Catching Hoffy: Batterymates share best memories

Beyond specific games, backstops remember closer's composure, humility

Catching Hoffy: Batterymates share best memories

SAN DIEGO -- Long before "Hells Bells" ever blared through the speakers at the Padres' ballpark, before he developed that nasty changeup grip and well before he had reason to give pitching a single thought, Trevor Hoffman was just a light-hitting 22-year-old shortstop in the Reds' Minor League system, trying to find his way -- and his next hit.

Neither was coming too quickly, so the Reds proposed the right-hander throw a few side sessions when he wasn't taking batting practice or ground balls in the infield while he was playing with Class A Charleston, W. Va., of the South Atlantic League during the summer of 1990.

"I remember he came out one day to throw, and I was like, 'What is he doing working with the pitchers?'" said Jon Fuller, a former teammate in Charleston. "Then I caught him a few times … and it wasn't like he was throwing them over the backstop. His command was really good. Everything looked so easy."

This wasn't what Fuller or the Reds were expecting.

Hoffman remained at shortstop for the rest of 1990, but he went to the instructional league that fall, where he continued to work on pitching. He started the '91 season as a pitcher with Fuller in Cedar Rapids, but Hoffman didn't stay long.

"[Hoffman] was gone right away," said Fuller, 45, who owns Gig Harbor Baseball Academy in Washington. "He left the rest of us behind in [Class A] ball."

Two years later, Hoffman was in the big leagues, where he amassed 601 saves in an 18-year career, with 552 of those coming in 16 seasons with San Diego.

Prior to Saturday's 5:40 p.m. PT game against the Dodgers, Hoffman will be inducted into the team's Hall of Fame, becoming the ninth member in the select club, joining Buzzie Bavasi, Nate Colbert, Jerry Coleman, Tony Gwynn, Randy Jones, Ray Kroc, Dick Williams and Dave Winfield.

Hoffman will certainly have a long list of people to thank for helping him get to this point. A few of them will no doubt be the players who caught him throughout his career.

Catching Hoffy
Catcher Saves
Ben Davis 58
Carlos Hernandez 56
Josh Bard 55
John Flaherty 50
Brad Ausmus 48
Ramon Hernandez 46
Wiki Gonzalez 44
Rob Bowen 31
Brian Johnson 28
Jason Kendall 27

A total of 41 Major League catchers handled Hoffman, some more recognizable -- Jason Kendall, Benito Santiago and Brad Ausmus -- than others, including Rob Natal, Colt Morton and Pete LaForest, who each caught Hoffman just once.

These are just a handful of their stories, experiences and favorite memories from catching Hoffy.

Kevin Higgins, San Diego Padres, 1993
The game: June 25, 1993, Qualcomm Stadium, one day after the team made the first of its fire-sale deals, sending Gary Sheffield to the Marlins. The return got them Hoffman, who had a lightning bolt for an arm but just 28 games of experience.

The Padres, who by this point were 20 1/2 games out of first place and on their way to a 101-loss season, were playing the Reds before a Friday crowd of 17,758 -- many of whom probably stuck around to see the new guy make his debut.

They didn't exactly give him a warm welcome, booing loudly.

"We were both public enemy No. 1," said then-San Diego general manager Randy Smith, who was on the job for three weeks when forced to move the team's superstars to shed payroll.

Hoffman allowed three runs (two earned) on four hits and one walk in the eighth inning. The first out of the inning came when he struck out Reds pitcher Tim Belcher, who was on his way to a complete-game win.

"He was a little amped up, and this was back when he was throwing 97, 98 mph, before that changeup came into play," Higgins said. "It's his first game, and he's replacing a legend [Sheffield], and I'm sure he wants to do well."

At one point, Higgins went to the mound to calm Hoffman.

"It was probably just, 'Hey, you're here. … Continue to pound the strike zone, don't try to overthrow,' or something like that," Higgins said. "Who knows? Maybe I put down the wrong finger. I was known to do that on occasion."

The man: "Trevor was always a pretty laid-back guy. He had that Southern California mentality, nothing ruffled him. I think that helped him [when he struggled]," Higgins said.

Today: Higgins, 47, just completed his fourth season as an assistant coach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He played in 71 games with the Padres in 1993, his only season in the big leagues.

Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee Brewers, 2010
The game: September 7, 2010, Miller Park in Milwaukee. In the final days of the 2010 season -- which was Hoffman's last in the big leagues -- he was chasing career save No. 600, which was no sure thing, especially after losing his job early in the season to John Axford.

With the Brewers out of the National League Central race, the team gave Hoffman a shot at reaching a milestone in September. Save No. 600 occurred against the Cardinals, as he got the last three outs in a 4-2 win. His teammates carried him off the field on their shoulders.

Hoffman's catcher that night was the rookie Lucroy, who got a bigger kick out of what happened after the final out, after Hoffman got Aaron Miles on a weak ground ball to shortstop to end the game.

It was something Hoffman said to him.

"After the game, I went out and thanked [Hoffman] for letting me be a part of this," Lucroy said. "He looked at me and said, 'No, thank you for catching me.' I was so honored to be a part of that game, but to Trevor … he acted like he was honored I caught him.

"I always reference Trevor Hoffman when I talk about the kind of guy I want to be."

The man: "Something else about that night -- afterwards, we all went in the clubhouse, and he was talking to the team and he accepted the blame for the season we were having, saying he didn't get us off on the right foot. He always took and accepted the blame when things went wrong," Lucroy said. "The humility he has … that's something we should all strive for."

Today: Lucroy, 28, was an All-Star for the first time this season and could be in the conversation for the NL Most Valuable Player Award.

Brad Ausmus, San Diego Padres, 1993-1996
The game: Not one game, specifically, but that first summer of 1993 after the Padres acquired Hoffman and were trying to figure out what they had or, better still, where he fit.

"I remember [GM] Smith asked me about him, because at the time we had a guy named Gene Harris closing. Randy asked me, 'Do you think Trevor could be a closer? And when do you think he could be a closer?' This was in the middle of the season," Ausmus said.

"I said, 'I would think by the start of next year, he could.' But I think he ended up closing before then."

Harris had 23 saves that year, but the team was more interested in showcasing him for others so it could potentially deal him, which it did the following season. Hoffman got a handful of chances to close, earning three saves from Aug. 6 on.

By the middle of 1994, the job belonged to Hoffman.

"He was a power pitcher. You talk about guys who had a high spin rate … Trevor was one of those guys," said Ausmus, who caught more of Hoffman's games (111) than anyone else. "People had trouble getting on top of his ball. Back then, Trevor was a power pitcher. He was just starting to throw his changeup."

The man: "I will say the one thing I remember about Trevor is that when he became the closer, anytime he had a save, whether he blew the save or got the save -- and obviously he got the save a lot more often -- he always sat in the dugout by himself for about five minutes after the game to kind of decompress. I guess he had to kind of let the adrenaline out," Ausmus said.

Today: Ausmus, 45, is the first-year manager of the Detroit Tigers after spending three seasons as a special assistant in baseball operations for San Diego.

Carlos Hernandez, San Diego Padres, 1997-98, 2000
The game: More like, the games -- the entire 1998 season, that magical season where the Padres ran off with the NL West title and through the Braves in the playoffs, before eventually losing to the Yankees in the World Series, their last appearance in the Fall Classic.

Of all of Hoffman's 18 seasons in the big leagues, this might have been his best, as he led baseball with 53 saves (in 54 opportunities, no less), had a 1.48 ERA and finished second to Tom Glavine in the NL Cy Young Award vote.

"He was the king of the mountain," Hernandez said.

Hernandez, who saw Hoffman from the other side as a member of the Dodgers for parts of seven seasons from 1990-96, preferred his vantage point behind the plate, instead of attempting to square up on the closer's changeup, a pitch Hoffman leaned on heavily after shoulder surgery in 1995.

"[Hoffman] was so easy to catch, but he was one of the most difficult pitchers to hit," Hernandez said. "That four-seamer, you couldn't hit it. And if the count got to 3-2, 2-2, 1-1, then that was changeup time. And if you got that, forget it."

The man: "That season [1998] was so unbelievable for me and everyone … going to the World Series. We put everything together. Trevor was so good for us. And he was always so positive. I'm so happy I got to play with him and be his teammate," Hernandez said.

Today: Hernandez, 47, calls Padres games with Eduardo Ortega on the Spanish broadcast for FOX Sports San Diego.

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.