With a few minutes remaining before last summer’s July 31 trade deadline, John Axford checked his phone. No texts, no calls. Perfect.
“I’m fine,” he thought. “I’m in the clear.”
His mind at ease, Axford returned to the brunch he was eating with a friend in Berkeley, Calif., just north of the Oakland Coliseum, where the Blue Jays were about to play the second game of a three-game series against the Athletics.
The relief didn’t last long. Moments later, Axford’s phone started buzzing with the news: he had been traded by the Blue Jays to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
On paper, it was a pretty considerable upgrade. He was leaving a team on its way to an 89-loss season for a team headed to the World Series. Soon enough, Axford would feel excited about the chance to contribute on a team with designs on winning it all.
At first, though, his thoughts turned back to Toronto. Even if the season wasn’t going according to plan for the Blue Jays, the Port Dover, Ont., native enjoyed playing for his hometown team, where his sons could easily attend games. Leaving Toronto wouldn’t be easy.
“My mind just went back to home,” Axford recalled. “My thoughts went to the quality time I was able to spend with my kids being here. I got to take them to the field and enjoy that, so initially that was the first reaction was disappointment.”
That feeling soon became excitement, as he joined a Dodgers team attempting to win a sixth consecutive NL West title. The trade also meant a return to the bullpen for Axford, who had just made his first career start with three scoreless innings earlier that week (if he had stayed in Toronto, he would have kept starting for the pitching-strapped Blue Jays).
Then, just three games into his tenure with the Rockies, a comebacker broke his fibula, sending him to the disabled list and capping off a wild two weeks. As Axford puts it: “a very interesting emotional arc.”
A month later, he was back on the mound, but by then the Dodgers had found other relievers they trusted more in leverage, so he didn’t make the playoff roster. Just like that, his 10th season in the big-leagues officially ended.
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With time now on his hands, Axford resolved to drive home from Los Angeles to Toronto. Over those four days he listened to hour after hour of music, took in the sights and chronicled his every move for his Instagram story, but there was also time to contemplate his goals in free agency.
Physically there’s no question that Axford wants to keep playing. His leg has long since healed, and his average fastball velocity climbed to 95.5 m.p.h. in 2018, an increase Axford attributes to year-round training that he simply couldn’t afford as a minor-leaguer.
And as for the question of where he’d like to play, that’s an easy one, too. Leverage be damned, Axford wants to return to the Blue Jays and he’s saying so.
“I want to be in Toronto,” he said. “That’s where I want to be”
“My kids are here,” he added. “That’s where I want to be. I’ve enjoyed my time here, and I know they did as well. If it comes to what happened last year and it’s a trade situation (that’s fine). I’ll keep coming back here if I can.”
Because Axford spent the first four months of the season with the Blue Jays, he already knows many of the young pitchers on the way up. He believes that familiarity could help him mentor younger players while also getting outs in relief. The way Axford describes this role, it almost sounds like a player-coach hybrid.
“I’m going to be 36 this year and I know the team is pushing younger, but I’m still a firm believer in having some veteran guys around, especially when you’re doing a turnover,” he said. “Having someone show them the ropes and show them what to do or what not to do, talk to them whether it’s talking them down from a ledge or being able to build them up.
“As someone who’s been through all the ups and downs of the game in any and every facet, I think that’s a nice benefit to have for younger guys.”
Of course, it takes two sides to make a deal work, so there’s no guarantee Axford will get his wish. Roster spots are at a premium for the Blue Jays, who appear to be slow-playing the relief market.
But there’s still a chance. Axford was planning to speak personally to Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins to express his interest in returning. Plus, last year’s minor-league deal suggests his demands will be reasonable, and the Blue Jays do need relief.
Axford’s hoping it will all add up to another year in Toronto.