A slight twist on an established stat, BABIP but with HR left in place.
A slight twist on an established stat, BABIP but with HR left in place.
Okay, I’ll admit it. The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer. With Buster Posey & Jason Heyward playing out of their heads, Canadian John Axford has no chance at winning the 2010 Rookie of the Year award. But if he were in the American League? It might be a different story.
Since taking over the Milwaukee Brewers closer’s role from the faltering Trevor Hoffman, the mustachioed 6’5″ 195lbs. Axford has racked up 20 saves. Axford is somewhat of an unknown to most baseball fans. Where did this guy come from? Like many overnight successes, there is a back-story of a lot of hard work involved.
Axford first showed up on the Canadian baseball radar when he pitched for Team Ontario. A prized high school pitching prospect, he impressed scouts by being able to throw a 96mph fastball with hard breaking stuff. He parlayed his success into a scholarship at Notre Dame where he pitched for 3 years, despite being drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2001.
In his 3rd year Axford tore his ulnar collateral ligament, requiring Tommy John reconstructive surgery. Axford took longer than most to recover from the surgery and as a result his scholarship was not renewed. Despite this tremendous setback, Axford was still drafted by the Cincinatti Reds in the 2005 MLB entry draft. This was the scouting report on him at the time:
RHP John Axford flashed first-round potential in the Cape Cod League in 2003, but had Tommy John surgery that December. He has been slow to come back, missing all of 2004 and working just three innings this spring. He had a low-90s fastball and a plus curveball before he got hurt, though his command was sporadic. Because he’s a redshirt junior, a team could take him as a draft-and-follow.
Axford didn’t sign.
As a result of his scholarship not being renewed, Axford transferred to New York state’s Canisius College, a popular school for Canadian collegiate ballplayers. That season Axford was 3 -8 with a 5.01 earned run average in 14 starts. Axford walked 75 and struck out 75 in 70 innings. That summer he pitched in the Western Baseball League, an independent Canadian circuit. That same year Axford signed with the Brantford Red Sox of the Intercounty Baseball League (IBL), an independent league based in Ontario. Although he struggled in his only start for Brantford (4IP, 5BB, 7H, 5ER, 1HR, 6K) he managed to open the eyes of some scouts, including the Milwaukee Brewers.
Axford struck out plenty of hitters in the Western Baseball League, enough so that the New York Yankees were impressed enough with his peripheral numbers to sign him as a free agent late in the 2006 season. The Yankees intended to use him to fill out the depth chart on their minor league rosters.
After seeing Axford pitch live in a game, Yankees minor league director Pat Roessler said to him “you keep spotting your fastball the way you’re doing and you’ll be a big leaguer.” Unfortunately for John, he was unable to spot the fastball. Across all levels he pitched in in the Yankees organization, Axford put up a walk rate of 6.4 BB per 9 innings pitched. The only other 2 pitchers in all of baseball to have a walk rate that high were Dontrelle Willis and Oliver Perez. Axford was subsequently released.
“They told me in all honesty they had time and money invested in other players and it probably would be better for me to go to another organization.”
Following the season Axford continued to work out indoors while bartending at East Side Mario’s in Dundas, Ontario. Those same Brewers scouts who watched him play in Brantford were tipped off to his indoor workouts. Brewers scout Jay Lapp then arranged a private workout at The Baseball Zone in Mississauga.
“It was surprising that he’d been released,” said Lapp, who recommended the right-hander to Brewers’ assistant-GM Gord Ash following the workout.
Ash invited Axford to the Brewers’ spring training facility in Arizona to get a closer look at him. He was signed in march of 2008 and assigned to Brevard County of the high-A Florida State League.
Axford struggled in 2008 as the control problems that plagued him at Canisius showed up again. Axford was 5-10 with a 4.55 ERA walking 73 and striking out 89 in 95 innings. Things weren’t looking good for a 25 year old failed prospect stuck in the Florida State League.
