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It’s a few hours before game time, and the Milwaukee Brewers’ locker room looks just as you’d expect. There’s a steaming breakfast buffet, Major League on the flat-screen, a bunch of dudes in jockstraps chewing dip. And then there’s John Axford, carrying an Edible Arrangements.

Axford is the Brewers’ closer—a lanky 6'5" right-hander with floppy hair and a Fu Manchu. (He recently upgraded from a handlebar ’stache, à la Brewers great Rollie Fingers.) The Edible Arrangements—a cornucopia of fruit and chocolate—is a gift for the team’s coaching staff. “The bullpen says thank you,” he tells the room of grizzled old-timers as he places the centerpiece on a desk. “We appreciate everything you do.”

Axford is no stranger to quirky stuff like this. (As teammate Prince Fielder says, “He is a closer.”) But today these hijinks are Maxim-funded. Axford and his fellow Brewers have signed on to help us blow some hard-earned cash and provide a glimpse of life behind the big-league scenes. Mostly, though, it’s an excuse for him to have some fun at his teammates’ expense.

They seem to have a lot of fun. With their off-field chemistry and knack for last-minute heroics, the Brewers might be the most exciting young team in baseball. Star left fielder Ryan “the Hebrew Hammer” Braun just signed a $105 million contract extension.

Teddy-bear-shaped slugger Prince Fielder—who joined Braun and second baseman Rickie Weeks as All-Star Game starters, giving the Brewers the most of any NL team—has spent much of the season leading the league in homers and RBI. Up-and-coming stars like pitchers Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo thrill fans and pros alike, and cutups like right fielder Nyjer Morgan—who in a recent game didn’t realize it was the ninth inning until he got the walk-off hit—provide a sense of sandlot fun. All of which explains why they’re playoff contenders despite playing in the smallest market in baseball.

Axford might be the most fun of all. Closers have always been some of the wack­iest players on the diamond—from Al “the Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky (who also had a Fu Manchu) to prankster Roger McDowell (fire­- crackers in the dugout, upside-down uniforms) to the Giants’ Brian Wilson (a.k.a. the Beard). Axford isn’t quite that nutty, but he’s still far from your typical jock. He grew up in Ontario, an honors student and student council rep who ex­celled at hockey and set the school high jump record. Now in the land of Harleys, Happy Days, beer, and brats, Axford’s a bit of an outsider, a culture-loving aesthete who likes foreign movies and serious fiction (Dante’s Inferno, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road).

Next on Axford’s target list is Japanese reliever Takashi Saito. Axford has decided to surprise Saito by hiring an Elvis impersonator and a clown to sing “Happy Birthday.” (The original plan was to do it to Fielder, who, rumor has it, is afraid of clowns—though he stands an imposing 285 pounds at 5 '11". Perhaps wisely, cooler heads prevail. “He’s, uh, not feeling very good today,” explains third baseman Casey Mc­Gehee. “You wouldn’t get a good reaction.”)

As it turns out, it’s for the best. When Elvis rushes into the locker room and starts singing through his curled lip, the look on Saito’s face is priceless in any language. “No!” he says, confused. “I am not birthday!” Eventually he gives in to the confusion and starts doing a dance of his own, complete with a balloon hat from Gussie the Clown. The rest of the team sings along and cheers. “Thank you, guys!” Saito says when it’s over, doing a pretty good Elvis himself. “Thank you very much!”

Next Axford drops by the souvenir shop to pick up a Bernie Brewer garden gnome, which he wants to give to crusty longtime broadcaster Bob Uecker, of Major League fame (word on the street is that Uecker thinks they’re creepy). Down in the dugout, Axford surprises him; Ueck tosses Bernie and looks into the empty box: “Are you sure there’s nothing else in there?” (Sorry, Ax: That one was just a bit outside.)

While the pitching staff heads out for warmups, which, awesomely, seem to consist mostly of playing Frisbee, I strike up a conversation with Fielder. What would he do with $848? “I’m not sure,” he says. “Maybe buy some DVDs?” Then I remember he recently signed a one-year contract for $15.5 million—the biggest single-season deal for a non-free-agent in baseball history. Eight hundred forty-eight dollars is roughly one twenty-thousandth of $15.5 million. It’s like asking a regular dude what he’d do with a new shiny nickel.

