PITTSBURGH -- Trevor Hoffman, baseball's career save leader with 498, is about to put the cherry on top. Sometime in the next week, he'll baffle a National or Dodger with a changeup and shake hands with his catcher in celebration of No. 500. The moment will be a tribute to longevity, consistency and Hoffman's ability to thrive while velocity-impaired.
Too bad the poor guy can't find a teammate to play catch with him.
Padres reliever Doug Brocail gave up last year after one too many brushes with the disabled list. Brocail was just returning from a coronary blockage, and he found that catching Hoffman's changeup was as pointless as chasing a fly without a swatter.
"I don't know if the heart problem made me lose some reaction, but it was scaring the hell out of me," Brocail said. "One second, the ball is at your chest. Then, you're just trying to get a glove on it to knock it away from your body. I have a broken glove hand, and if I had to catch him now, the movement alone would do in my fifth metacarpal."
Hoffman smiles at the revelation. For years, the running joke in the San Diego clubhouse is that teammates feared playing catch with him because they eventually got traded or sent to the minors. Hoffman's throwing partners had a more fleeting shelf life than Spinal Tap drummers.
"I can't think of anybody in particular," Hoffman said, "but over the years, guys I play catch with tend to disappear."
For the record, Hoffman now warms up with the San Diego trainers. They're doing a fine job of helping him maintain his touch.
At 39 years and eight months, Hoffman keeps finding ways to frustrate hitters. He ranks third in the league with 16 saves, and NL hitters are batting .171 against him. He's converted 12 straight saves covering 13 1/3 scoreless innings, with 10 strikeouts and one walk in that span.
Those numbers reflect the gaudy stats Hoffman has compiled during an illustrious career. He bests Mariano Rivera, the man many consider the greatest closer in history, in strikeouts and baserunners allowed per nine innings. And with his 89.6 percent conversion rate, Hoffman has one more blown save than Rivera (58 to 57) in 82 more opportunities.
"Heck, there are numbers inside of the numbers," Brocail said. Did you know, for example, that Hoffman recently appeared in his 803rd game with San Diego, breaking the record for games pitched with a single club? Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators and Elroy Face of the Pittsburgh Pirates are now tied for second with 802.
It's Hoffman's style to knock politely on the door of history. When he notched his 479th career save last September to break Lee Smith's record, a capacity crowd of 43,168 was on hand in San Diego. It was Sunday afternoon on the East Coast, and millions of baseball fans were either oblivious or mowing their lawns.
There was no national debate over whether Bud Selig should be in attendance. The commissioner called with his congratulations, and for that gracious gesture, Hoffman was eternally grateful.
Hall of Fame bound?
As Hoffman pursues the magic 500, the lack of buzz is palpable. It's due in part to ambivalence over the save, a statistic routinely derided as cheap by the media. When so many pitchers drive BMWs because they've put the clamps on 5-2 victories, skepticism naturally follows.
That's the cold, clinical, purely statistical argument. In the real world, unsettled closer situations can undermine seasons and produce chaos in abundance. That helps explain why Boston kept Jonathan Papelbon, a 15-18 game-winner-in-waiting, in the bullpen this season. And just ask Cleveland fans how much fun it was watching Fausto Carmona finish games in 2006.
"A lot of pitchers don't have the stomach for the role, but Trevor pitches with absolutely no fear," said Padres manager Bud Black. "He doesn't back down. He goes after the big boys, and he doesn't pitch around guys. He truly is the aggressor, and I think that's a great quality."
San Diego Padres
That gunslinger mentality notwithstanding, Hoffman revels in his anonymity in San Diego. He freely admits that it's easier for him to work through the occasional hard times than it is for, say, Rivera or Billy Wagner in the fishbowl of New York.
While Rivera's legacy is enhanced by his October heroics, Hoffman has endured some painful hiccups on the national stage. He gave up a three-run homer to Scott Brosius in Game 3 of the 1998 World Series, and blew a save in the 2006 All-Star Game to cost the National League homefield advantage in the World Series.
Will those high-profile failures hurt Hoffman's Cooperstown chances? As an exercise in crystal-ball gazing, ESPN.com polled more than 60 Hall of Fame voters, and it appears Hoffman will avoid the anguish that plagued Bruce Sutter (who made it on his 13th try) and Goose Gossage and Smith, who are still on the ballot.
Out of 62 responses, 58 baseball writers said they plan to vote "yes" on Hoffman for Cooperstown. Four were undecided, and there wasn't a flat "no" in the bunch.
Dan Graziano of the Newark Star-Ledger points out that Hoffman has posted a sub-3.00 ERA every year but one since 1996, made five All-Star teams, and finished in the top six in Cy Young voting four times and in the top 10 in MVP voting twice.
"I don't think much of the save as a stat," Graziano said, "but I'm looking at a guy who's been a lockdown closer for more than a decade. Closers are a real and important part of the game, and either he or Rivera has been the best one for the past decade."
As Hoffman approaches 500, each day unfolds like a "this is your life" segment. This week, he passed through Pittsburgh, where Jim Tracy is manager and Jim Lett is the Pirates' bench coach.
Tracy managed Hoffman with Cincinnati's Double-A Chattanooga farm team in 1991, after Hoffman hit .212 as a shortstop for Class A Charleston (W.Va.) under Lett. It was Lett who suggested the Reds move him from infielder to pitcher after the 1990 season.
No one knows for sure how Hoffman's career would have unfolded without that plot twist, but it's possible he would have gone home and become a coach or physical education teacher.
"He was a good enough athlete, and the ball came out of his hand so easy," Lett said. "With his arm strength, we figured, 'What do we have to lose?' But who would have ever thought this would happen? It was like winning the lottery."
This weekend, Hoffman travels to Washington, home of general manager Jim Bowden. In 1992, Bowden made the regrettable decision to leave Hoffman off Cincinnati's 15-man expansion draft protected list. The Marlins selected him, then traded him to San Diego seven months later in a deal that brought Gary Sheffield to Florida.
Monument to durability
Hoffman has gone through various incarnations in San Diego. He once threw in the mid-90s, but hurt his shoulder in 1994 and learned to do more with less. He forever will be linked to the changeup in the same way Rivera has a claim on the cut fastball and Sutter is synonymous with the splitter. Since the changeup puts less strain on the arm than a split or hard slider, the pitch probably contributed to Hoffman's longevity.
"The amazing thing is how goofy some hitters look," Brocail said. "If you watch video of Trevor and slow it down, I'd swear to God you'd think his changeup was a knuckleball. It's there and gone. See ya. Bye."
With the exception of shoulder problems that limited him to nine innings in 2003, Hoffman has been remarkably durable. It's not by accident. Four hours before a game, you'll find him running in the outfield or doing stretching exercises with rubber tubing. He's usually clad in a light blue hospital smock that's practically welded to his body.
It was big news in San Diego recently when Black used Scott Linebrink to close a game against Milwaukee because Hoffman had a "cranky'' shoulder, but Hoffman returned for two straight saves against the Brewers. He recorded No. 498 Thursday in Pittsburgh.
The amazing thing is how goofy some hitters look. If you watch video of Trevor and slow it down, I'd swear to God you'd think his changeup was a knuckleball. It's there and gone. See ya. Bye.
Beyond the numbers, Hoffman defines professionalism in every way imaginable. He makes it a point to stand at his locker and hold himself accountable on the rare occasions when he fails. He's also a charity machine and a two-time winner of the Padres' Roberto Clemente Award.
Kevin Kouzmanoff, San Diego's rookie third baseman, emerged from the shower after a spring training game in Arizona and was stunned to see Hoffman, clad in a clubhouse attendant's shirt, gathering the dirty laundry and cleaning his teammates' spikes.
"I asked him, 'Hoffy, what are you doing?' '' Kouzmanoff said. "And he was like, 'I'm helping out whatever way I can.' "
When Hoffman broke Lee Smith's career save record in September, he made sure to tip his cap to Lett and Tracy in the Pittsburgh dugout. It was his way of thanking them for their role in jump-starting his career.
According to Lett, Hoffman hasn't changed one iota since he pitched in Charleston, W.Va. He enjoys a good prank and loves the thrill of the competition, and you always know what you're going to get -- right down to the "Hells Bells'' theme song when the bullpen gate swings open.
Forget the "specialist'' label. Bud Black pays Hoffman the ultimate tribute when he calls him a baseball player who just happens to pitch the ninth inning.
"There are going to be down times when you blow a save and doubt creeps into your head,'' Hoffman said. "That's when you have to be strong enough to know you've done something well over time and trust your stuff. You have to be your biggest fan.''
Hoffman takes a backseat to no one at the art of closing games. But if he plans to be his biggest fan, he'll have to get in line.