Coming On Like a Hurricane

In the wake of Trevor Hoffman’s recent retirement announcement, I thought we’d go dancing in the dark, walking through the park and reminiscing. Or we could just skip all that and head straight for the rolling thunder and pouring rain…

* * *

Several years ago, Hoffman spoke at a company event where I used to work. It was a picnic type of thing, and folks brought their families. Hoffman got up on stage, said a few words about the importance of hard work, then fielded questions from the audience. He answered maybe 10-15 kids before leaving the stage. Then he and his wife hung out for another half our or so while he signed autographs and answered more questions. Eventually he left because, well, the Padres were playing a game that night and he had to get ready.

* * *

A friend and I drove out to Peoria for spring training, I’m thinking 2006 or 2007. Toward the end of an exhibition game, three boys with blond hair and no. 51 jerseys on their back started warming up in the Padres bullpen. Hoffman’s kids were loosening up, just in case. I’m still thinking about that moment years later; I can’t imagine they’ll ever forget it.

* * *

At the 2006 World Baseball Classic championships in San Diego, former Padres setup man Akinori Otsuka closed out the semifinal game for Japan against Korea in a packed house at Petco Park. As he did when he pitched for the Padres, Otsuka entered to the strains of Metallica’s “Wherever I May Roam.” He then struck out the side.

Two nights later, Otsuka came on with one out in the eighth inning to protect a 6-5 lead over Cuba in the final. The house again was packed, and this time, Otsuka (who had asked Hoffman’s permission to do so) bolted toward the mound backed by AC/DC’s “Hells Bells.” The place went nuts. Otsuka was a fan favorite during his brief stay in San Diego, and that song, though not normally associated with him, has a special place in our hearts.

I don’t get this feeling often at sporting events (or anywhere, for that matter), but whenever “Hells Bells” boomed through Qualcomm Stadium or Petco Park, I felt like we were all in this thing together. At the risk of sounding sappy, Trevor Time brought San Diegans together in a way that few things other than, say, wildfires do.

I am honored and privileged to have experienced the phenomenon firsthand. If I had children of my own, it is the sort of thing I would tell them about as an example of what is good in the world, to give them hope for a little while until they discover for themselves that such moments of connectedness are fleeting.

Sporting events in San Diego often feel more like a trip to the beach with uniforms and the occasional tired Anchorman reference from out-of-towners, but Trevor Time was different. It was raw, it was beautiful, and it was ours. If you were there, you know what I mean. If you weren’t, I’m sorry you missed it. I’ve never seen anything like it in San Diego, and I doubt I will again.

* * *

I’ve heard a few people suggest that Hoffman is not a Hall of Famer. I can’t make enough sense of that notion to offer a snappy retort. I’ll give those people the benefit of the doubt and assume they don’t have a clear grasp of greatness as a concept… and hope they don’t have a vote.

* * *

I’ve written a lot about Hoffman over the years in this space and elsewhere. Here are a few examples that you might enjoy…

From August 2001, on the occasion of his 300th save:

I don’t want to gush too much but it’s really been a pleasure to watch him come in and baffle guys with a fastball that rarely touches 90, a legendary changeup, and devastating control. Hoffman is the Greg Maddux of closers.

From April 2008, as part of my season preview at BBTF:

…most folks see Hoffman once or twice a year on national TV. Usually he’s blowing the save in a “meaningful” game in July that doesn’t count in the standings. They see the result and the lack of velocity and lump the two events together as conclusive evidence that he’s finished. Last year Hoffman added an extra wrinkle by blowing a second save in front of the entire country at a most inopportune time. What sticks in their mind is this: He doesn’t throw hard and he blows saves. That’s a horrible bastardization of the man’s career, but what can you do?

From January 2009, after watching a rebroadcast of the ’98 NL West clincher:

Trevor Hoffman entered the game in the ninth to AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells.” Although we came to take that for granted over the years, at the time it was still new and [former Padres announcer Mel] Proctor actually explained what was happening. Then again, with Proctor, one could never be sure whether he explained things for our benefit or his own.

Either way, the crowd of 60,823 was delirious. Hoffman put a couple runners on before fanning [Dodgers outfielder Matt] Luke (who had driven in five runs on the night) with a steady diet of change-ups to end the game.