Axford—who barely makes the league minimum—is a different story. Just a few years ago, he got cut from the Yankees’ farm system and went home to Canada, where he sold cell phones and tended bar. He eventually fought his way back with the Brewers, but he’s still an easy underdog to root for. “I don’t even own my truck,” he admits. “It’s a loaner from the dealer.” Pretty soon it’s game time. The Brewers, taking on the world champ San Francisco Giants, jump out to an early lead thanks to Carlos Gomez’s thrilling inside-the-park home run in the first, then another run in the fourth. In the top of the next inning, Axford pops out from the bull­pen and tosses a baseball with $40 of Maxim’s money rubberbanded to it up to a woman eating lunch at the T.G.I. Friday’s in left field. She shouts down that it’s her 30th birthday. “Happy birthday!” Axford says.

But then, in the top of the eighth with two men on, McGehee muffs an easy grounder, letting a run score. Then the Giants’ Pat Burrell hits a hard one under shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, and all of a sudden it’s 2-2. Axford comes 0n in the top of the ninth with the score tied, and he does great, forcing two groundouts and a fly-out to left. In the bottom of the inning the Brewers rally, complete with a squeeze play at home for the walk-off victory. The W goes to Axford—his first of the season.

Afterward the mood in the clubhouse is festive. All the ballplayers’ families are around, including Ax’s eight-months-pregnant wife, Nicole, who scoots up to him with a hug and kiss. Fielder’s son, Haven, is playing motorcycle games on the clubhouse computer when he turns to Fielder.

“Dad, can I have a Popsicle?”

“Did you have one already?” Fielder asks.

“OK, fine,” Haven harrumphs.

Fielder looks closer at his tongue. “Did you eat a red one?”

“No,” Haven says unconvincingly.

Fielder scowls. “You know you always throw up when you eat red stuff!”

Afterward the mood in the clubhouse is festive. All the ballplayers’ families are around, including Ax’s eight-months-pregnant wife, Nicole, who scoots up to him with a hug and kiss. Fielder’s son, Haven, is playing motorcycle games on the clubhouse computer when he turns to Fielder.

“Dad, can I have a Popsicle?”

“Did you have one already?” Fielder asks.

“OK, fine,” Haven harrumphs.

Fielder looks closer at his tongue. “Did you eat a red one?”

“No,” Haven says unconvincingly.

Fielder scowls. “You know you always throw up when you eat red stuff!”

After showering, it’s time for post­game celebration. Axford and fellow reliever Kameron Loe head for a place called Spin, a swanky Ping-Pong club with outposts in New York, L.A., and, weirdly, Milwaukee. Axford opens a Pong tab and orders a Grey Goose and soda, and he and Loe grab a table and start volleying. Of course, it’s super competitive. “Filth!” Ax shouts anytime he lands an especially nasty shot.

After a while two guys come up and ask if they can have a picture. One of them is getting married, and this is his bachelor party. Axford sends over a round of Miller Lites. (No one is contractually obligated to order Miller, but, since they play in Miller Park, they don’t want to find out what happens if they don’t.) During a lull, I ask Axford how his Ping-Pong style compares to his pitching style. “I get much angrier playing Ping-Pong,” he says. He gets to prove this when some lovely ladies challenge him and Loe to some two-on-two. If the ladies expected fun and flirtation, they’re sorely mistaken, as the two hardballers dismantle them, at one point playing on their knees and taunting, “We will, we will, pong you!”

Before heading to our next stop, the guys want to blow more money. Loe remembers the bachelor party. “We should give them some ones for the strip club,” he says. They go back over with more beers and $100 in singles. “We’re both married,” Loe tells the groom-to-be. “Enjoy it while you can.” The night wraps up at a dive bar called Jo Cat’s. There’s AC/DC blasting and barmaids wearing not very much. At one point Ax orders two dozen tequila shots and passes them out randomly. The place is packed with Brewers fans, a lot of whom came straight from the game. There are even a few Axford jerseys in the crowd. And the man himself is loving it.

But even the best days must come to an end, and for Axford that’s signaled by a call from his wife. He says goodbye to the fans, settles up, and ducks outside, where there’s a homeless guy selling flowers from a pushcart. “How much for the whole bunch?” Axford asks. He gives the guy his last 50 bucks and walks away with an armful of flowers. Then, slightly buzzed on his first win, he climbs into his truck and heads home to his wife and baby- to-be, the richest guy making the league minimum in town.

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