“We knew we were getting a guy that had a good live arm, but there were a lot of mechanical issues with him,” Brewers GM Bob Melvin said. “There were some up and down moments and some times when we weren’t sure he was going to throw enough strikes.”
“If [pitchers] have good live arms and their walk rates are high, I think you’ve got to be patient,” Melvin said. “One of the toughest things in the game is to be patient.”
However, in 2009 things Axford got the magic back. Coming out of spring training, the Brewers decided Axford was best suited to a relief role and assigned up to Brevard County again to repeat the level. The Brewers tinkered with a few mechanical flaws in Axford’s delivery and his walk rate dropped.
“Guys with good arms, I say the same thing,” Melvin said. “Their walks can be reduced once they feel comfortable with their deliveries.”
Axford hit the ground running in a breakout year. He raced through 3 minor league levels on his way to a September callup with Milwaukee. His walk rate? A career-low 3.1 per 9IP. He made his big league debut on September 15th at Wrigley Field vs. the Cubs in the 8th inning.
“Everyone told me to soak it all in,” Axford said. “I walked three guys, allowed a run and I think I only remember three pitches that I threw.”
“The first pitch was a strike to Bobby Scales, a curve ball to strikeout Kosuke Fukudome and a ball that got away from me and almost hit Derek Lee in the head.”
Combining his numbers at single-A Brevard, AA Huntsville and AAA Nashville, Axford went 9-1 in relief with a 2.43 ERA. He got his control back; Axford walked 38 and struck out 89 in 68 1/3 innings. With Milwaukee he posted a 3.52 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .179 BAA in 7 relief appearances. The cherry on top was inducing an Albert Pujols pop-up in the bottom of the 10th inning on the final day of the 2009 season.
“Bring that with you next spring,” said Brewers manager Ken Macha.
And bring it with him he did.
Axford showed up in Peoria in spring training throwing smoke, striking out 7 and walking only 2. Although he didn’t make the opening day roster, Axford pitched well at AAA Nashville, striking out 19 while walking only 5 in 13 innings. His mid 90′s fastball was back with a mid 80′s slider and 80 mph curve.
With legendary closer Trevor Hoffman struggling to begin the season, going 5 for 10 in save opportunities with a 12.21 ERA, Axford was given the closer’s role temporarily to allow Hoffman to take a breather.
“It was a little strange,” Axford said. “Actually, a lot strange. It was kind of surreal.”
Axford has gained significant notoriety with his reliability in closing out games, not to mention significant popularity with the ladies for his magical mustache.
In fact, Axford’s mustache has its own Facebook page. The mustache can also be found on Twitter. Its bio states: “The talk of Milwaukee…Best ride in town. A real ladies’ stache.” Sad to say that the mustache is no more – Axford was only growing it until he got to see his wife, Nicole, who he hadn’t seen since spring training. It has now morphed into a goatee.
Axford hass given up only 1 HR in 55 major league innings and walked 27. It just goes to show that if you strike out enough guys and keep the ball in the yard, you can get away with a few extra walks. Axford’s career path has been anything but conventional, and if he does succeed in a high-leverage role, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a reliever emerges out of relative obscurity. This is another story that serves as incentive to keep perservering through life’s obstacles and to never give up on your dream.
John Buck has been money this season with runners on base.
This past season we’ve done quite a few ballpark reviews so it seems only fitting that we look at our very own SkyDome/Rogers Centre as the end of the season draws near.
Toronto’s SkyDome was originally built at a cost of $578 million dollars, a multi-purpose stadium intended to replace the lacklustre Exhibition Stadium. Although most of the construction costs were governmentally financed, many private Canadian companies made significant investments in exchange for long term “Skybox” contracts. At the time the stadium was considered incredibly extravagant, featuring the first retractable roof in any stadium. The pairing of the SkyDome with the CN Tower (the world’s tallest free-standing structure at the time) made for the most distinctive urban skyline in the world.
