Former Brewer John Axford Makes a Pitch for Sports Documentaries

Aug 24, 2016

For parts of four baseball seasons, John Axford made his way to the pitcher's mound from the bullpen, heavy metal music blasting from the speakers at Miller Park.  Axford was the Brewers' closer, the relief pitcher brought in at the end of games to try to preserve a victory. 

It is, not surprisingly, a stressful job.  But throughout his career, Axford - who now pitches for the Oakland Athletics - has found an effective way to decompress.  Films.

"It's a grind," he says, "being on the road.  You play just about every day - a hundred and sixty-two games in a hundred and eighty days.  So if you can find that escape, and if you have something else other than the game and baseball, that's great.  And for me, it happens to be films."

Axford started sponsoring the Milwaukee Film Festival while he played here.  He's kept that association ever since, through stints with the Cardinals, Indians, Rockies, and now the A's.  And while his role in the bullpen has switched to 7th and 8th inning work, his role with the film festival has increased this year.

Axford, who has a film degree from Notre Dame, serves as the co-programmer for a series of six films screening at the festival, which runs from September 22nd through October 6th.  Sportsball! includes films on a variety of sports, including "When We Were Kings," a film about Muhammad Ali that some critics call the best sports documentary ever made.

But another, lesser-known, film is on Axford's list of must-sees.  "Speed Sisters" tells the story of the first all-woman race car driving team in the Middle East - street racers in Palestine.  "It's something I've never thought about, never read about, didn't know anything about at all," Axford says.  "So you're watching a film about a whole different country - a whole different life in a whole different world that I never knew of."

Despite his profession, Axford says he's not really drawn to baseball movies - especially feature films.  "They don't grab me the way other films do," he says.  That's partly because not all baseball movies portray the sport the way he recognizes it. "For me - as a player - it's hard to step away from things that might not make sense in that real sports world."

Axford says the baseball documentary included in Sportsball! is an exception to the rule.  "Fastball," by acclaimed documentary maker Jonathan Hock, is all about - not surprisingly - the art of the fastball. "I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about it," Axford admits. He says he probably wouldn't even have watched it, if Milwaukee Film Festival director Jonathan Jackson hadn't recommended it for the series.

"It brought back some of the nostalgia factors," Axford says, "from when you were a kid, growing up and loving certain sports - the lore and the legends that fill you up and you want to learn more.  That's kind of what 'Fastball' brought back to me." 

It also helps that throwing a baseball 100 mph is something Axford - unlike most of his fellow movie-goers - can personally relate to.