TORONTO -- The latest blast of snow and cold to hit Toronto didn't detract a single bit from John Axford's feeling that spring is right around the corner.
The countdown to training camp is on, and that was sped up a touch for the large gathering of players, coaches and executives at Baseball Canada's annual awards banquet Saturday.
Axford, the Port Dover, Ont., native who emerged as the Milwaukee Brewers closer last season, turned up the dial on his preparations a couple of weeks ago, and reconnecting with other national team alumnus only made the looming season feel closer.
"Yeah it does," he said. "When the new year hits I start my throwing program, everything kind of kicks in, your workouts pick up in intensity, too. So I really get ready and start my workouts at the full intensity for spring training."
Axford was honoured with a Special Recognition Award after going 8-2 with 24 saves and a 2.48 earned-run average in his first full season in the majors.
Joey Votto, who was ill and unable to attend, became the third member of Baseball Canada's Wall of Excellence, joining Larry Walker and Justin Morneau.
Reliever Scott Mathieson also received a Special Recognition Award after being named Philadelphia Phillies' minor-league pitcher of the year. He saved 26 games for the triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
Jamie Romak was named senior national team MVP after helping Canada qualify for the 2011 Pan Am Games, while catcher Chris Robinson was given the Stubby Clapp Award.
Catcher Kellin Deglan, a first-round pick of the Texas Rangers last June, was named the national junior team MVP.
Among those in attendance were New York Yankees catcher Russell Martin, Kansas City Royals left-hander Jeff Francis, Seattle Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders and Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Scott Richmond.
Unable to play catch outside, Richmond said he tossed the ball around in the bowels of the Rogers Centre in the morning just to get some work in.
Francis, standing by a ballroom window as plows cleared the slushy mesh outside, said he'd played soccer in the snow but never baseball, adding that even while growing up winter was something to endure between baseball seasons.
"Yes, yes, yes," said the North Delta, B.C., native. "(Now) I have the luxury of leaving every February to go to spring training. I couldn't imagine if I had to stay and it was actually winter to the end of March."
Axford, who spends the off-seasons in the Hamilton area, doesn't mind the winter quite as much but it has caused him some inconveniences in the past.
During his college days with Canisius and Notre Dame, trips home to Port Dover made throwing a challenge.
"I had an indoor facility in college to work out in," he said. "I had to maybe come to Hamilton or Toronto or Mississauga. I even went to the fire department.
"I remember throwing between fire engines at times. I just wanted to get out of the cold and get my work done."
Growing up that was less of a concern. Axford would play baseball anywhere, and learned to be careful.
"I played catch in the snow outside sometimes when the streets are cleared," he said. "Put on some warm clothes, you can get it done. As long as you don't drop the ball in the snow bank you're all right. ...
"I make sure I take care of (the arm) a little bit better than when I was younger, that's for sure," he laughed.
Francis attended the banquet a day after his one-year deal worth about US$2 million with the Royals was announced.
He said only two or three teams expressed a legitimate interest in him, the Toronto Blue Jays not among them.
"I was probably a Plan B for a lot of teams," said Francis. "I figured it would probably be the new year until anything got sorted out."
Martin, on the other hand, said his decision came down to the Yankees and Blue Jays. He signed a one-year deal worth $4 million.
"The Yankees were a little bit more aggressive and a little less concerned with the injuries I had," said Martin, whose 2010 season was cut short by a broken right hip in August. "I was told by my agent that (the Blue Jays) were willing to match the Yankees' offer but in my mind it was where do I have a chance to win the World Series the most next year.
"My opinion was I had the best chance with the Yankees."
Usage was also an issue. The Blue Jays wanted him to catch four days a week, play somewhere else a couple of times a week (likely third base) and then take a day off.
"The Yankees were just like, 'Hey, we want you to catch as much as possible, we want you to be our guy,"' said Martin. "That helped my decision as well."
Notes: The Toronto Blue Jays presented Baseball Canada with a cheque for $25,000, while RBC Wealth Management chipped in another $15,000.