Hoffman nails down 400th save

Hoffman nails down 400th save

ST. LOUIS -- Nobody does it alone. Trevor Hoffman understands that. As he approached the top of a mountain, about to reach a summit scaled by only two other men, he took a moment to exhale and reflect on his journey and the people who facilitated it.

"It all goes back to my family," Hoffman, 37, said. "The Wiffle ball games in the backyard. The influence of my two brothers, who taught me so much. Learning humility from my parents, how they made people around them feel good about themselves. And all the baseball people along the way who came into my life at just the right time.

"I've been lucky in so many ways."

Lucky and good. Historically good. With 400 career saves, Hoffman has joined Lee Smith (478) and John Franco (424) on that mountaintop, sharing a great view.

The circumstances of Friday night couldn't have been much more dramatic for Hoffman to nail down No. 400. The reigning National League champion Cardinals, on their home turf at Busch Stadium, seething after surrendering a three-run lead, stood in the way -- and here came Hoffman to blow them away: strikeout, groundout, strikeout.

"Perfect ending -- the last pitch right on the black, a fastball, strike three," said catcher Miguel Ojeda, backup to Ramon Hernandez.

Ojeda entered the game in the fourth inning and had the honor of rushing to the mound to present Hoffman the baseball as teammates came streaming out of the dugout, pounding his back and hugging him in celebration of a 6-5 victory that gave the surging Padres seven wins in their last eight games.

"That's what made it so special, the respect of my teammates," said Hoffman, admired throughout the sport, not just in his own clubhouse, for his professional integrity. "I'm not very comfortable talking about individual accomplishments. I learned a long time ago from my brother Greg. I came home from a Little League game and he asked me how I did, and I told him I got a hit or two, and he said, 'That's the last time you come home and talk about yourself. You talk about how your team did.'

"So, I'm not very comfortable with all of this. I'm just happy we've won two in a row here, two big games against a great team."

For Hoffman, it all began in Anaheim with his big brothers, Greg and Glenn. Both were athletes, and they showed him at a very young age how serious competitors handled themselves. Greg, who would go on to coach high school basketball for years and now teaches special education students, prepared Glenn, and Glenn took those same lessons to the kid, Trevor.

Glenn would play a decade in the Major Leagues as an infielder and now coaches for the Dodgers, a club he also managed.

"I realize now how good Glenn was to play in the big leagues 10 years at short, and in Boston," Hoffman said. "I was 9 1/2 years younger. He broke in at 21. We would spend our vacations in Pawtucket, Winter Haven. When they'd come through and play the Angels, I'd come down the to clubhouse and sit and watch Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, Dwight Evans. I felt privileged I had a brother to take me into a situation with players of that caliber.

"I was a pain to him more than anything, I'm sure. But he showed me around, exposed me to so much."

Their father, Ed, a Marine in World War II, was a singer who met his bride, Margurite, in Blackpool, England. Margurite was a ballerina who delights in taking credit for her sons' athleticism.

Ed didn't want his kids pitching after Little League, fearing arm damage. So Trevor played short and third through Savanna High School in Anaheim, Cypress College and at the University of Arizona. He appeared to be following Glenn's footsteps.

"I graduated high school at 5-[foot]-5 and 150 pounds," Hoffman said. "I grew four to five inches that offseason and put on 20 pounds."

Drafted in 1989 in the 11th round by Cincinnati as an infielder, he gave it his best shot for two years in the Reds' system but could see he wasn't in the same class as another shortstop breaking in with the organization. A guy named Barry Larkin.

"I couldn't hit a slider or handle going 0-for-4," Hoffman said. "I wasn't going to get to the next level. I knew I had a good arm and could always put the ball where I wanted from shortstop. I felt if I could put it where I wanted from shortstop, I could do it from 60 feet, 6 inches."

That was when the baseball gods intervened. Men who understood the game, the art of pitching, seemed to roll into Hoffman's life on cue: Larry Barton, Ray Loya in Orange County; Jimmy Lett and Mike Griffin in Charleston, W.Va.; former Royals pitching coach Frank Funk in Cedar Rapids, where Hoffman would make the transition with stunning ease in 1991; Jim Tracy, the Dodgers' manager, in Chattanooga, where Hoffman was 4-0 in '91 and '92 with 1.93 and 1.52 ERAs.

They all had something to offer, and Hoffman, taught by his dad to listen and absorb, was a sponge, soaking everything up and testing it to see what fit and what didn't.

Funk had coached Bret Saberhagen and the great young Kansas City arms, and he saw the potential immediately in Hoffman as he pounded 94 mph heat with pinpoint control.

"I figured I had to be doing something right," Hoffman said. "After never having pitched since I was 12, I went from Single-A to Triple-A in a year and a half."

His time in Nashville was pivotal in another way. In August, in Buffalo, he met a girl he would marry, Tracy, who would give him three sons and a full life away from the game.

After starting for Triple-A Nashville in '92, Hoffman was exposed in the expansion draft by the pitching-rich Reds. Watching the draft with his father in a pizza parlor, he was stunned when he was chosen with the fourth pick by Florida.

"A lot of things were happening in my life," Hoffman said. "I was going to get married, and I was going to Florida. Everything in Florida was a clean slate; it was the ultimate fair opportunity to make the ballclub. Marcel Lachemann was the pitching coach, and I made the club as a reliever. Bryan Harvey was the closer."

Hoffman picked up his first two career saves with the Marlins when Harvey was taking care of family business, and he was establishing himself as a Major Leaguer when he got more stunning news: Gary Sheffield was being dealt by the Padres to Florida, and Hoffman was one of three young pitchers going west in the swap that changed his life yet again on June 24, 1993.

"Sheffield was a proven star," Hoffman recalled, "and fans in San Diego were saying, 'Who in [the heck] is this kid?' Let's just say it wasn't a popular trade at the time."

Over time, it has become one of the most popular moves in franchise history, even if fellow pitchers Jose Martinez and Andres Berumen never amounted to much with the Padres.

Hoffman's fast track continued in San Diego, where a fire sale had created an open competition for just about every job not belonging to Tony Gwynn. The kid with the hammer became the hammer, quickly and forcefully.

The rest is securely etched in the record books: 400 saves and counting in 13 seasons; nine seasons of 30 or more saves; six seasons with 40 or more saves; a then National League-record 53 saves in the World Series season of '98, when he blew only one save opportunity.

Hoffman leaves the superlatives to others, such as his manager, Bruce Bochy, who flatly calls his closer of 11 years a Hall of Famer.

"My family background was always, 'Don't toot your own horn; let someone else praise what you do,'" Hoffman said. "I don't think you can foresee the things that happen to you. You just keep working, do the best you can each day and see where it takes you.

"I can't say I've been immune to troubles. I've had two surgeries on my shoulder. After the first one in '95, I had to learn to take care of the little things to stay healthy. It's been a long ride, but you can't get to 400 without the first one. That was in Atlanta, with the Marlins."

How far he can take that ride remains to be seen, but this much is certain: Hoffman will carry himself with grace and integrity throughout, pausing periodically to thank all those benefactors who kept appearing, as if by divine intervention, exactly when he needed them.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.