Milwaukee Talks: John Axford
The Oriental Theatre on Farwell, a classic that turns 85 in July of this year, charms like few other. The city has its share of vintage venues, but there's something special about the entertainment experience there that sets it apart while at the same time accenting the unique cultural menu found in Milwaukee.
The same can be said about Milwaukee Brewers closer John Axford. Few players have been as widely and warmly received the way the 29-year-old closer has upon his arrival from the minor leagues late in 2009. His lanky frame, power fastball, long hair and most importantly – his success – have added to the entertainment experience at Miller Park. At the same time, he makes himself accessible in town and through social media while trying the fare – like the Oriental and other of Milwaukee's unique settings.
Axford has been a worthy addition to the Milwaukee scene. He's done it all, having tended bar, cleared tables, sold data packages, started post-graduate work, starred in a music video and become a mustachioed folk hero. OnMilwaukee.com caught up with him as he still searches for his big screen big break, speaks about the city, education and the hardest drinks he ever had to make.
OnMilwaukee.com: Since you've been in Milwaukee, you've consistently expressed your love for all things Milwaukee – from its radio (FM 102.1) to its clothing (Wiskullsin) – were you surprised to learn that you and the city fit so well?
Axford: Milwaukee is a very eclectic city and that's what I really like about it, too. It has kind of an indie culture to it in the arts side and that's kind of my side, too. Whether it's actual art itself, or music or film that's kind of a culture that I like to associate with, so whenever I go out to different places whether it's just at the pub down the road or anything in the Downtown area, I prefer those small little cultural areas where you get to see the different sides of people that is Milwaukee. I guess because I'm a different character at times myself I like to enjoy all the different aspects of those here. For a small city I think it's fantastic that there is so much going on.
OMC: To that end, you got involved with the Milwaukee Film Festival for the first time last year. How did you hear about it?
JA: I saw it around, like on TV or it was on billboards, so I always wanted to check it out. In 2010 I just wasn't able to. I think we were on the road or playing the whole time. Last year I was finally part of the film festival, so I got to go to the opening night with Tim (Dillard), and Randy (Wolf) came also, so did my wife and Tim's wife. We got invited to the opening night and went to the afterparty, so it was pretty cool. This year I'm involving myself again with potentially even more involvement so we'll see what works out of that.
OMC: The Oriental is an interesting venue isn't it?
JA: That's the first time I had ever been to it. It was really cool. I like the old style theaters like that every once in a while, especially for a film festival get together like that where everyone is such a cinephile of sorts and everyone is enjoying the film atmosphere and I think just the old school feel inside, too, kind of adds to the nostalgia all around.
You can go to an AMC or some of those and check out those theaters, but sometimes it's the older ones that are always the most fun. I found one when I was in AAA in Nashville right by the Vanderbilt campus that I went to a few times. It was just an old theater that they had a couple of film festivals at, too, and it was just cheaper tickets, cheaper popcorn, cheaper drinks and you could go in there and watch a movie and even have a beer if you wanted to. It's those kind of theaters that I find are just kind of cool.
OMC: Along those lines, have you been to the Downer Theatre, or the other movie venues in the city?
JA: Yeah, I haven't looked into that one yet, either. I'd still like to check them out. It's just a matter of time.
OMC: Speaking of movies, you've had some fun lately on Twitter by saying Quentin Tarantino stole your look for Leonardo DiCaprio's character in the upcoming film "Django Unchained." Any chance you were hoping that would somehow get back to him?
JA: I guess maybe. Maybe I'll put a couple more pictures together. I'm pretty sure that trailer for that film comes out (June 6) or (June 7) so maybe we'll see more of that outfit, but the very first time I saw it I was like, no way, that honestly looks exactly like – obviously mine's a lot cheaper because I bought it online through a costume shop and it's pure polyester or whatever it is, I don't know if it was even that – but just the resemblance of it all I thought it was kind of interesting.
You never know what can get out there, what can get viral and what can happen. Like that note, for example. I just wrote a note. I didn't think it was going to become that big a deal. So yeah, maybe deep down I was just hoping that Quentin was going to pay attention and maybe help me out, get me on his next movie or something.
OMC: Being such a fan of film, did you have a little friendly envy of Nyjer Morgan and his red carpet appearance at the "Twilight" premiere?
JA: No. My agency is down in Beverly Hills and a bunch of family members of my agent and people within the agency have family members that are in the industry and potentially, we were trying to get on the "Dark Knight Rises" set this past year when they were in Pittsburgh, but we showed up the day that they shut down production and moving to New York.
So Tim and I were going to go and get on the set, but then we're like "Oh, no, sorry – we're leaving" so we couldn't get on. There are certain ins you can always get to. To each his own. I probably wouldn't get on the red carpet for a "Twilight" premiere. Maybe I should because maybe there would be more people paying attention. I think it would be pretty cool. I'd definitely like to get to some sort of premiere at some point, or even like a film festival, but a lot of them happen during the season, like the Cannes Film Festival, so you can't really step out and get away from it."
OMC: You've had a lifelong interest in film, leading to a degree in the subject from the University of Notre Dame. You've had a lot of interaction with fans about completing your college education in May and June. Have you come across many other ballplayers with degrees?
JA: There are definitely a few guys here who are only a semester or two semesters away, if they left after their junior year or some guys started junior college. I know some guys, like (Brewers starter Chris) Narveson for example, started when he was in pro ball. He started doing the University of Phoenix online and attending classes in the offseason.
There's a lot of guys that try and get on it that way, too, because they know that baseball is not going to be forever, obviously. There's a certain aspect to this game that is only going to allow you to play for only so long, so you need some sort of background or backdrop if you want to step away from the game of baseball you probably need another background other than just playing a game to try and do that. I think it's pretty neat running into other people that have degrees.
