By Robert Grayson
Trevor Hoffman’s journey to the bullpen actually started at shortstop. Believe it not, the man who would become one of Major League Baseball’s greatest closers ever was discovered while air-mailing throws from between second and third in an attempt to throw runners out at first. Yep! This is not one of your typical “starting pitcher goes to the bullpen and finds his niche as a closer” stories. This tale has a bit of a twist and, oh—spoiler alert—it ends with Hoffman getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame this year.
It’s not that Hoffman never considered pitching in the major leagues. He did. But it was his backup plan. Plan A was to play the infield.
As a youngster growing up in southern California, Hoffman pitched in Little League. He knew he had a strong arm, and so did his father Ed.
My father had the vision not to have me pitch after my Little League days,” Hoffman said.
That was when the budding major leaguer was 13 years old.
In Little League, the mound is 46 feet from home plate. At every other level of baseball, including: youth, high school, college, and the pros, the hill is 60 feet 6 inches from the dish. Hoffman said his dad felt the transition from pitching in Little League to the next level of organized baseball was too abrupt for such young arms.
“He felt young arms needed to be nurtured a bit more,” Hoffman said.
In addition, the hurler’s dad was concerned that “I could come across some coaches who would overuse me (as a pitcher).”
So, Hoffman explained, the strategy was to take the opportunity to play the infield in high school and college, and “in that way, if I ever needed to fall back on pitching to stay in the game I would have a fresh arm. As it turned out, I needed to. So the idea of pitching was in the back of my head, but I didn’t even start my professional career as a pitcher. I was an infielder.”
That would change quickly.
“The handwriting was on the wall. I saw a pro scouting report that called me slow-footed and light-hitting, but raved about my strong arm. They had me down as an infielder/pitcher. I guess having me pitch was in the back of someone else’s head, too,” Hoffman recalled.
Playing Major League Baseball was not some wild-eyed fantasy for Hoffman. One of Hoffman’s two older brothers, Glenn, nine years his senior, had made it to the Bigs. Trevor was born in 1967; Glenn in 1958. Glenn played for nine seasons (1980–1989), mostly with the Red Sox. He played the 1988 season in the minors. Glenn Hoffman also coached and managed in The Show and is currently the third base coach for the San Diego Padres.
One of the perks of having an older brother in the majors, and being a youngster while your big brother is playing, is getting the chance to tag along with him every once in a while. Trevor Hoffman remembers sitting in the Red Sox clubhouse when the team came to Anaheim to play the Angels.
Hoffman grew up in Bellflower, California, a suburb in the Los Angeles–Anaheim metro area. Through his brother, Trever Hoffman met some of the biggest stars on the Red Sox, including Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and Dwight Evans.
“That was really exciting for a kid and made me want to pursue a career in baseball. It was not just meeting the players. The whole atmosphere was something I wanted to be around,” he said.
The Hoffman family was no stranger to Anaheim Stadium. Trevor’s father Ed worked there as an usher, in addition to his full-time job as a postal worker. Before that, Ed Hoffman was a professional singer, but he grew weary of all the travel involved in show business and decided to settle down and raise a family.
At Anaheim Stadium, Ed Hoffman was known as the “singing usher,” leading the crowd in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch. More important than that, Ed was called upon at the last minute to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” if the person invited to sing it was stuck in traffic, got ill, or simply could not make it. The elder Hoffman came to the ballpark for every home game, ready to sing the National Anthem just in case he was needed, his son Trevor recalled.
“He saved the day. I guess he was the original closer,” Trevor Hoffman said with a smile.
Trevor Hoffman noted that his father even sang the National Anthem at Fenway Park in Boston on Opening Day in 1981. Unlike his last-minute appearances at Anaheim Stadium, however, his turn in the Fenway spotlight was a command performance. Ed Hoffman belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the day Glenn Hoffman cracked the Red Sox lineup as the team’s starting shortstop.