The Blue Jays led the league in attendance for the first 4 years the ballpark was open (1990-1993) and exceeded the 4 million mark in the final 3 seasons of that span, breaking AL attendance records. Although many fans “flocked” to see the winning Blue Jays team (50,000 + every night), many came to witness the architectural marvel that was the SkyDome in person.
With the largest-ever video screen in centre field (the JumboTron), a hotel in centrefield, a Hard Rock Café, McDonald’s concessions, Windows Restaurant and the aforementioned first-ever retractable roof (the roof can open or close in 20 minutes), the SkyDome was considered the pinnacle of the modern baseball stadium. Randy Bush of the Minnesota Twins once remarked that taking the field at the SkyDome was like taking the stage at a concert. My, how things have changed.
Why belabour the point that the Rogers Centre is grim concrete toilet bowl …
Excellent sightlines? Not from the concourses.
Modern amenities? Yes, when it was built in 1989. The cheesy, bland cafeteria offerings are bullshit.
I don’t begrudge the Dome for being a relic, I just is. The deadness of the crowd doesn’t impact on the bottom of a bucket feeling of the stadium, the 5 decks travelling some 20 stories high does.
Sadly, in my mind this is the prevailing perception of what the Rogers Centre experience is like among Torontonians. This might be why people are reluctant to attend games.
True, the Dome has aged (now over 20 years old), and yes, it was the tallest stadium in baseball at 310 feet until Miller Park suprassed it at 330 feet. Now that there are swimming pools, ferris wheels & merry-go rounds in ballparks, the SkyDome seems a little stale. However, things began to change in January of 2000 when the Blue Jays owners, Rogers Communications, purchased the SkyDome for a cool $25 million dollars and promptly renamed it the “Rogers Centre.” Immediately renovations began to improve the ballpark. A safer, more aesthetically pleasing playing surface was installed, updated video displays were put in place and various cosmetic changes were implemented. Concessions were improved even hot water was made available in the bathrooms.
First off, let’s talk access. The Rogers Centre is one of the most easily accessible ballparks in MLB. Situated in Toronto’s downtown core, close to the shores of Lake Ontario, the Rogers Centre is within walking distance of Toronto’s main transportation hub, Union Station.
The surrounding neighbourhood is also one of the better ‘hoods in all of MLB when assessing it as a party zone. Although it’s not as good as Petco’s Gaslamp District, it’s close. Although 4 years old and badly needing an update, we covered the Blue Jays Party Zone in this post. Many of the watering holes in the vicinity are full of Jays and the visiting team’s fans pre and post-game. If you are lucky you might even run into this guy, as I did at the Loose Moose:
The exterior architecure of the Rogers Centre isn’t anything to write home about. Predominantly concrete, the Rogers Centre relies on its neighbours and location to help it out.
The CN Tower takes away from the drab design while also matching the grey concrete decor. The structure is large and imposing, but the surrounding area is picturesque and the lake is only a short walk away.
This is the view outside on the 500 level concourse:
It seems a shame to be so close to the lake and not incorporate it into the design of the ballpark somehow. How to go about doing it? I am not entirely sure.
Inside the stadium it is clean and well-lit. Admittedly, the playing field itself is mediocre. The various iterations of Astro & Field Turf, symmetrical dimensions and the feeling of playing baseball in an arena when the roof is closed are all faults of the Rogers Centre baseball experience. Watching baseball when the roof is closed is a truly awful situation, yet I would never advocate an open air stadium given Toronto’s unpredictable climate. Better to have climate-controlled baseball in April than to have to sit through a snowstorm. Perhaps if natural light was able to flow through via the installation of skylights it might alleviate the problem.
As far as sightlines are concerned, being a multi-purpose and circular stadium the Rogers Centre’s seats don’t always face home plate (although the situation is not nearly as bad as San Francisco’s AT&T Park). In a few seats in the corners of the upper deck fans aren’t able to see portions of the outfield, representing a major design flaw (although it only affects a few).