Someone came up and asked me, I guess they were doing team polls of how many people have degrees and I can't remember the exact number but I thought it was only like 40-something in the entire major leagues that actually had a four-year degree. Not very many guys, so it's something to be said I guess for education before baseball.
OMC: Then there's yourself, who started post-graduate work.
JA: I was still trying to get in to play professionally and after my senior year at Notre Dame, after I graduated, the Cincinnati Reds drafted me but they said they were only going to do draft and follow but I didn't have a scholarship for Notre Dame and I couldn't afford it anymore, so I went to a school closer to home at Canisius and decided I'll just start my master's degree instead and get something kicking that way because if baseball doesn't work out at least then I have a good education to back up on and I have a lot of contacts that way, too."
OMC: With your status now, have you been able to start to tie your educational background and movie interests together?
JA: I'm definitely trying a lot more now, getting to know people, meet some people. I'm learning to do a lot of the viral videos with Nadia Dajani with Caught Off Base, which LaTroy (Hawkins) did last year, too, and I did. She's an actress, she's been an actress for many years and she's actually helped me quite a bit, too, to try and get me to write a little bit more and help me out with some of my writing that I've always been doing over the years.
There are just certain people like that who you kind of run into contact with and you realize these people can help you outside the game of baseball. I find it better to kind of spread yourself out that way than just keep yourself in the clubhouse and keep yourself in the game. I like to expand and try to enjoy every aspect I can outside of the ballpark.
I did have an opportunity, well, a potential opportunity to direct a music video, the music video I did with the band The Reason that they ended up finding somebody to do it. But when couldn't the guy came up and listen, you have a film background, do you want to just direct it? I told him "yes, but find somebody else first because it's been a while for me and I don't know what I'm going to be doing, you might want to hold off on using me."
But it's still something I enjoy so it's something I'd like to get into. It's just been a matter of trying to keep yourself up on it and all the information because everything changes all the time. I try to read up and keep up but when you're playing baseball and you're a husband and a father, you don't have as much time anymore to do those things.
OMC: In talking about Milwaukee earlier, you mentioned the "pub down the street." You've had some experience behind the bar at East Side Mario's in Ontario. Do you remember the hardest drinks to make?
JA: There are definitely certain ones you're unsure of, like the first time someone asks you to make a Manhattan or something you gotta to go the bartender's book and try and look that up. But the things I despised the most to make were the frozen drinks because people would ask for like a raspberry, strawberry with like peach and you'd have to make all three separately in the one frozen container and you have to pour the rum and then you've have to rinse it out and make a whole new one.
Those were the ones I hated the most. Just throwing ice in to a few different mixers, making a martini or shaking something up, that was no problem. It was just a matter of the time. The time commitments for each drink, if it took awhile, I didn't like to make it. So if you had to rim the glass or put all fruit in it and stuff, too, I tried to turn my back away from those ones.
OMC: With that experience, do you find yourself being more understanding when you're ordering something, or do you have a more critical palate?
JA: I was a server first, then I was a bartender and every time I'm out there's always more slack I feel that you give now. My parents are the same way because every single one of their kids, me and my three sisters all worked in the industry at some point. We were all bartenders or servers whether it was in our hometown or in college where we went to school, so when they hear the horror stories that we had when we'd come home or something, they'd realize, okay, that these people actually do deal with that. That's something you've got to understand.
I think everybody needs to work in the industry at some point, as a server, a bartender, or at least in the back in the kitchen and see what people have to go through on a daily basis. You'll be a little more forgiving when maybe they come out with the wrong pasta or the wrong sauce or something's a little off on your order. Everyone always wants things to be perfect but it's not always going to be that. It was definitely a good thing to do for a few years, that's for sure. It gives you an appreciation for what they do.
OMC: You've also sold cell phones at Best Buy. What is more difficult – making a Manhattan or sell a data plan?
JA: It was harder to sell cell phones. Unless someone actually knew – hey, I want this and I want this package and that's it, you were good to go. But it was always the extra sell. You had to sell up. No one's too sure what cell phone they want, so you have to tell them what cell phone they need based on what their wants. It's not so much what they want, it's what you're telling them what they want.
In a bar, people pretty much know what they want to drink or eat. Maybe once in a while you convince them between one thing or another, but they're always there because they're hungry so they're going to eat something. If they're trying to buy a cell phone, they may not walk away with a cell phone. When they're in the restaurant, they're going to either have a drink or have some food so it's a little bit easier. You can always sell up too and say 'have a few more cocktails?' but it's much easier to sell food and drinks than cell phones.
OMC: Do you think all of this – your background, the roundabout way you got to the big leagues, along with your approachability and presence in Milwaukee – makes you more relatable to people as a "regular guy?"
JA: I think that's just kind of my personality, too. Maybe that road helped to a certain degree – it keeps you stable, keeps you humble. I don't want to get too high and I don't want to get too low. It's obviously a blessing and it's incredible to be on a major league team and to play and to pitch for major league team, but you don't want to take that for granted because it could be here today and gone tomorrow.
It took me so long to get here and I don't want to wish it away but at the same time I don't want to assume I'm going to be here for so long so I take advantage of every day. If I'm out and about and people see me and recognize me – obviously there are certain times I may want to be alone and private when I'm with my family or something like that – but if it's just me I'm generally pretty open with people because it's something I look for.
It's not the fame or anything, but it's part of playing in the major leagues and being a baseball player. It comes with it, the recognition, so I'm not going to deny people of saying hi or a handshake or something like that. It's not my place, really. You should be that kind of everyday guy.
John...cut your hair...look like a ballplayer. signed, Crabby Old School Guy. :)
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