DUNEDIN, Fla. — John Axford was struggling through single-A in 2009 when the Milwaukee Brewers made a suggestion that changed his career path.
"Be like Roy Halladay," Axford, then 26, was told by pitching coach Fred Danby and pitching co-ordinator Lee Tunnell during a bullpen session before a minor-league game in Dunedin.
Axford listened. And it worked, taking him to the big leagues for the first time later that season.
"I obviously don’t look anything like Halladay at all mechanically but (Danby and Tunnell) were trying to make me create more of an athletic look when I was on the mound," said the right-hander, who’s likely to be part of the Blue Jays major-league relief corps this season.
"I went from A-ball to the big leagues because of a bullpen right here on this field where I was told to emulate the best pitcher in the game.
"Without him even knowing it he had an impact on me getting to the big leagues at a time when I was probably closer to not being with an organization at all anymore."
Axford, now 34, never met Halladay, who died last November in a plane crash not far from Toronto’s spring training stadium.
"I don’t get star struck but I would have with him," the Port Dover, Ont., native said.
Toronto signed Axford to a minor-league deal this off-season. He’s pitched 6 2/3 exhibition innings so far, allowing just one run on a solo homer, walking two and striking out eight.
Axford is coming off a less-than-ideal year with the Oakland Athletics, where his bloated 6.43 earned-run average led to his release in June after just 21 innings.
Rather than sign with another team, Axford took the rest of the summer off, spending time with his two sons, six-year-old JB and five-year-old Jameson.
"I had the intention of coming back but I think I needed that break for my mental state," Axford said. "Having some days off in the summer and being able to spend time with my kids, those were really special moments. It was something mentally that I thought I needed and wanted and it helped."
"Professionally speaking it may not have been the best move," he added with a laugh. "It would have been better to play with another team and pitch well and work my way into something this season. But I knew physically what I was still capable of and I’m pleased with where things are now."
Three years ago, Axford went through the scariest moment of his life when Jameson, then a toddler, was bitten twice in the foot by a rattlesnake in Arizona while Axford was getting ready for the 2015 season with the Rockies.
Jameson underwent multiple surgeries and stayed in ICU for four weeks. He was in a wheelchair for months after that and had to learn how to walk again.
The youngest Axford is doing well now. He and his brother are both showing interest in sports of their own — JB played hockey for the first time this year while Jameson took up gymnastics — but the rattlesnake attack changed Axford’s perspective.
"You always appreciate the life of your children but when something like that happens it becomes a little more precious," he said. "Being able to spend that time with them last year, if I had signed with another team I wouldn’t have had that. So I took advantage of it."
The day he signed with Toronto, Axford tweeted a photo of himself from Christmas morning in 1994 wearing Blue Jays pyjamas with the caption: "I am happier now than I was in this picture. Beyond excited for this opportunity!!!"
He credits the Blue Jays for luring him towards baseball at a young age.
"I was 9 and 10 when they won the World Series, and I was already playing baseball at that point but that really catapulted my love for the game," Axford said. "I may have said that cliche, it’s a dream come true (to play for the Blue Jays), but it really is great.
"Just to come here and put on the uniform, it is special and it’s hard to explain it any other way, honestly."