True, as Drew noted in the quote above, the sightlines aren’t great from the concourses (though I would argue this is a minor complaint since patrons don’t go to the game to watch from the concourses). The fact that the concourses are open at all is a major upgrade on many ballparks in MLB. That being said, they are only open on the lower 100 level. The 200 and 500 levels are closed.
Here’s a panoramic view of the ballpark from the 500-level perspective:
After McDonald’s abandoned the Rogers Centre in the mid-1990′s, a food service company called Aramark took over the SkyDome’s food concessions contract. Once they did, bland cafeteria-style offerings became the norm. Until recently, that is. After being pressured by Blue Jays Presidents Paul Godfrey and Paul Beeston, Aramark has increased their food quality and diversity substantially.
My favourite location is the Muddy York Market, just outside section 109. It showcases the cuisine of Toronto’s diverse neighbourhoods. Their selections include an in-house smoked and pulled pork barbecue sandwich, classic gyros, souvlaki, specialty pizzas, carved smoked turkey sandwiches, beef and chicken satay, kung pao wraps, sushi boxes, four specialty salads and a traditional Mediterranean platter. But their piéce de resistance is their smoked chicken nachos: tri-coloured tortilla chips loaded with cheddar cheese, smoked BBQ chicken, fresh japapeños and onions. It’s topped off with fresh salsa and sour cream. They are the best nachos you’ll have for $8.50.
Another popular locale is the Roundhouse Carvery and bar, just outside section 122. The carvery features prime rib and turkey. Delicious.
Outside section 134 you will find the Quaker Steak & Lube: an American chain that specializes in Buffalo chicken wings, loaded fries and onion rings. Shopsy’s serves deli sandwiches on fresh-baked artisan breads. Additional concession items that can be had at the Rogers Centre include:
Stadium Hot Dog
Footlong Hot Dog
Grilled Mediterranean Sausage
Pizza Pizza Slice
Blazin’ Burger (with Jalapeño peppers and Monteray Jack Cheese)
Chicken Breast Sandwich
Sweet Potato French Fries with Chipotle Dip
Panini (Ham, Chicken, Veggie)
Fresh Squeezed Lemonade
Asian Noodle Box
Herb & Garlic Fries
Vegetable Pasta Bowl
Häagen Dazs Bars
Helmet Sundae Cup s
As well, unlike my misadventure at Anaheim Stadium, you will be able to find an assortment of beverages at the Rogers Centre. Fruitopia, Minute Maid Juices, Milk, Hot Chocolate / Tea, Monster Energy Drinks, Fuse, Vitamin Water and V8.
The beer selection isn’t all that extensive and it is a little pricey ($10.75 for a 20oz draft.) However, some delicious mixed drinks can be had at various stands around the 100 level. They include strawberry daiquiris, Amarula-infused piña coladas, caesars as well as white and red wines.
Those daiquiris and piña coladas go down real easy during those hot weekend afternoon games.
There are a few restaurants in the ballpark: Sightlines Restaurant and Windows Restaurant. Sightlines is an open air restaurant that is perched in centrefield. Windows restaurant is an enclosed restaurant below Sightlines that used to be open to the public but is now open to group bookings only.
Like Petco Park in San Diego, the Rogers Centre has attempted to make an outdoor party patio, although it is a sorry excuse for one. It has the potential to be so much more.
I propose that the Windows Restaurant be renovated in such a way to create an adults-only party zone. It could offer both sit down and standing seating options with bar service. Remove the windows to make it an open-air environment and perhaps crowd noise could be increased. It will attract younger fans to the game at the very least.
The SkyDome hotel is still in existence but has been purchased by hotelier Marriott and branded the Rennaissance Hotel, Toronto. The Renaissance Toronto Downtown Hotel is the world’s only 4 diamond hotel located in a major league sports and entertainment venue. Of the hotel’s 348 rooms, 70 are field-view and they surround the large scoreboard in centrefield.
