by Kevin Kimmes
“The circle is now complete.” – Darth Vader
In December of 1980, a deal was made between the San Diego Padres and the St. Louis Cardinals, a deal that would see future Hall-of-Famer Rollie Fingers join the Cardinals’ organization. Wait you say, “Rollie never played for the Cards.” Well, right you are, so let me explain what happened.
On December 8th 1980, the San Diego Padres worked out an eleven player trade with the Cardinals. This deal would see Fingers, Bob Shirley, Gene Tenace and a player to be named later (Bob Geren) traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Terry Kennedy, John Littlefield, Al Olmsted, Mike Phillips, Kim Seaman, Steve Swisher and John Urrea. Fingers’ time in St. Louis would be brief, four days to be exact. You see, the very next day (December 9th) the Cards would acquire future Hall-of-Fame closer, Bruce Sutter from the Cubs.
On December 12th 1980, Fingers was traded by the St. Louis Cardinals with Ted Simmons and Pete Vuckovich to the Milwaukee Brewers for David Green, Dave LaPoint, Sixto Lezcano and Lary Sorensen. Milwaukee now held the contract for “Number 34”, a number that would be retired by Milwaukee in 1992, the same year he was inducted into the Professional Baseball Hall-of-Fame.
Flash forward to 2010 when a young reliever would join the Brewers ranks and immediately began drawing comparisons to Fingers. Some would say it was because of the way he pitched, others would say it was his domination in the closers role, but most would say it was his mustache. That man was John Axford.
“The Ax-Man” would set the Brewers bullpen on fire in 2010, setting a new franchise rookie saves mark of 24 saves which shattered the previous mark of 15 set by Doug Henry in 1991. 2011 would see more franchise records fall as he converted 46 of 48 possible save opportunities, including 43 in a row to end the season. His 2011 accomplishments included the following:
– Named Brewers Most Valuable Player by members of the Milwaukee Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America
– Named National League Rolaids Relief Man of the Year (an accolade Fingers won as a Brewer in 1981 while playing in the AL)
– Co-winner (with the Reds’ Joey Votto) of the Tip O’Neill Award presented by the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame
– Tied for the National League saves lead with the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel
– Set a new single season franchise record with 46 saves (previous record was 44 set by Francisco Cordero in 2007)
– Set a new single season franchise record by converting 43 consecutive saves (previous record was 25 set by Doug Jones in 1997)
Despite these momentous accomplishments, struggles in 2012 (a season in which he led the MLB in blown saves with 9) and a 2013 campaign in which his closers role would be handed over to Jim Henderson would leave Axford exposed at the trade deadline. On August 30th 2013, the Brewers would say goodbye to “Number 59” as Axford would say goodbye to the number as well.
In a deal with the division rival Cardinals, Axford’s services would be acquired for a player to be named later (that player would be revealed as Michael Blazek on September 1st). With his number 59 already on the back of new teammate Fernando Salas, Axford was in line to make a change whose significance seems to have been overlooked by most.
His new number? 34, Rollie’s number at the time of the 1980 deals that saw him traded from the Padres to the Cards and then the Cards to the Brewers in the course of 4 days.
Was this intentional or just a convenient coincidence? That is yet to be clear. What is clear, however, is that the Cards now has a mustachioed “Number 34” on the roster 33 years after they dealt Fingers and Axford has seen a renaissance in St. Louis.
Since joining the Cards, Axford has posted a 1.93 ERA over 9.1 innings across 12 games. While he has yet to record a save, he does have a 1-0 win/loss record since the move.
Cream City Cables reached out to John Axford who could not be reached for comment regarding the origin of his new number at the time of publication.
Kevin Kimmes is a regular contributor to creamcitycables.com and an MLB Fan Cave Top 52 Finalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @kevinkimmes.