman drags the infield smooth, dust gently unspooling in the slanted plane of still-rising sunlight. The ballplayers in right field circle and stretch and Ax is among them, and that’s it.
Nicholas Mainieri’s debut novel, The Infinite, was a finalist for the 2017 Crook’s Corner Book Prize while also being named among the best books of 2016 by Southern Living Magazine, Writer’s Bone, and WBUR’s On Point Radio. He studied English at the University of Notre Dame and holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans.