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Saving Grace

Foes are typically history when Trevor Hoffman enters the game. Soon he'll make history too

Trevor Hoffmankeeps a ball from every game he saves, most of which are displayed on a wall inhis home north of San Diego. The Padres closer dates and numbers each ball, andeven scribbles notes on some if, say, a teammate earns his first career victoryor Hoffman's nephew serves as batboy that day. "They've become a journal ofsorts for me," Hoffman says of his collection, which, at week's end,numbered 475. "The memorable moments from my career."

A special placewill have to be reserved for a moment that's coming soon. Through Sunday,Hoffman needed only four saves to top Lee Smith's record of 478, a reachabletarget by season's end given how well the Padres have played and Hoffman haspitched in the second half. The 14-year veteran leads the National League insaves (39) and has a 1.80 ERA. Barring injury, he will likely have his eighthstraight year with 40 or more saves, another record. "You get a player likehim maybe once," San Diego manager Bruce Bochy says.

With the Padreslocked in a tight race for both the NL West crown and the wild card, Hoffmanwas loath to talk about making history during last weekend's four-game setagainst the Dodgers. With some prodding he did say, "Statistically, thesave has been argued from every standpoint. There are different players anddifferent eras, so it's hard to quantify what it means to baseball [box,right]. What I take from it is that I've been at this for a long, longtime."

A generation ofSan Diego fans has never known life without Hoffman, without AC/DC's HellsBells blasting as he emerges from the bullpen. He was acquired from the FloridaMarlins in 1993 for Gary Sheffield during an infamous Padres fire sale. He hassince become a Padres icon on par with Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, remakinghimself from a power pitcher into a changeup artist after having surgery on hisright shoulder in 1995.

During theoff-season, however, the 38-year-old Hoffman was tempted to leave when theCleveland Indians offered him a free-agent contract worth $22.5 million overthree years. In addition to offering less money per year, the Padres would notguarantee a third year, a stance that deeply stung Hoffman. Padres generalmanager Kevin Towers didn't believe a pitcher approaching 40 was worth $8million per, and he thought Hoffman's well-known desire to keep his family inSan Diego would be enough to discourage a move.

Hoffman ultimatelydid decide to stay, but not until Padres CEO Sandy Alderson flew back to SanDiego from the winter meetings in Dallas last December to meet with him."Whatever the perception is that I don't want you, it's wrong,"Alderson told him. The next day, Hoffman agreed to a contract for a guaranteed$13 million but with an option for 2008 that could push the deal's worth to $19million.

"A lot ofguys' families have to go home when school starts [in the late summer], andthen they won't see their kids for months," Hoffman says. "That's notsomething, fortunately, I have to worry about." It also helps thatHoffman's brother, Glenn, is the team's third base coach, which contributes tothe homey vibe in the clubhouse at Petco Park.

The Padresrelievers are particularly close, and Hoffman is their undisputed leader,though he approaches the role with great humility. "I've just wanted to bea good teammate," he says, "someone who is supportive of people, whocan give them a little grief when I can. But mainly it's just trying to besomeone who doesn't think he's above the game."

That same humilityis evident when he reveals the dirty little secret about the keepsakes from hismany saves. "There were games where a guy made his debut or got his firstwin--bigger things than a save--so I gave them the ball from the finalout," Hoffman admits. "Some of the balls I have [on the wall] are justones I took from a bucket of used balls.

"It'simportant to remember, it's just a ball."

 

Extra Mustard

By Baseball Prospectus

TREVOR HOFFMAN is on the verge of breaking Lee Smith's saves record the sameway Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record: with extreme consistency.Aaron never hit more than 47 home runs in a season, but he hit at least 30 on15 occasions. Similarly, Hoffman notched more than 43 saves only once but hashad 30 or more saves 11 times. That is unique among closers. No other pitcherhas more than nine 30-save seasons, and only 21 pitchers have as many as five.To what can we credit Hoffman's longevity? The obvious explanation is hisrepertoire of pitches. He doesn't throw a splitter and rarely throws a breakingball, relying instead on low-stress pitches like his fastball, cutter andsignature changeup. It may also have helped that Hoffman was drafted as ashortstop, only moving to the mound in 1991 following a season in which he hit.212 in the South Atlantic League. When he does get save number 479, he can begrateful that he was spared the ridiculous pitch counts incurred by so manyhigh school and college pitchers in the late '80s.

PHOTO

KENT C. HORNER/WIREIMAGE.COM

COLLECT CALL As he closes in on Smith (below), Hoffman has kept a ball from all of his saves.

PHOTO

WALTER IOOSS JR.

[See caption above.]