For a non refundable $50 sanitation fee, you can even bring your pet to the game – especially since the Blue Jays no longer have the Dog Day at the Ballpark promotion. There is also an indoor swimming pool and fitness centre.
The JumboTron is one of the finest scoreboards in all of baseball. Three stories high, the scoreboard provides excellent resolution using LED technology and is able to display 4.3 trillion colours.
As far as a sense of history of the franchise reflected in the Rogers Centre.. well, there is a little but not a lot. Instead of retiring numbers, the Blue Jays have opted to install a “Level of Excellence.” This is a band above the 2nd deck that honours great Blue Jay players of the past as well as a the late broadcaster Tom Cheek. Included in the level are the architects of the 1992 and 1993 World Series championships, Pat Gillick and current-President Paul Beeston.
The championship banners are hung prominently above the JumboTron, just above a few of the hotel’s field-view rooms.
Like Dodger Stadium, the Rogers Centre features pictures of past players and great moments that line the lowe-level concourse.
Ticket availability isn’t really an issue these days with the Blue Jays struggling to attrract 20,000 fans per game. Unless you are in the upper reaches of the upper deck (where the lights are positioned well below the top of the upper deck, obstructing fan views – the only ballpark designed in this fashion) the 500 level upper deck is a great value play to watch a game. As my colleague (a non-baseball fan) remarked “For $14 a ticket I might as well come to the game every weekend.”
The Blue Jays have the finest team shop out of any ballpark I have visited. The sheer size and selection is almost overwhelming.
New and old styles of jerseys are available for almost every player. Want a customized jersey? No problem. Have any name and number heat-sealed on a Jays jersey and it will be ready for pickup by the 7th inning.
There is also an extensive section of women’s clothing. Roberto Alomar’s own line of clothing is featured prominently as well as game-worn jerseys by former obscure Jays players such as Bill Risley, as seen below:
The team merchandise stands on the concourses are well appointed with almost as many hats as the flagship store. A nice touch is the availabilty of hats from the now-defunct Montreal Expos. There is even a hybrid hat that mixes the red panelling of the Expos hat with the Blue Jays logo.
Without a doubt, the Blue Jays have the worst ushers in all of baseball. We’ve talked about how militant they are before in these parts. Trading up is not an option. Neither is having any fun at the game. Heckling will result in being turfed from the game, as will raising your voice. This is the Rogers Centre’s most pressing need for improvement.
The local fanbase is a topic of much contention. Like LA Dodgers fans, Blue Jays fans are considered uninformed, apathetic and quiet. Although I am loathe to make blanket generalizations, I believe in this case the old adage “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” is true in this case. In my experience, many fans at Jays games are hockey fans using the Jays game as a diversion until the NHL season starts up again. There are many of those guys in the stands proudly sporting Toronto Maple Leafs jerseys and attempting to lead the crowd in chants of “Go Leafs Go.” This is, for the most part, the 18-35 crowd. I find those those older than this age bracket are a different breed; they know the game and are in tune with its nuances. You can generally find these people sitting many rows back in the 500 level with their bag of popcorn and coffee.
Although Jays fans have Cubs and Angels fans beat in the baseball etiquette department, Blue Jays fans are prone to start “the wave” at the most inappropriate times during games. This can be both frustrating and embarassing.
The assumption that Jays fans are “quiet” likely stems from 1992 when Dave Winfield made a plea of Toronto fans, stating that he “wanted noise” in an August interview. This assumption is flawed. Jays fans are as loud as any other in baseball, especially when they feel they have been slighted or any opportunity to voice their displeasure presents itself.
When the ballpark is full and the roof is closed, the cacophony of the fans can be deafening, such as the Canada vs. USA game in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
In addition to having a penchant for boo-ing, Jays fans will ALWAYS get out of their seats and cheer on a 2-strike, 2-out situation:
Especially when the game is on the line:
One unique feature of the Rogers Centre baseball experience is the “World’s Fastest Grounds Crew.”