I’ve also got photos documenting his record-breaking 479th save.

* * *

And here are a few more items from the dearly departed Ducksnorts Annuals

From 2007:

Hoffman’s fastball hasn’t cracked 90 mph in years. Analysts and fans who don’t watch him on a regular basis continually regard his success with suspicion because of this. Hoffman is most famous for his devastating changeup and his entrance song (AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells”), but other factors contribute to his sustained success at a craft that breaks most guys down after a short time. Chief among these are a repeatable motion that makes it very difficult to identify what pitch is coming out of his hand, impeccable control, and an insanely rigorous workout regimen.

From 2008:

It’s a testament to Hoffman’s greatness that even in the late stages of his career, he is still much better than the average big-league reliever. Pundits have been rhapsodizing about his eminent collapse for years. One day they’ll finally be right and they will all pat themselves on the back for having foreseen it.

From 2009 (this borrows heavily from a blog post):

There is little question that Hoffman is in steep decline. Thanks to his preparation skills, he has been able to mask it better and longer than have men who throw much, much harder… Hoffman signed with the Milwaukee Brewers in January. I desperately hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see this move working out well for him. Hoffman is past his prime, the changeup is no longer a devastating pitch, and he’s now working in a division that features much smaller parks than the ones he’s benefited from in the NL West.

To Hoffman’s credit, he made it work in Milwaukee, if only for one year.

* * *

Much of what I wrote about Hoffman came toward the end of his career, when he relied on guile rather than on the blazing fastball he once possessed. In perusing my own comments on the man, I find that they all follow a general theme: We’re getting older, we’re not as good as we used to be, but if we suck it up and do our best anyway, maybe something good will happen.

If this is the lesson I take home from Hoffman, then he has done good in the world. For that, I offer humble thanks.

* * *

Other people have plenty to say as well. I present these without comment:

Feel free to add your own (links or comments, that is)…

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20 Responses »

  1. Love the Dirk thank yous to Trevor …

    I only experienced Trevor time once … so I only experienced it with familiarity and high expectations (and a fear/dread that the save might get blown) … but, as with many sweet things, it was high expectations exceeded!

  2. I’ve often said Hoffman is not a sure thing for the HOF, and it has nothing to do with the velocity of his pitches. The saves record didn’t help Lee Smith or Jeff Reardon with the voters, and I doubt that will change anytime soon. If anything, the save stat might be less respected 5 years from now.

    It took Gossage many years to get elected, and I think the HOF voters haven’t yet figured out how to view relievers. I think that will especially be true with the upcoming group of one-inning-closers with high save stats.

    I think Hoffman will get in, and deservedly so. But it might take awhile, and I don’t consider it a sure thing. It has nothing to do with me being ignorant of greatness, or putting too much value in a radar gun.

  3. @LynchMob: I’m glad you got to experience it!

    @parlo: Saves aren’t what made Hoffman great.

    “HOF voters haven’t yet figured out how to view relievers.”

    Bullseye. This and the perception that Hoffman was just a guy who racked up saves will work against him.

  4. “If I had children of my own, it is the sort of thing I would tell them about as an example of what is good in the world, to give them hope for a little while until they discover for themselves that such moments of connectedness are fleeting.”

    Great, Geoff!

    Will be an interesting journey, I have a hunch, for Trevor towards the HOF. I will enjoy seeing it play out, even if it may be frustrating and painful if he doesn’t receive much support. Come to think of it, the next couple of decades will be fascinating to watch in terms of HOF elections. I shall enjoy the experience immensely as I move into my later years, and I hope I will be able to make the journey to Cooperstown for his induction one day.

  5. Your remarks about San Diego baseball as a day at the beach with uniforms and about the amazing feeling of Trevor Time are on the money. When there was nothing else to root for, we Padre fans still were fortunate enough to get a chance to cheer for Trevor and Tony, over and over again. I look forward to being at Petco to hear Hell’s Bells twice more: When number 51 is retired and again when Hoffman becomes HOFman.

    Also, this is a good time to thank whoever came up with the giant bedsheet sign reading “Off-Speed Kills.” That was a work of art.

