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Hoffman commands pitches, respect

Hoffman commands pitches, respect

The 400 Save Club doesn't have nearly the same name recognition as, say, the 300 Win Club or the 500 Homer Club, two groups that almost ensure a member entry into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

But now that Trevor Hoffman has become only the third member of the 400 Save Club, the special number and the last man to reach it are getting some notice around baseball, especially among his peers.

Perhaps 400 saves doesn't resonate like some of baseball's other milestones, but one of the men who has crossed the barrier understands what it means.

"Obviously, it's about longevity," says John Franco, the 44-year-old lefty currently with the Astros and standing second all-time with 424 saves. "It means he's been doing it a long time and he's done a great job at it."

Veteran Pirates closer Jose Mesa put it even more succinctly.

"That means that he's been awesome," said Mesa, who has 304 saves in his 15-plus years in the big leagues.

That, people knew about Hoffman already. His fellow closers also know that Hoffman stands a great chance to become the all-time saves leader, considering Lee Smith's mark of 478 is about two good seasons away.

Hoffman didn't have to hit 400 for him to be recognized by his colleagues as one of the greats.

Before Eric Gagne came around with his perfect season in 2003, registering 55 saves in as many opportunities, Hoffman's 1998 season stood as the gold standard for closers. He saved 53 games, then a National League record, in 54 opportunities that year, and he very well might have won the Cy Young Award if a few voters hadn't excluded him entirely, simply because he's a reliever.

Then there's the consistency over the years. Hoffman has six 40-save seasons, more than any other closer in history. He has nine 30-save seasons, second only to Smith's 10.

The credentials for one of the greatest late-innings men in baseball annals were there before Hoffman reached this milestone.

"I couldn't be any more impressed with Hoffman," says Phillies closer Billy Wagner, eighth among actives with 254 saves. "He's one of the greatest that will ever be. He's one of the guys I look up to. He's the master of the craft and is as good as can be."

Those who know Hoffman's career know it didn't come easy. Hoffman has overcome plenty of physical adversity to get to his lofty spot. After losing a kidney as an infant, Hoffman developed into a top-notch shortstop, good enough to get drafted by the Reds. But he couldn't hit well enough, so he was converted to a pitcher, first a starter and eventually a closer, in the Cincinnati system.

Current Dodgers manager Jim Tracy, who calls Hoffman "one of the finest people in the game I've ever met," was Hoffman's manager at Double-A in 1991 when the transition to closer took place. Tracy knew then that Hoffman was something special, and knew the Reds let a lot get away when the Marlins chose Hoffman in the Expansion Draft.

"I remember the conversation before the Expansion Draft and I said I think he'll be a terrific closer, but he was left unprotected," Tracy said. "I'm tickled with every game he closes except against the Dodgers. He turned out to be pretty good.

"At that time, he had a fastball that was absolutely electric and he developed a change-up that is devastating. He's the consummate professional, a competitor and a leader, the kind of guy you want younger players to be around and see how he does it. He was influential in the clubhouse even in Double-A."

Hoffman clearly took to the art of pitching. That much is evident not only by the numbers but by the way he handles his job, Wagner said.

"He knows how to pitch and how to use his stuff," Wagner said. "That allows him to dominate in other ways. He's learned so much over his time in the big leagues. His change scares hitters, and that's unheard of."

That changeup was actually the product of Hoffman's first round of shoulder surgery in 1995. His velocity dropped significantly, so Hoffman knew he had to make the adjustment, developing a devastating changeup that offset the drop in his fastball.

But that wasn't the last time Hoffman would battle shoulder problems. Two operations robbed him of most of 2003, yet he came back in 2004 to register 41 saves in 45 opportunities.

That, of course, makes reaching 400 even more impressive.

"Especially since he missed time with the shoulder injury, coming back from injury," Franco said. "Plus, he's a good guy too, so it's always good to see nice things happen to good people."

For the next man up for possible entry to the 400 Save Club, the number remains a little too big to comprehend.

"That is definitely huge," said the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, who stands with 341. "A good milestone to reach. I'm not even thinking that far down the road."

As those who have traveled all or part of the road that led Hoffman to his 400th last week know well, it's a long, hard journey.

"There are a lot of ups and downs," Mesa said. "To [have] 400 saves says a lot about the man."

For those who are just starting out on a road they can only hope will reach this lofty level, the milestone says even more about the man.

"That's amazing," says the Rangers' Francisco Cordero, who's on 85 and counting. "He's been a great closer for a long time. He's done it every year, 40-plus saves. If he keeps on pitching for two or three more years, he can get 500. Why not? He's a great closer. It will not surprise me. Amazing."

John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. Reporters Ed Eagle, Alyson Footer, Ken Gurnick, Ken Mandel, Jesse Sanchez and Tom Singer contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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