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Trevor Hoffman's dive into history

9/8/2010
Hoffman relies on a change-of-speed scheme, just as he did 16 years ago. How he discovered it is the oddity. Getty Images

A few years ago, I worked on a long piece on Trevor Hoffman for ESPN The Magazine, and we sat in the visitors' dugout at Shea Stadium and talked about his father's influence, the games he played as a child with his older brothers, about his baseball history.

I was covering the Padres for the San Diego Union-Tribune when the Marlins had traded for Hoffman as part of the Gary Sheffield deal in June 1993 -- it was in the midst of the Padres' Fire Sale. Trevor had, in a roundabout way, gotten me into trouble with my sports editor at the time.

I had written glowingly about what scouts saw as the high potential of the hard-throwing right-hander that the Padres had gotten back in the deal, and the sports editor was angry.

Hoffman had been drafted as a shortstop by the Reds, but after many 0-for-4s at the plate, Cincinnati's minor league staff suggested that he try pitching; Hoffman heard the words and realized -- rightly -- that he was hanging on the ledge of a professional baseball abyss, and that he needed to try something different.

"Pollyannish," the sports editor barked.

When Gene Harris struggled at the outset of the 1994 season, Jim Riggleman anointed Hoffman as closer. By then, Hoffman's reputation for being an exceptional teammate, for being a hard worker, for being a stickler for preparation, for being accountable, was cemented among the others in the San Diego Padres' clubhouse.

But somewhere along the way, Hoffman had lost that great 95-96 mph fastball that he had shown in 1993 and 1994. As I talked with him at Shea Stadium, I had a list of things I wanted to get to, and had written in my notebook, in capital letters, this word: VELOCITY.

"Why do you think you lost velocity on your fastball before the 1995 season?" I asked.

Hoffman looked at me and smiled, and then looked back out on the field. It was an I-know-the-answer-but-I'm-not-sure-if-I-want-to-tell-you expression, something familiar to reporters everywhere.

"Off the record?" he asked.

"Sure," I said. "Off the record."

And then he told the story in detail. Remember the first days after the 1994 players' strike, he asked?

Of course, I replied. I had been the beat writer covering the Padres for the Union-Tribune, and the San Diego players -- most of them very young -- had gone to play golf together. And they had asked me, as the only traveling beat reporter, to go along, too, and I had played in a foursome with Andy Benes. I remembered it all very well.

Well, after the golf, Hoffman said, he had gone to the beach, and somebody had brought a football. Somebody threw a ball into the waves, and Trevor, as usual, dove into the waves headlong in an effort to make the catch.

He had landed on his shoulder, he said, and he distinctly remembered the sound -- like air going out of a tire, he recalled. After the strike was settled the next spring, he discovered that his fastball was no longer in the mid-90s, but a mediocre 90 mph, and it was in this time of desperation that he had tried the changeup grip, something he learned from Donnie Elliott, who had come to the Padres in the Fred McGriff trade during the Fire Sale. And so was born a Hall of Fame pitch, a signature weapon that will rank somewhere behind Mariano Rivera's cutter and next to Bruce Sutter's splitter as one of the great pieces of any closer's arsenal of all time.

I listened, and said, "Trevor, let me make my case. What would be the harm in telling that story? That's a great story. It's not like you're a young pitcher and your lack of velocity is going to affect your next contract. You're going to the Hall of Fame. It's part of your history."

He chuckled and said, "You're right. Go ahead and write it."

Hoffman had lost the closer's job earlier this year, of course, and he had wondered if he would reach 600 saves, writes Tom Haudricourt. A whole bunch of Hoffman T-shirts flew off the rack.

Umpire Bob Davidson booted a fan along the way. Thank goodness that doesn't count in the umpire fantasy league (if that actually exists, I should say).

From Mark Simon of ESPN Research: The most saves all time on the day Hoffman got his first save (April 29, 1993), with the current ranking in parentheses:

Lee Smith: 365 (3rd)

Jeff Reardon: 359 (7th)

Rollie Fingers: 341 (10th)

Rich Gossage: 309 (18th)

Bruce Sutter: 300 (21st)

From Andrew Davis of ESPN Stats & Info, how Hoffman saved his 600th game against the Cardinals:

(A) Against Colby Rasmus, Hoffman threw an 85 mph fastball that Rasmus swung and missed at. After a 78 mph fastball on 0-1, Rasmus hit a 72 mph change to center field. The change was right down the middle of the plate.

(B) Randy Winn pinch hit and he saw all fastballs, ranging from 83 to 85. Hoffman was down 2-0 in the count but went down and away on Winn to get two called strikes and even the count. On 2-2, Winn swung at a fastball middle/down, grounding into a 6-4-3 double play.

(C) With two down, Aaron Miles worked a full count before grounding out to shortstop on an 85 mph fastball over the middle of the plate, giving Hoffman the historic 600th save.

Hoffman's totals in the ninth inning:

Pitches: 14

Strikes: 9

Swung On: 5

Fastball Vel: 84.7

Offspeed Vel:73.8

And the current leaders for most saves all time, with percentage in parentheses:

Trevor Hoffman: 600 (88.8)

Mariano Rivera: 555 (89.7)

Lee Smith: 478 (82.3)

NL East

The Phillies ended Atlanta's run at the top of the division by slamming a bunch of hits. There is this concern, however: Brad Lidge is dealing with some elbow soreness.

