When Canadian JOHN AXFORD was just a bartender with big-league dreams, he grew a goatee, and the only person who mentioned it was his sister. Now, the former film student’s facial hair is a phenomenon, winning an American Mustache Institute award (the 2011 Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year) and even raising money for charity through the Movember movement. The 29-year-old’s fastball isn’t bad, either: Witness his 46 saves last year, a Brewers single-season record. Replicating that success in the club’s injury-ravaged 2012 season has proven elusive. But Ax is still a fan favorite – for his personality, his social media savvy and, yes, his facial hair. It all began, he says, with a little clubhouse humor.
How did it start as a joke?
In spring training of 2010, I said if I got sent down to the minor leagues, I’m just gonna grow a mustache. That exact day, I got sent down, so I started growing it. I figured I’d keep it for a couple months and shave it in May when my wife was going to come in. Instead, I got called up May 15. I got up here, and it made some guys laugh. I told them I could curl it, and they said, “If you don’t curl that thing tomorrow, no one will respect you.” So I curled it. The fans saw it, and it just became its own entity. My wife came to visit, and I was like, “I’m sorry. I have to keep the mustache.”
Why do you think it became such a calling card?
What’s the reaction when you change it?
You don’t see many people with mustaches. It’s kind of a castoff from society, a different kind of culture. But being with the Brewers, people saw the handlebar mustache, and it immediately brought Rollie Fingers into people’s minds. I wasn’t trying to be like Rollie Fingers by any means, and I’ve mixed it up many times since. I don’t want people to think I’m trying to do what he did here.
At the beginning of this year, I had the real long pointy goatee and the mustache. When I shaved that and showed it on Twitter, a lot of people freaked out. It’s just interesting to see people’s reactions to somebody’s facial hair that they don’t even know.
What differentiates Brewers fans from other fan bases?
The fans here are great. They definitely know their baseball. The other thing is just the tailgate atmosphere. When I came here for the first time in September of 2009, it was a day game on a Sunday, and my cab couldn’t get into the ballpark because there were so many people already out tailgating.
How did you come by this relationship with Brewers fans?
They kind of forced it upon me when I had that mustache. I think it’s been great. I’m not from a big town, so I think there’s a certain connection that I have to the hard-working community that is Milwaukee. I try to work as hard as I can when I play the game.
You’re far more active on Twitter than most athletes. Why?
I do like seeing what people have to say to me, what kinds of questions they have. I enjoy being able to relate to people.
What are your thoughts on hecklers, be they Web-based or in person?
I find them more hilarious when it’s through social media because they hide behind their computer. People just feel it’s completely fine to say whatever they want to you, including as many curse words as they can. If I say something back, then they’re quiet. But they’re called fans for a reason, right? It’s short for fanatic.
When you majored in film at Notre Dame, was the ultimate goal an Oscar or a World Series?
I don’t think an Oscar was in my head. I think baseball was trying to overtake every part of that aspect. Obviously, now I want to win a World Series. It’s the most important thing. But when baseball is over, that’s something I can strive for. I still try to write, get some ideas out that have been bottled up ever since college.
What don’t people understand about life as a player?
The biggest thing for me is thinking that my wife back home is a single mom. On our last road trip, I missed my son’s first steps because we were in L.A. We do live a great life, but there are a lot of sacrifices that go with it, too.
What do you make of the team’s bad luck this season?
It’s something we’ve discussed, wondering where this all came from. A lot of guys that have been around the game for a while say they’ve never seen a string of injuries the way we’ve had it this year.
What does the future hold?
I’d like to play in Milwaukee as long as I can. It feels like home.