Tom Cheek, the legendary Jays broadcaster, was the first to give the title to the Jays crew as he watched them race out to groom the infield at Exhibition Stadium.
The 7th-inning stretch is a tonne of fun at the Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays have their very own song, OK Blue Jays, that is sung directly before Take Me Out To The Ball Game. It has to be the best 7th inning stretch in all of baseball.
A constant at the SkyDome has been the presence of Jays fan and busker ”Rick the Drummer.” He’s been outside the Rogers Center since 1989. Here he is in 1989, the first year of the Rogers Centre:
21 years later, not much has changed. Here he is outside the Rogers Centre last weekend:
A nice touch is that during some games he is incorporated into the entertainment experience by playing drums inside the ballpark. Let’s Go Blue Jays!
The Rogers Centre is not the best ballpark in baseball, on that we can all agree. Yet it is far from being the worst. It may not have everything you want but it has everything you need. As long as the roof is open, the Rogers Centre is still a decent place to watch the game of baseball and will likely remain so for years to come. It is a luxury to have the said roof and to not have to worry about any rain delays - a luxury many of us take for granted. For $14, a ticket to a Blue Jays game is still one of the best entertainment values in the city. On a hot summer night with a gentle breeze blowing off the lake with the CN-Tower all lit up and looming over you while OK Blue Jays is playing… there really isn’t anything quite like it.
I learned about Cal McLish on the back of my 1975 Tony Oliva (#325) baseball card. The trivia question was, “What is Cal McLish’s full name? The answer, Oklahoma Sports Hall of Famer Calvin Coolidge Julius Ceasar Tuskahoma McLish of course!
So who is Cal McLish? Cal died last week but he will be known forever as the ballplayer with the most unusual name. Cal was born 1 December 1925, a Sagittarius. Calvin Coolidge was president. Julius Ceasar, the famous Roman general and statesman. Tuskahoma, is a town in Oklahoma, in the local native language meaning warrior. Cal’s father was a member of the Choctaw tribe.
Cal grew up as a rural poor dust bowl Okie. He was able to attend high school and was scouted as a teenager there playing semi-pro ball in Oklahoma City. Cal was playing American Legion ball where he was a standout as he could pitch and hit both left handed and right handed. In a Major League depleted by players in war service Cal made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1944 at the tender age of 18. He threw right handed throughout his career in the majors and I could find no refenerce of his ever throwing lefty in the Majors. The Dodgers were having patience with their teenaged rookie when he was drafted into the US Army later in the summer of 1944. He served in the infantry and saw battle in Europe. He also pitched in while in the service.
After returning from military service, Cal was sent to the Minor Leagues playing mostly in the high minor leagues for several organisations. Cal had several cups of coffee every season with the Dodgers, Pirates and Cubs until 1950 when he played a full season with the Cubs. Cal’s performance was not spectacular and he did a fair bit of mop up duty as a reliever for the Cubs and Indians until 1958 when he became a starter. Al went 31-16 over the 1958-59 campaign with an ERA and WHIP around 3.25 and 1.25 respectivley. He was named to the 1959 AL All-Star Team. During this stretch he set a record that has since been matched but not surpassed by winning 16 consecutive road game. That was the highlight of Cal’s career, he played for another 6 years with the Reds, White Sox and Phillies but he never had the success he had in Cleveland. McLish never played in the playoffs or won a World Series.
McLish continued his pro career as a pitching coach well into the 1980’s. He was one of Gene Mauch’s boys following him as a coach from Philadelphia to Montreal where he was the original pitching coach. Interestingly, Cal was traded for Mauch in the 1950’s! Cal finally had his chance at a championship when he was Harvey Kuenn’s pitching coach for the 1982 AL Champions Milwaukee Brewers.
Cal McLish died on 28 August at the age of 84.
Vive les Expos!