  6. Geoff – one more story to add to your list is Shaun O’Neill’s awesome piece at FoxSports yesterday. (
    Shiniest pearl in his recounting of Trevor’s relationship with Mark Merila:
    “He was worried about messing up my routine. You know what? There’s bigger things than going out there to pitch. Let’s take a step back and have some fun. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing, even though it’s a big moment. Let’s get through this.”

  7. @parlo … well said … it got me to thinking of it like this … what’s more important: how many outs a pitcher gets or which outs a pitcher gets?

    I was surprised by the stat in the Neyer article that Lee Smith pitched 200 more innings than Trevor … I wouldn’t have guessed that, given the save totals.

    Jason Stark’s article makes a good case for Hoffy >> Smith … and Franco & Wagner …

    So … what’s the best way to say what made Hoffman great?

    A lot of that can be found in Dirk’s writing … some in the peripheral stats that Stark includes … some of it in the (unwritable) magic we experienced during “Trevor Time” …

    If we can’t be clear and concise about what made Hoffman great, then “601 saves” trumps treatises …

    He’ll still get in the HOF … it just won’t be unanimous … and I’m OK with that … and I’ll bet Trevor is (and will be) also …

  8. It’s funny — every GM and field manager in the game wants a closer, yet I keep reading people saying that we don’t know how to value closers and maybe none of them should be in — few IPs, low WAR, etc. It’s not as if the role of closer was invented by Connie Mack and John McGraw, and exposed as a waste of resources by Bill James. The position of closer came into full flower right smack in the middle of the most closely analyzed period the game has known, and although there is considerable disagreement about how closers should be recruited, nobody really wants to go into a season without one. How can you argue that it isn’t important when the Yankees are spending over $10 million for the next three years just to have a BACKUP closer?

    My point being: when a role is clearly defined as highly important by the entire MLB universe, the best performers in that role belong in the HOF. Mariano Rivera is the best — no argument. Trevor Hoffman is next best, and should go in.

  9. I hope Trevor gets in sooner rather than later but I agree with Parlo that saves could be viewed differently in the not-too-distant future.

    Someone like Mariano Rivera also (pretty sure) had A LOT more saves of more than 1 inning, which, in addition to his postseason numbers, will help his case tremendously.

    Whatever. I’m glad that we can call Trevor ours. I wrote my thoughts HERE.

  10. I’m in complete agreement about Trevor Time. Words do not do enough to explain what it felt like in the stadium every time the 9th inning rolled around and the song started playing. I was always in utter amazement. I get shivers while recollecting the times that I was at games in person to experience the phenomenon firsthand. I’m looking forward to the Padres retiring #51 this year!

  11. This is my memory, and we all know about memory. Game 3 of the Houston series in ’98.
    Bottom eighth, 2-1 Padres, Tony Gwynn up with the insurance run on (second?). Everyone thinking, ‘it’s Tony, it’s the guy we want in this situation.’ Tony strikes out and the crowd is deflated–for a second. And then 60,000 people realize what’s going to happen next and erupt.

  12. …however, Geoff, Hoffman was a real class act and the epitome of what a professional sports athlete should be. I do not think that most sports writers view Hoffman as a guy who just racked up saves, a stat that IS overvalued (unless, of course your team DIDN”T have a great closer like Hoffman; then those ninth innings can be really maddening). Hoffman always made time for reporters, and those people who paid his paycheck, the fans. If Trevor Hoffman is not a Hall of Famer based only on his lack of success in the postseason, then many, many of the members of Cooperstown should not be included. After all, baseball is a team game and a closer is just one of the many parts that gets a team to the postseason.

  13. “I know this: Baseball is important, but that is not who you are. Your true identity is found in what kind of dad and husband and friend you are.” — Trevor Hoffman

    Read more:

  14. There’s no doubt among those who really follow baseball that Tevor is a Hall of Famer. The reason “HOF voters haven’t yet figured out how to view relievers” is that there are too many of those HOF voters who don’t even cover baseball.

