Canadian pitcher Axford not thinking about baseball future amid outbreak


John Axford, as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. (Frank Gunn/CP)

John Axford is taking a break from wondering about his baseball future.

The Canadian relief pitcher, who last appeared in a major league game with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018, is more concerned with the COVID-19 pandemic, and how its affecting those around him.

“The communities themselves that we are in, I think that’s the biggest piece to all this,” Axford, 36, said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press from his Burlington, Ont., home. “I’m a part of the baseball community, but I’m also part of the Burlington community and the Hamilton community, and people that I know and love work here and I want to assure that everyone is able to get by in these unprecedented times.

“It would be great to keep playing and I’d love to continue playing for another few more years, but I’m also at the point of realizing this may not happen this year because of everything that’s going on, so I have to prepare myself for that. But it’s more about looking at the bigger picture of what’s going on here.”

Axford, a right-hander originally from Port Dover, Ont., appeared in 45 games with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2018 before being acquired by L.A. at the trade deadline that year.

He re-signed with Toronto on a minor-league contract before the 2019 season, but a stress fracture he sustained in his throwing elbow at spring training kept him out of action for the entire year.

After having surgery last August to remove bone spurs from the elbow, Axford said he was feeling good heading into this off-season and hoping a team might take a chance on him.

“I didn’t know what to expect (after the surgery) but I worked really hard and diligently and followed protocol,” Axford said. “I really felt ready to go for spring training, knowing that if I signed with a team I’d have to make with that team.”

Axford, who played two seasons for the Oakland A’s before joining Toronto, was in the Bay Area earlier this month training at the University of California, Berkeley and trying to figure out his next steps.

He flew back to Canada as he’d originally planned last Wednesday — the same day the World Health Organization labelled the coronavirus spread a pandemic — and MLB announced the next day it was cancelling the rest of spring training and postponing the start of the season by at least two weeks.

MLB extended that postponement by another six weeks on Monday.

As gyms and fitness facilities are closing around the U.S. and Canada in an effort to halt the spread of the virus, Axford believes it’s going to be tough for any player, let alone one without a current contract, to stay in shape over the next two months.

“It’s a difficult spot to be in, especially with everything else that is going on,” he said. “Facilities are getting shut down, places where you would go to prepare for a baseball season physically are closing.

“Even the players who do have teams to go to, they’re going to be facing the same reality. They’re going to have spaces where they train that will now be closed. … So I think baseball is going to have to take another look as to what happens when these eight weeks are up — do you have another spring training? Are players just expected to prepare through all this and stay vigilant and keep their arms healthy and their swings ready?

“It’s going to be a difficult thing, especially for starting pitchers. That buildup happens at spring training and now there’s a shutdown.”

Axford, who’s also a father of two young boys, turns 37 in two weeks. Should he miss out on the entire 2020 season, he’d be nearing 38 — without having pitched in a live MLB game in two years — when the 2021 season begins.

Axford said he’s thinking less and less about that each day, however.

“I kinda took my mind off baseball once things started escalating,” he said. “There’s so much more happening right now in our communities — all these closures, the self-isolation.”

Axford said he reached out to Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro to see how he could help with the recently established Team Toronto Fund — a combined endeavour by the Blue Jays, Maple Leafs, Raptors, Argos and Toronto FC to assist arena/stadium workers and support staff during each league’s closure.

“We have all these stadiums that are now going to be empty and people have jobs and need to get paid and carry on with their lives,” Axford said. “We have restaurants and gyms and concert halls and museums completely closing up and people are without work and without means to possibly get by in these next few weeks.

“I think that dynamic is a little bit bigger than my own selfish reason to want to continue to play baseball.”

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