Trevor Hoffman followed in Glenn’s footsteps, playing sports at Savanna High School in Anaheim. In fact, both Glenn and Trevor Hoffman’s other brother, Greg, 14 years older than Trevor, left their mark as sports stars at Savanna High. That put pressure on their “little brother,” Trevor Hoffman said. In high school, Hoffman, only 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds, played shortstop, but didn’t turn enough heads to get a college scholarship offer or interest from pro scouts.
After graduating from high school, Hoffman shot up a few inches during the summer of 1986. By the fall, when he started attending Cypress College in southern California, not to far from Hoffman’s home, he was 6 feet tall and continuing to grow. Hoffman played some baseball at Cypress, still as a shortstop, before transferring to the University of Arizona in 1988. During his 1988 collegiate season, Hoffman batted .371 and that got the now 6-foot-1 infielder some attention from major league scouts.
The native Californian was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the 11th round of the 1988 Major League Draft. Down in the Cincinnati farm system, Hoffman was experiencing some difficulty, however. He hit only .249 in rookie ball with the Billings (Montana) Mustangs in the Pioneer League in 1989. The next season his batting slumped to .212 with the Single-A Charleston (West Virginia) Wheelers in the South Atlantic League. He struggled defensively, too, making 30 errors while playing mostly at shortstop, but putting some time in at third as well. Hoffman racked up most of those errors by making wild throws to first. But the throws were strong and hard, even from deep in the hole at shortstop, which gave the Wheelers’ manager Jim Lett the idea to try Hoffman as a pitcher.
Hoffman recalled, “I was ready to make the switch. I was tired of not hitting. I couldn’t take the daily grind. If I went 0–4, I couldn’t let go of that and move on. The bad throws would bother me. I’d carry it from one day to the next.”
The soon-to-be hurler got some insight into what pitching in pro ball might be like while he played shortstop for the Wheelers.
Lett and Wheelers’ pitching coach Mike Griffin were so impressed with Hoffman’s arm that they had him throw bullpen sessions twice a week. That, along with Hoffman’s tireless work ethic, convinced the organization to give the fledging shortstop a chance on the mound.
Hoffman brought a more positive approach to pitching than he did to shortstop, and that would be rewarded quickly. When he got to the hill, Hoffman saw his blistering fastball overpower hitters. He knew he could compete as a hurler on the pro level.
At the start of the 1991 season, Hoffman was on the mound for the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Reds, a Single-A club in the Midwest League. He picked up 12 saves in 27 games with a 1.87 ERA and moved on to the Double-A Chattanooga (Tennessee) Lookouts in the Southern League later that summer. He collected eight more saves with the Lookouts, blowing batters away with his 95- to 98-mile-an-hour fastball, a pitch he had a world of confidence in.
At the beginning of the 1992 season at Chattanooga, he started some games in order to pitch more innings and build up some arm strength. Later that season, he moved to Triple-A Nashville in the American Association, where he began working on some additional pitches.
“I knew I couldn’t just get by on just my fastball and I had to perfect another pitch,” Hoffman said.
The Reds also felt he needed more seasoning and, thinking other teams would see that, too, they left him unprotected in the 1992 Major League Baseball expansion draft. The newly minted Florida Marlins, however, liked what they saw of Hoffman’s skills on the mound, even at this early point in his pitching career, and snatched him up in the draft. The infielder-turned-pitcher was playing in the majors by the spring of 1993.
During his days as a Florida Marlin, Hoffman met Bryan Harvey, one of the top relievers in the game at the time. Harvey became a mentor to the up-and-coming closer. Hoffman said that working with Harvey was a great way to learn his craft on the major league level.
Harvey gave Hoffman a very different perspective on bullpen work than he got while toiling in the Reds’ farm system. Hoffman was honing his skills in the minor leagues with the Reds when the Nasty Boys—a relief trio of Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, and Randy Myers —ruled Cincinnati’s bullpen in the big leagues.
“They (the Nasty Boys) approached the closer role from a bit of a wacky persona, a screw loose kinda thing,” Hoffman recalled.
Harvey, on the other hand, was very “even-keeled, a methodical worker, a balanced demeanor, very easygoing. That was more in tune with the way I am,” he said. “It showed me another approach and taught me that you find your own way, find what works for you.”
What Hoffman remembers most about Harvey is that “he never pointed a finger when he didn’t get the job done. He talked to the media after a tough loss, never tried to duck the media.” Hoffman was known for being the same way during his playing days, especially when he became a big star in San Diego.
He viewed talking to the media as a chance to promote the team.
“It’s all about teamwork. No one player is bigger then the team,” he said.
On April 29, 1993, Hoffman got his first major league save, holding off the Atlanta Braves for a Marlins win 6–5.
“When you save 600 games, they can sometimes become a blur. But you always remember your first. It would be special anyway, but in my case, I didn’t anticipate getting it,” he said.
Harvey, the man the Marlins normally called on to close out a game, was unavailable, so Hoffman—usually Harvey’s setup man—got the call to save the day. Hoffman would get one more save for the Marlins before being involved in a big trade between Florida and the San Diego Padres on June 24, 1993.
The San Diego Padres were in the midst of shedding some hefty salaries in a cost-cutting move, and traded Gary Sheffield, one of their star players to the Marlins for Hoffman and two pitchers in the minor leagues. Padres’ fans were not happy. Hoffman was a bit shaken as well. He had settled into the excitement surrounding the new Marlins franchise, with hometown Miami fans filling the stadium for every game as the franchise was playing its debut season. He said he will always have a soft spot in his heart for the Marlins because, “They gave me my first chance.”
Glenn Hoffman was the one who boosted his brother’s morale about the trade, telling him that it would be a chance to return to the Golden State where he grew up, and he could now be closer to his family. Trevor Hoffman was also bolstered by what the Padres’ general manager at the time, Randy Smith, said when he traded for the reliever: “The only way to acquire quality players is to give up quality.”
Nevertheless, San Diego’s relationship with the man who would become one of the city’s most beloved sports stars started out a bit rocky. Padres’ fans booed Hoffman during his initial outings in San Diego, more to rail against team management than to express any anger at the pitcher himself. It also didn’t help that Hoffman got roughed up during his first few outings in a Padres uniform. San Diego lost 101 games in 1993, but the team was committed to rebuilding. As Hoffman was getting used to the Padres organization, he was working on a new pitch—a changeup. It would become his signature pitch or, as he liked to call it, his “equalizer.”
The bullpen ace said every closer has to have an equalizer, his go-to pitch that will put batters away.
“Bryan Harvey had the split-finger, Mariano (Rivera) had the cutter. You have to have it,” he said.
The changeup, which would eventually baffle major league batters throughout Hoffman’s illustrious career, was not something that developed quickly.
“My changeup really evolved over time. I talked with different teammates along the way and saw how they held certain pitches and it helped me believe that there were different ways to throw a pitch. My changeup had a standard circle grip to start and I kept tinkering with it,” He said.
Another Padres pitcher, Donnie Elliott, showed Hoffman a different way to grip the ball when throwing a changeup. Elliott’s grip was more like a palm ball, and that type of grip made Hoffman more comfortable throwing the pitch. But he refined his changeup even from there. He got the ball so far back in his hand that he was able to have as much arm speed when he threw his changeup as he did when he threw a fastball. That made it hard for the hitter to distinguish between Hoffman’s fastball and changeup. As a result, hitters got way out in front of the right-hander’s changeup and often looked foolish swinging at it.
Hitters used to call Hoffman’s off-speed pitch the “Bugs Bunny changeup,” after a cartoon featuring the wisecracking rabbit playing baseball. Bugs is on the mound and throws a pitch that appears to be a fastball, but slows down just before home plate, leaving batters flailing at it and looking ridiculous.
