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Hoffman and Beck form uncommon bond
by Jerry Crasnick
"I'm a good real estate agent. I rely on location, location, location. I haven't had real good velocity in four or five years." --Trevor Hoffman, Padres closer.
"I'm not a superstar. I'm not a professional athlete, per se. My job just happens to be on television. If plumbers were on TV, ass cracks would be famous."--Rod Beck, Padres setup man.
PEORIA, Ariz.--Trevor Hoffman and Rod Beck have more in common than a boatload of Rolaids Relief points. Two things that immediately spring to mind are their respect for the sanctity of the ninth inning, and their ability to see the closer's job from both sides of a radar gun reading.
They've combined for 1,319 relief appearances and 638 saves in the big leagues, and that's largely a reflection of their willingness to adapt.
Ten years ago both pitchers threw in the mid-90's and routinely worked out of tight situations by unleashing the heat. But it's easy to be bold when you throw a fastball like Billy Wagner or Eric Gagne. The best thing about velocity, Hoffman says, is that it gives a pitcher greater margin for error.
The reality is Hoffman and Beck don't have the stuff to overpower hitters anymore. Age, attrition and injury have taken care of that.
Beck, 35, underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in October 2001, and has a nasty scar as a souvenir. Hoffman, 36, had shoulder surgery in February 2003 and missed almost the entire season before returning to pitch 12 innings in September.
This spring they're sharing a clubhouse and a bullpen in San Diego, where they provide late-inning assurance and perspective that comes with experience. They're firm believers in throwing strikes early in the count, trusting the defense to make plays, and always being at your locker to answer tough questions when you blow one. It's part of the stand-up guy's creed.
They don't blow many. Hoffman ranks fifth on baseball's all-time list with 352 saves, behind only Lee Smith, John Franco, Dennis Eckersley and Jeff Reardon. His .889 career save percentage is the best ever for a closer with at least 200 saves.
Beck needs only 14 saves to become the 17th member of the 300 club. But he declined an opportunity to close with the Rockies to re-sign with San Diego as Hoffman's wingman, because the Padres gave him a chance last season and he's big on loyalty.
They make for an entertaining tandem. Hoffman is a buffed Californian with a fondness for surfing. Beck, known to his friends as "Shooter," is a cigarette-packing, beer-drinking Californian with a passion for . . . well . . . cigarettes and beer.
After a recent team photo shoot, Beck returned to the clubhouse and grabbed a pack of smokes from the top shelf of his locker. "What's that--a protein bar?" cracked Padres infielder Jeff Cirillo.
Beck once rationalized his Homer Simpson workout regimen by pointing out that no ballplayer ever went on the disabled list because of "pulled fat." But last year he outdid even himself as a man of the people.
After debating whether to spend the summer camping or playing ball, Beck decided to do both. He bought a 36-foot Winnebago equipped with two televisions, a VCR, a DVD player, microwave, shower and a "real porcelain toilet," aimed it toward the heartland and resuscitated his career with the Cubs' Triple-A farm club in Iowa.
Beck went 1-1, 0.59 in Iowa, but his revival was about more than statistics. He rediscovered his passion for baseball--and life--by parking his RV behind Sec Taylor Stadium and bonding with the locals over cold beers and baseball banter.
"Nobody had more fun than I did last year," Beck said. "Nobody. I guarantee you that."
Still, by the time the Padres called and offered him a job in early June, Beck was ready to leave Iowa. His wife and two daughters were on the verge of joining him, and he figured 50 tailgaters drinking beer didn't exactly provide the best family environment.
"The Padres told me I was going to close," Beck said. "At that point, I would have gone and washed clothes."
Beck converted 20 straight save opportunities with the Padres last season, but understands that Hoffman is still the man. The closer's code says a guy with Hoffman’s credentials doesn't lose his job because of something as trifling as a shoulder injury.
The two veterans have a mutual respect. Hoffman has grown accustomed to seeing Beck pumping away each day on the stationary bike and doing crossword puzzles. He watches and notices how Beck calmly places his glove, towel and warm-up jacket in the same spot in the bullpen, so he'll know where to find them when he needs them.
Hoffman knows Beck sacrificed a shot at 300 saves this season--a milestone he truly cares about--to return to San Diego. Those postgame tailgate parties in Iowa have been replaced by spring training barbecues at Beck's home in Scottsdale. It's the Shooter's way of helping cultivate a team atmosphere.
"There's no ego when he walks in the door," Hoffman said, "yet you don't mistake kindness for weakness with him. When he's ready to do his job, it's all business, and he's going to tear your heart out in a sense. Not necessarily by throwing 100 miles per hour, but he's not going to give in."
Students of the game
Both pitchers use what they have left to the fullest. The changeup remains Hoffman's "out" pitch even though his fastball registers 85-86 most days and the differential between them is relatively scant. And Beck is more of a student now than ever. He makes mental notes of how a hitter takes a pitch, or fouls off a pitch, or whether the guy is diving or bailing at the plate. Then he incorporates them into his game plan.
"You can go over scouting reports forever," Beck said. "But the bottom line is, this game is played pitch by pitch."
There's lots of time to kill in a bullpen, and Beck, Hoffman and Akinori Otsuka, the former Chunichi Dragons closer who signed with San Diego in December, will have plenty of insights to share this summer. The heck with the language barrier.
"It's a little fraternity," Beck said. "We all understand each other in some zany, crazy way. I liken being a closer to being a field goal kicker in football. You're the goat or hero every single night, and your longevity depends on how you deal with failures. It's easy to deal with success. It's how you deal with failure that makes the difference."
The Petco Park bullpen is a place for real estate agents, plumbers, dreamers and survivors. They're all welcome in San Diego.