GOODYEAR, Ariz.: In his offseasons as a minor-league pitcher, John Axford stood in Walmart and Best Buy at Christmastime and sold cellphones for $8 an hour. He waited tables and tended bar at an East Side Mario’s in Dundas, Ontario, Canada.
The perseverance of the Indians’ new 31-year-old closer has been repeatedly tested, first when he needed elbow reconstruction during his junior year at Notre Dame in 2004. But even then he leaped at the chance it gave him to enroll in an intermediate film production class, partnering with another student to write and produce a 10-minute short.
He loved nights in the darkness of the editing room, relishing the silence and enjoying the creativity as he cut and spliced 16 mm black-and-white celluloid.
“Just being alone and being able to create something, you try to make a story out of it and to make people feel what you feel,” Axford said. “I like seeing it and holding it and putting it together.”
It was no accident when Axford went 18-for-18 on his Academy Awards predictions a week ago. In his spare time, Axford reads all he can about movies. He watches them mainly on DVD because he and wife Nicole have 2- and 1-year-old sons. With a bachelor of arts in film and television from Notre Dame, Axford now dreams of a career in Hollywood.
Not that he’s in any rush to get there.
After releasing Chris Perez in October, the Indians signed Axford to a one-year, $4.5 million free-agent contract in December. Axford lost his closer’s job with the Milwaukee Brewers last season and was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. He hopes to regain the form that let him save 46 games in 2011 and 105 in a three-year span for the Brewers.
“I think he’s excited about his opportunity and I think we’re excited about the opportunity, too,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of Axford Saturday.
But Axford also has designs on his next endeavor.
“I think getting into Hollywood and the film industry is more difficult than playing pro ball,” Axford said during Friday and Saturday interviews at the Indians’ training complex. “But it’s nice that this path could maybe open up that door.
“I’ve become friends with some people in the industry, keep up to date with it as best I can. I bought a camera last offseason, some rig work with it, too, so I could turn it into a film camera. I still write when I’m on planes, whatever thoughts or ideas come to me. I’ve worked on a screenplay for like 10 years.” While he lived in Milwaukee, he was a sponsor of the city’s film festival.
Growing up in Port Dover, Ontario, on Lake Erie, Axford became interested in video while in high school because it ran its announcements on television. He and a friend made promotions for upcoming events and the prom, roaming the halls with cameras and editing the clips. In college, he did a summer internship in a television station’s sports department, much of it involving downloading satellite video on Chicago teams.
Playing baseball at Notre Dame prevented him from taking all the film production classes he wanted for his major, but the long period of rehab following surgery on his right elbow his junior year gave him a semester of what he loved.
He doesn’t remember the grade he earned on the film, but he believes he received an A- in the class. He and a female partner each wrote a story, then combined them. They wrote storyboards, used actors and filmed test runs to check the lighting and how their shots would look when the film was processed.
“It was a fictional story on spousal neglect,” he said. “Somehow we combined her happy story with my dark end.”
Axford still has the large silver canisters of the black-and-white film, including the “B” roll sections that were edited out. He just digitized all of it in the offseason.
There have been times when Axford’s life felt like a movie. In 2001, he was drafted in the seventh round out of high school by the Seattle Mariners, but chose to go to Notre Dame. The elbow surgery caused him to lose his scholarship there. The Cincinnati Reds selected him in the 42rd round in 2005 but had nowhere for him to pitch, so he enrolled at Canisius and earned his master’s in sports administration. When the Reds finally got a look at him in 2006, they weren’t interested.
The New York Yankees saw him playing in the Western Major Baseball League in Saskatchewan, where he also built a Little League field and repaired fences on the side, and signed him in 2006.
In the offseasons Axford needed money. So he spent two months before Christmas one year selling cellphones for Telus Mobility in Canada. The next offseason he got a call from Mike Simoncic, the owner of East Side Mario’s, where he’d applied the year before. Simoncic noticed on Axford’s resume he played for the Yankees, even though by then Axford was in the Brewers farm system.
Simoncic could relate to Axford’s struggles. An offensive tackle, Simoncic had been drafted by a Canadian Football League team, but it went bankrupt a year later and he ended up teaching high school for 10 years. Then he went into the restaurant business, now owning five. He hired Axford to wait tables and bartend at his place in Dundas from September through February.
“We made a bet that year that if I ever made it in the big leagues he would come down and watch my first game and bring me a bottle of scotch,” Axford said.
Axford worked his last shift at East Side Mario’s in February 2009. That spring, Brewers minor-league instructors convinced him to convert to a three-quarter arm delivery like Roy Halladay’s. That September, Axford found himself in the major leagues.
Simoncic came to Wrigley Field to watch him pitch his first big-league game and brought along a bottle of good scotch.
“He said, ‘Does this mean you’re not coming back to the bar?’ ” Axford said. “I said, ‘I’ll still come in and have lunch and dinner.’ ”
Axford and Simoncic remain close friends. Axford also keeps in touch with several co-workers from his bartending days. His jersey hangs in the restaurant. Last year when Nicole and their family weren’t able to make it to all the Cardinals’ World Series games, they gathered there to watch.
Through his tough journey, Axford remains down to earth.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the way he got there,” Simoncic said in a telephone interview from Canada Saturday. “I don’t think you could get there in a more difficult way. To be drafted, turn it down, take a scholarship to Notre Dame. Then to blow out your elbow and rest for years and then find your way back is an incredible story of perseverance.
“People think you have to be edgy and cocky to be that good. Here’s a guy who goes out and predicts the Academy Awards. Not very jockish.”
Simoncic knows why their bond remains strong.
“I was drafted to play pro football and never made it,” Simoncic said. “At one point we had a conversation about whether he should pack in baseball and get a real job. I said, ‘There’s plenty of time for real work. Never give up on your dream.’ ”
Or, perhaps in Axford’s case, dreams.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.