“For the changeup to be effective, you have to have command of your fastball and get first-pitch strikes. You can’t throw a lot of changeups when you are behind on hitters,” Trevor Hoffman said. “The most important thing is you’ve got to learn to trust it. Throw it with confidence.”
The off-speed pitch came in very handy after Hoffman hurt his right shoulder in 1994 and lost speed off his fastball. He then made a career out of tricking batters with his changeup.
In 1995 he had 31 saves and in 1996 he recorded 42 saves. Led by Hoffman’s high leg kick, intimidating stone-cold glare, and, of course, his changeup, the Padres won the National League West in 1996. Now Pads fans couldn’t believe their luck—having grabbed Hoffman in a trade three years earlier before any other team realized how good he was.
San Diego lost the 1996 National League Division Series to the St. Louis Cardinals three games to none. But the Padres were contenders and playing exciting baseball. As for Hoffman, he was putting up some impressive stats.
After notching 37 saves in 1997, the Padres’ star closer took no prisoners in 1998, racking up 53 saves with a 1.48 ERA as the Padres made their way to the National League pennant. The Pads lost the 1998 World Series to the New York Yankees in four straight games.
But the Yankees had steamrolled through everyone that season, and it wasn’t a particularly good series for the Padres. Hoffman was tagged for a three-run homer by Yankees third baseman Scott Brosius in Game 3 and took the loss in that game. Still, it was a good season overall for the Padres and Hoffman.
In 1998 the right-handed reliever came in second in the Cy Young Award voting and seventh in the voting for the National League Most Valuable Player Award. The Padres were able to raise the National League pennant over their home field for the first time since 1984. It also started a streak for the closer. Between 1998 and 2001, he had at least 40 saves every year. He would equal the feat of four straight years with 40 or more saves again between 2004 and 2007.
The 1998 season is also when Trevor Hoffman and the AC/DC song “Hell’s Bells” became synonymous. For years, music was used as batters strolled up to home plate. It was called “walk-up music.” The San Diego Padres’ entertainment and promotions department thought it might be an idea to play music when their top reliever came into the game, as entrance music. But not just a song, a theme—something that would signal what became known as “Trevor Time.”
Chip Bowers, who worked in the Padres’ sales office and was a music lover, undertook the task of finding just the right song. He did it by going through his own collection of nearly 2,000 CDs. As the story goes, his selection was “Hell’s Bells,” which starts out with chilling, ominous bells gonging, a surefire sign of impending doom. The opening lines of the song are “I’m rolling thunder, pouring rain, I’m coming on like a hurricane.”
Padres brass thought the song was perfect. Hoffman went along with it and, as he now says, “It took off from there and took on a life of its own. I think the fans enjoyed the drama in it all.”
The song was used for the first time on July 25, 1998, when No. 51 came into the game. He used that entrance song for the rest of his career.
Every time the song was played at Padres home games as Hoffman entered the game, it whipped the fans into a frenzy. It became a definite home field advantage, as if the Padres didn’t have enough of an advantage with Hoffman on the mound. While the song was daunting, Hoffman said he didn’t feel that being intimidating on the hill had a lot to do with his success.
“I really think it’s about being prepared and having the hitters know in the back of their minds that you are prepared. Of course, having some success and having hitters know it helps, too. But that comes with being prepared,” Hoffman said.
Believing that any player is only as good as his last outing, the two-time National League Rolaids Relief Man Award winner said, “The way to be successful is to know what your job is and be prepared.”
Hoffman spent 15 1/2 years (1993–2008) with the Padres and picked up 552 of his 601 saves with San Diego. As a member of the Padres, he broke Lee Smith’s all-time major league saves record of 478 on Sept. 24, 2006. He was the first closer to get 500 saves and the first to collect 600. Save number 500 came with the Padres on June 6, 2007. Hoffman got save numbers 600 and 601 while playing out his career with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2010.
