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Hoffman heads toward saves record, Hall?
by Alan Schwarz
Not bad for a washed-out minor league infielder.
Trevor Hoffman, who failed as a position player deep in the Reds system 15 years ago, has since gone on to become one of the best closers in baseball history. The longtime Padre saved his 400th game early this season and is churning his way toward Lee Smith's record of 478, his changeup as baffling as ever.
Off the field, the 37-year-old Hoffman is far more down the middle than his pitches--he's one of the straightest shooters in the big leagues. He sat down to talk about the best role for a closer, his possible Hall of Fame speech and being the son of a British ballerina.
ALAN SCHWARZ: Adam Eaton is wearing a new shirt that says “500 OR BUST,” talking about your career save total. Is it conceivable that you could reach 500 saves?
TREVOR HOFFMAN: It's flattering that people think about it. But after having gone through a couple major surgeries, you don't really allow yourself to think that far in advance. I think you're aware of where you're at at the moment and thankful of what you have been able to accomplish, and try not to put the horse in front of the cart. I try not to think about it.
AS: For a guy whose father refused to let pitch after age 12, you've done OK.
TH: He didn't say “You aren't allowed to pitch.” He said, “I'd prefer you not pitch. I don't want you to run into a psycho coach who will run you out there for a long stint.” And as we're seeing now, that's something that is accelerating some of the issues kids have to worry about. So it was good foresight on Dad's part.
AS: Talking about the closer's role, some people believe that it's generally better for a closer to enter a tie game in the eighth than, say, to be saved for when you're up by two in the ninth. What's your viewpoint?
TH: I don't agree with that. There are set-up guys who can take that slot because they're used to that inning. If the game stays tied into the ninth inning at home, that's when you use your closer. If you get into a habit of looking to put your closer into certain situations that are outside of his box, you're compounding that workload and you might be sacrificing something a few days later where he wouldn't be at full strength.
AS: Is there a difference in the mentality of hitters who come up tied in the eighth compared to the times you typically face them, down by one or two in the ninth?
TH: I think so. They have room to maneuver. (In the eighth) it's not that all-or-nothing kind of attitude where, “If we don't score, the game's over.” I've noticed hitters' approaches being a little more comfortable in the box--they're comfortable taking a strike and working a count and trying to get a guy on. Whereas there's a sense of urgency when they're down two runs in a ballgame. I've kind of been victimized--I'm 0-4 and two of those losses are when I've gone into a tie ballgame and haven't held them at bay. I don't think the pitcher's approach changes; I think the hitter's approach changes.
AS: You throw only six or eight warmup pitches in the bullpen before coming in, don't you?
TH: I'll throw more if I haven't gone into a ballgame for awhile, but I'm an advocate of not wasting pitches. You want to save your bullets for the game. If you take 10 extra throws getting loose, and you have 60 appearances, that adds up to 600 throws. I'd like to have a free 600 throws in October for the playoffs. When you're at the end of a career, how many throws can you get back? So I look at it more in the big picture. It's all about saving bullets.
AS: The changeup transformed your career. Who taught it to you?
TH: Donnie Elliott. It evolved from the circle change where a lot of the focus was about the ball being out on the fingertips, to pinching a seam that I go off of which ultimately puts the focus on the left side of the ball instead of the right. I use more of the padding in my hand. Donnie kind of got me rolling with his grip.
AS: Elliott was traded over to San Diego just after you were in '93, in the Fred McGriff trade with Atlanta. The Padres didn't get much from the McGriff deal--but thanks to Elliott they got Trevor Hoffman, too.
TH: Exactly. I hurt my shoulder at the end of '94. At the time the strike ended I was throwing 94 mph and I came back throwing 88. And I ended up having surgery at the end of '95. Who knows if I would have had to start thinking about changeup if I had had my normal fastball velocity?
AS: I'll bet you're the only big leaguer whose mother was a British ballerina. Lynn Swann learned footwork as an NFL receiver through dance. Growing up as an infielder, did your mother have anything to do with your athleticism?
TH: Well, we didn't go around the house learning pirouettes, but I think her genes and her athleticism and coordination being a ballerina was passed on to her kids. I think you can see it in her offspring. It's something Glenn and I both had.
AS: You have another brother, Greg. So much focus is on Glenn having been in the big leagues before you, but what influence did Greg have?
TH: I came home from my first Little League game, and he asked me how I did. I said, “I went 2-for-4 with an RBI.” And he said, “When I ask you how you did, I'm asking you about the team. That's the last time you'll let me know how you did first.”
AS: Who is the best closer of all time?
TH: Mariano Rivera. I don't think you're going to get much of an argument. He's shown the ability to go out and dominate a regular season and a postseason.
AS: Who is the scariest closer ever?
TH: Rob Dibble, because he had confidence and arrogance and a three-digit fastball that he didn't care if it was a painted on the black or at your head. He was the scariest, and I think that helped his success.
AS: Who was the craftiest closer?
TH: Doug Jones was pretty good at changing speeds, not having a ton of velocity. He would throw you changeup on top of changeup on top of another one. He goes in, does his job, and by the time he comes in, he's off the mound.
AS: You have only one kidney. Has that played any role in your career?
TH: No impact. I've been very lucky. I was six weeks of age, had a blood clot, and they had to go in and take it out. The other one was healthy and grew to a significant size to accommodate for not having another one. The only thing I wasn't able to do was contact sports, in case you were to get hit and lose the one that you have. So I drink a lot of water. That's all I know.
AS: I know you usually don't think this much ahead, but you've said in the past that one of the coolest parts of making the Hall of Fame would be writing the speech. What would you say if that time did arrive?
TH: I pay attention to the gentlemen that go in and the things that they say. I think that it's important to acknowledge the people that have helped you upon the way--friends, family or teammates. And you try to piece it together to make it an interesting story. You don't want to bore people to death, especially in a special place. So, I hope I'll have that opportunity, but we'll see. I don't think a guy who plays this game doesn't think about that.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.