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Axford's rise to prominence a movie-like story

Axford's rise to prominence a movie-like story

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Axford's rise to prominence a movie-like story
MILWAUKEE -- The scene opens with John Axford, a Canadian cell phone salesman, waiting alone in an indoor baseball facility. Outside, a blizzard rages, making it hard to believe that any scouts would actually show up to watch him throw a baseball off a portable mound.

A few said they would be there. Only one scout kept his word.

It has the makings of a good movie.

"Not my kind of movie," Axford said with a laugh. "It's a cool real-life story, as far as movies go. Maybe someone else would enjoy it."

Brewers fans would probably love it.

On Friday, one day before Milwaukee opens the National League Division Series against the D-backs at Miller Park, Axford's story was still being written. The Brewers closer can only hope the final scene includes a shower of champagne as he and his teammates hoist a World Series trophy during a wild celebration.

A couple of years ago, such a party seemed like a far-fetched fantasy for Axford, who has developed into one of baseball's top closers over the past two years. This season, the 28-year-old right-hander fashioned a 1.95 ERA and notched 46 saves, including 43 in a row to end the season for Milwaukee.

Along the way, Axford has become beloved by the Brewers' fan base. Some of the credit goes to his signature mustache and his willingness to embrace and interact with fans on the social media website, Twitter. Axford's army of followers love his personality, but in the end, it is really about all those saves he has piled up.

"John has done a great job," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "We're just fortunate that John Axford is at the early stages of his career and very talented in what he does. Closers are so important."

Axford certainly had doubts about his future as he sat there, waiting in a gym in Mississauga, Ontario, hoping and praying that a scout showed up. One of Axford's friends from his days at Canisius College -- Mike Havelis -- had worked the phones, setting up a tryout for Axford only a few days before Minor Leaguers were due to report to Spring Training.

It was March 2008, Axford had been released by the Yankees after bouncing between four levels in their farm system the season before, and his only job at the time was selling phones for Telus Communications. Axford had a film degree from Notre Dame, so the thought of trying to break into the movie industry had crossed his mind.

Axford still has aspirations along those lines, too. Only recently he was a guest for opening night for the Milwaukee Film Festival.

Baseball was always his first love, though.

"I was maybe going to give it a couple more years," Axford admitted. "I really wanted to carry on with my life."

Axford was drafted in the seventh round out of high school by the Mariners in 2001, but chose to go to Notre Dame. He had Tommy John surgery in 2004, red-shirted and lost his scholarship in 2005, but the Reds took a chance on him by selecting him in the 43rd round of the Draft. Cincinnati then watched him pitch once during his time at Canisius and did not offer him a contract.

When the Yankees released him after one year, Axford's chances were fading fast.

Enter Jay Lapp.

Lapp, who is the Brewers' scouting supervisor for Canada, had known Axford since his days as a 16-year-old pitcher for Port Dover Minor Baseball. When he heard Axford was holding a tryout in Mississauga, Lapp figured he would do the pitcher a favor. So he hopped in his car and made the two-hour drive from London, Ontario.

"If it had been anybody but John," Lapp said, "I would've said, 'Look, it's too late in the year.' It was like five days before Minor Leaguers were reporting. ... I kind of felt guilty about saying I couldn't do it. I thought, 'It's John. I haven't seen him in years.' Because of that, I went.

"I really wasn't expecting anything. I just thought I could check it off and said I had done it."

Asked about the snowstorm that scared other scouts away, Lapp let out a laugh.

"It's so funny," said Lapp, still chuckling. "That's one of those stories that has grown over the years. It's kind of like a I-used-to-walk-uphill-to-school kind of thing. Yeah, it snowed that night. But it wasn't anything unusual for the time of year or anything.

"I don't think I ever thought I was taking my life in my hands or I should turn around or something. I've always found that amusing. I've read that I went through a blizzard. Look, it was snowing, and there was some heavy traffic, and I was a little late. That was it."

The only detail that matters is Lapp showed up.

"It's just one guy with a radar gun," Axford said. "It was an opportunity. That's what you need sometimes. It's all you need sometimes, too."

Lapp stood next to the plate -- situating himself into a mock stance to simulate a hitter -- and told Axford to begin firing his pitches. The scout knew Axford's long history of command woes and half expected to be dodging away from a baseball or two.

What Lapp witnessed stunned him.

Axford's fastball popped into the catcher's glove with precision and was clocked around 92-93 mph. His curveball snapped through the strike zone with ease. The changeup needed some work and the slider was non-existent at the time, but Lapp walked away impressed.

"He didn't throw it behind me or in my ribs," Lapp said. "He was really throwing it. That was certainly the biggest obstacle he had had prior to that -- not being able to command the baseball. I saw two plus pitches with command. It was like, 'Wow.'

"As soon as I got out into the car, I called my boss and said I want to sign this guy right now."

The Brewers trusted Lapp's assessment and approved the signing.

Current Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who was the Brewers' amateur scouting director at the time, sent an e-mail to Lapp.

"He said, 'That's pretty bold for seeing a guy in March in a gym,'" Lapp recalled. "'Let's hope it turns out.'"

So far, the signing has paid great dividends.

Lapp thought Axford would be a solid option for Milwaukee's Minor League system.

The scout did not expect the pitcher to soar to the big leagues so swiftly.

Axford got his first taste of the Majors at the end of the 2009 season and was handed the closer's role -- following the struggles of Trevor Hoffman -- before the end of May last year. This season, Axford tied Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel for the NL lead in saves and helped the Brewers to an NL Central crown.

It has all been a whirlwind for Axford.

"You hope that something like this would happen," he said. "But you never really know."

Maybe a movie could be in the works one day.

"It's one of those things that you tell people," Lapp said, "but they wouldn't believe it if they hadn't seen it happen."

The only unanswered question is how this story ends.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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