Alumni Spotlight

Play Ball

BUFFALO, NY -  John Axford MS ’13 fondly recalls the first time he saw a griffin. He was watching "Family Guy" on TV when a cartoon version of the majestic, mythical beast flew past as a sort of sight gag.

“It was just a quick, little joke,” Axford says, “but I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’”

He had no way of knowing someday he’d be a griffin, a Golden Griffin, and among the coolest in Canisius history. How cool? Let us count the ways:

  • He’s a right-handed relief pitcher for the Colorado Rockies.
  • He pitched 2 1/3 hitless innings for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013’s World Series.
  • He has 78,000 Twitter followers who enjoy his quick wit more than his fastball.
  • He tweeted predictions of 2014’s Academy Awards and hit 18 of 18.
  • He gave Canisius baseball a major gift this year — figure undisclosed but the biggest in team history.

Axford grew up in Port Dover, Ontario, and originally played for Notre Dame, where he graduated with a degree in film — and one year of eligibility. That’s when he came to Canisius to pursue his master’s degree in sport administration. He pitched one season for the Griffs — 3-8 in 14 starts in 2006, before he found his calling as a closer. Then he did various stints in the minors until, in 2009, he was called up by Milwaukee, where his handlebar mustache reminded fans of Hall of Fame closer Rollie Fingers.

In 2011, his performance did, too: Axford recorded 46 saves as the first Brewer to lead the National League in that category since Fingers. That was also the year he was awarded the Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year Award. (Never mind that Axford is Canadian — Goulet grew up in Canada, too.)

Axford tweeted in 2013 that he’d been traded to the Cardinals: “My arm. My mustache. Everything.” He has also played for Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and is the first

Canisius grad in the majors since Bill Goeckel, from the class of 1892, played for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1899. 

The master of sport administration is a two-year program and Axford played one season here. He had the inclination to finish his degree but not the time or money until he hit the big leagues. He earned it in 2013. “It is a really great program,” Axford says, “and sets me up for what I might want to do after baseball.”

The Canisius bullpen is now named for Axford. Coach Mike McRae cites him as emblematic of a program that blends under-recruited gems with castoffs like him to forge a .635 winning percentage in the past seven seasons, fifth-best nationally for teams outside power conferences. 

USA Today’s Paul White says it’s easy to root for Axford as a standup guy who’ll always answer questions after good games or bad — like the night in 2012 when his consecutive save streak was snapped at 49. Actually, that night Axford was missing afterward because his wife had just gone into labor. He left reporters a handwritten note.

“All I can do is begin another streak and keep my head up,” it said. “Cliché … cliché … another cliché. Gotta go! Love, Ax.”

Story by: Erik Brady '76

WEB EXTRA: Click here to learn more about John Axford's experience in the sport administration program.