    There are nearly 600 voters today, while there were barely 200 in 1936. You have to be a 10-year member of the BBWAA to vote. Many joined early in their careers and, thanks to some photos of the publisher, stuck around long enough to get a ballot. Some (many?) cover football or basketball and never see a baseball game during the season, or interview a ballplayer – but get a ballot.

    The reference to Hoffman’s appearances, with “Trevor Time” flashed on the board and the record of success in getting those last three outs, is the key to a closer’s value. How do you think the opposing team feels, seeing that? The truth is that, when you have a Trevor, or Mariano, coming in and reliably slamming the door, you’re forcing the other team to play an 8-inning game, while you get to play nine. That’s a huge tactical advantage.

    Trevor will get in, and it will be a no-brainer to (most of) those who know the game. HOF voters have been a fickle bunch – Cy Young and Rogers Hornsby had to wait, and barely got the votes of a supposedly more astute bunch than today’s voters – but it would be better if the BBWAA culled the herd by the time Trevor is eligible.

  15. Saw Trevor Time dozens of times and you’re absolutely right. It was ours, it was special and it was just awesome. Couple Hoffy spring training stories: around 2002, my brother and I were out on the lawn in Peoria in the late innings of a split squad. Hoffy had pitched in the 5th or so. We’re waiting in a beer line and my brother elbows me. Right behind me is Trevor and Kevin Walker (his lefty alter-ego wannabe). Both are shirtless (absolutely shredded) and grab a couple beers each and then just mingle out there in the “bleachers” with the fans for 2-3 innings. Was the best. Regular guy, not hamming it up for the kids or anything. Just wanted a pop and a tan. His last spring in Peoria, my brother and I asked him for an autograph (we all knew it was wrapping up). I don’t do autographs, but I asked him for my wife, who was home pregnant. He asked me her name, signed the ball to her with good luck wishes. Then he dug around and signed another ball and tossed it over the fence to me. “For your kid, bring ‘em back here”.

    Greatness defined.

  16. A friend of mine sat next to Trevor on a flight to Florida, in 1999 or 2000. He sat in coach and was apparently the best row mate in her flying life, which includes hundreds of thousands of miles. She still gets a dreamy “I’ll be in my bunk” look on her face when that story comes up.

    Another memory from the 98 playoffs against Houston: Trevor deadpanning “Has anyone seen my Black Dog?” during the between-inning music contest. I don’t recall the other entries, but there was no question which song would win.

  17. Here’s what I think is a good article explaining one perspective on “saves are overrated and a poor method for evaluating relievers” …

    … and so, as GY says (in a comment above), it’s a good thing that “Saves aren’t what made Hoffman great.”

  18. Tom, nice Firefly reference.

  19. Here’s 2 followups from the comments to that BP article …

    1. Here’s Joe Poz’s thoughts …

    2. This comment needs to be concisely rebutted …

    Trevor Hoffman’s entire hall of fame case is built around the mythical power of the save statistic instead of an objective evaluation of whether he caused his team to win more games than all but 1% of the baseball players in history. He didn’t do the latter, not by a long shot.

    … help?

  20. @David, @josh, @jessemundo, @Tom: Thanks for the stories. Good stuff.

    @LynchMob: The comment you mention speaks to the uncertain status of relievers in general. The measure currently in vogue, WAR, has Mariano Rivera as the best in history, which jibes well with common sense. At the same time, Rivera’s WAR (B-R version) of 52.9 puts him in the same neighborhood as Dave Stieb and Orel Hershiser, and far behind guys like Rick Reuschel and Kevin Brown.

    If we use “caused his team to win more games than all but 1% of the baseball players in history” as our entrance benchmark, then I’m not sure even Rivera qualifies. And if Rivera doesn’t qualify, then it seems to me there’s a problem with the benchmark. The only way I can see to make the 1% benchmark work is to claim also that relievers do not belong in the Hall of Fame. Period.

    A different approach, that doesn’t by definition eliminate every reliever who ever played the game, would be to make adjustments for position. Beyond the Box Score did this a while back (the same author published similar thoughts earlier) and the results confirm what we suspected: voters aren’t sure how to deal with relievers. Was Bruce Sutter better than John Franco? I don’t know. If he was, I’d venture to guess it’s a lot closer than many people think.