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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.