When the Padres and Hoffman could not agree on a contract after the 2008 season, the converted closer signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, where he played until his retirement at the end of the 2010 season. He played 18 seasons in the majors (1993–2010), an incredibly long time in an era when closers simply didn’t last that long.
The New York Yankees’ closer Mariano Rivera eventually ended up becoming the all-time saves leader, with 652 saves. Mo broke Hoffman’s record of 601 saves on Sept. 19, 2011, save number 602 coming against the Minnesota Twins. No other relievers come close to Hoffman and Rivera in total number of saves.
The 50-year-old Hoffman said the number of saves for both him and Rivera is a testament to consistency, perseverance, and putting in the work needed to stay in the game. While Hoffman admitted that he wishes he could have held onto the saves record a bit longer, he said he doesn’t mind being second to the game’s greatest closer ever.
“I can’t say 600 saves was ever a goal for me. Three hundred was kind of the number out there in the middle of my career. Dennis Eckersley reached it and when I reached it much faster than he did, Eckersley was quoted as saying, ‘This kid might hit 600.’ I’m thinking, ‘What is he crazy? What is he thinking about? But you just keep going along, doing your job day to day,” Hoffman said.
“Obviously, the game is driven by numbers, but you can’t get caught up in that and set a goal for yourself of 600 saves, because, if you do, then you’re going to get tripped up. I’m glad to have reached 600, but it’s nothing I set out to do,” he added.
Hoffman has been making saves for years off the field as well. When Hoffman was just six weeks old in 1967, he had an arterial blockage that forced the removal of his left kidney. Though he says the loss of his kidney did not hinder him in life very much, he knows “some kids aren’t that lucky.”
Throughout his career and without much fanfare, Hoffman has always made time to visit children on dialysis and dealing with kidney disease. He is also a big supporter of the National Kidney Foundation. He helps many other worthy causes as well, especially in the San Diego area.
Hoffman is revered in the city he played in for a decade and a half, as much for the work he does and has always done in the community as for his athletic ability. He still lives in San Diego.
Getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame was not easy for the relief ace. It took him three tries to get into the shrine, but those toiling in the bullpen have few representatives in Cooperstown. Along with Hoffman, only Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Rich “Goose” Gossage, and Dennis Eckersley hail from the bullpen.
Debate has been ongoing over whether relievers, especially closers, who pitch mostly one inning a game, merit a place in the Hall of Fame.
“There are a lot of managers who like knowing they have someone at the back end of the bullpen they can trust at the end of the game. It’s one of the ways the game has evolved. It allows managers to set up the rest of the bullpen,” he said. “Dennis Eckersley and Lee Smith refined that role and there was a wave of guys who came along and made the one-inning closer standard. When I came along in the ’90s that’s what was expected. That was the job I was given, that was my job description, and that was the job I did.”
The hurler said he realized that statistics can be picked apart and the save stat, which has only been around since 1969, is still evolving.
“We still have to see how sabermetrics plays into it all. How different matchups come into play and roster changes from the start of the season to the end of August and into September and once you hit October,” he said.
But as far as getting into the Hall of Fame, “There’s not really much you can do after you’re done playing. I’m comfortable with my career and how I went about it. If enough people (Baseball Writers Association of America voters) felt the same way, and they did this year, then I’m in.”
Hoffman joins one of his idols, Tony Gwynn, in the Hall of Fame.
“I was in awe of him when I got to San Diego in 1993. To see the way he commanded a city, a clubhouse. I was like a little brother taking it all in,” he said. “I always put Tony on another level.”
Hoffman and Gwynn played nine seasons together (1993–2001). Gwynn, who was known as “Mr. Padre,” is considered the San Diego Padres’ greatest player. A lifetime .338 hitter with eight National League batting titles, Gwynn died of cancer at the age of 54 in 2014.
An emotional Hoffman said, “I miss him and wish he was here to enjoy this (being elected to Cooperstown) with me. It’s an honor to be in the Hall of Fame with him.”
Robert Grayson is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.