The Braves fell into second place after losing back-to-back games to the Pirates. Mark Bradley wonders what's next for the Braves.

It's pennant-race time, writes Phil Sheridan.

AL East

The Rays put on a laser show against the Red Sox, mashing five homers.

It appears that over the next four weeks, Dan Johnson and Brad Hawpe are going to share time at designated hitter against right-handed starters, and whoever is faring better will likely get the at-bats in the postseason. To date: Johnson is hitting .194, with a .378 on-base percentage. Hawpe has one hit in his first nine at-bats for the Rays, with a homer, two walks and four strikeouts. Carl Crawford had four hits Tuesday and is on a roll this month.

CC Sabathia missed in his first attempt at racking up win No. 20. A-Rod was back in the lineup for the Yankees.

NL West

The Rockies never lose anymore -- Carlos Gonzalez did it again for them, as Troy Renck writes -- but Tim Lincecum was terrific again and the Giants held serve, and so did the Padres, behind Mat Latos. Latos must be part of any Cy Young conversation, writes Tim Sullivan.

How Latos beat the Dodgers, from Mr. Davis:

(A) He mixed up his pitches with two strikes. Latos threw 25 fastballs (7 outs, 3 K), 13 curveballs (6 outs, 5 K) and five sliders (3 outs, 2 K).

(B) He threw 55 pitches away, getting nine outs with six by strikeout. Latos hasn't allowed more than two hits on a pitch away over his last nine starts.

(C) Latos made the Dodgers swing and miss on a season-high 17 pitches, including seven of his 10 strikeouts.

From the Elias Sports Bureau: Latos is the first pitcher in modern baseball history (since 1900) with 15 consecutive starts of five-plus IP, two or fewer runs allowed, breaking the mark of 14, previously set by Mike Scott (1986) and shared with Greg Maddux (1993-94).

Lincecum got a haircut, as Andrew Baggarly writes.

Steve Smith has struggled offensively since the release of Hawpe. The Rockies placed Taylor Buchholz on waivers.

NL Central

<p.Kyle Lohse had a tough outing and the Cardinals lost, as Rick Hummel writes. However, the Reds lost, too, in Colorado; they have not matched up well with the Rockies, for sure. Edinson Volquez might replace Aaron Harang in their rotation, as John Fay writes.

AL Central

The Twins' hitters went nutty, writes Joe Christensen, and Minnesota tacked on to its lead in the division. Identifying the MVP on this team is not easy, writes Patrick Reusse.

Here's the back story on Jim Thome's mammoth 585th career homer. The Twins have quietly built a $100 million payroll.

A healthy Francisco Liriano is vital for the Twins, writes Tom Powers.

The White Sox's win streak ended, as Mark Gonzales writes. And more bad news: Gordon Beckham is out with a hand problem.

Like it or not, the White Sox are the only game in town, writes Rick Telander.

Dings and dents

1. Billy Butler aggravated his hand injury.

2. Josh Johnson might be shut down.

3. Miguel Cabrera is hurting and had to come out of the Tigers' victory Tuesday night, as Tom Gage writes. Not good timing for an MVP candidate.

4. Brad Lincoln will be limited to bullpen duty.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Marco Scutaro is dealing with an injury and was moved to second base.

2. Ryne Sandberg was not among the Cubs' call-ups, writes Paul Sullivan.

3. Oakland summoned Jeremy Hermida to the big leagues.

4. Steve Decker feels like the Giants have handled Buster Posey well by giving him time in the minors earlier this season.

5. Brandon Allen is going to get more time in the outfield. He looks like a pretty good athlete.

6. Matt Lindstrom is not aiming to be the Astros' closer by the end of this season.

Tuesday's games

1. Some Marlins relievers got hazed before Monday's game, as Clark Spencer writes.

2. Lou Marson had a really, really good day, as Paul Hoynes writes.

3. The Orioles just keep throwing wrenches into the contenders. Jeff Zrebiec has more on the Showalter impact.

4. James McDonald was The Man for the Pirates, writes Dejan Kovacevic.

5. Daisuke Matsuzaka was booed.

6. Vernon Wells added another homer in his bounce-back season.

7. Dallas Braden had a frustrating night, writes Susan Slusser.

8. The Mariners erupted. Larry Stone wonders if Seattle can avoid 100 losses.

9. The Dodgers are stuck on a train to Dullsville, writes T.J. Simers, after losing to Mat Latos.

10. The Angels lost a bunch of guys on the bases, writes Ben Bolch.

11. Barry Enright got knocked around.

12. Michael Bourn and Brett Wallace led the Astros to victory, as Zachary Levine writes.

13. The Rangers have simply stopped winning -- but again, it doesn't matter for now. There's plenty of time for Texas to get it together, writes Anthony Andro.

14. A Nationals pitcher was trumped.

The Patience Index

Other stuff

• As stadiums vanish, their debt lives on, writes Ken Belson. A cautionary tale.

Jaime Garcia has built a case for rookie of the year.

Logan Morrison is on a serious run, as Juan Rodriguez writes.

Jeremy Hellickson was named a minor league pitcher of the year by Baseball America.

Ryan Raburn is trying Miguel Cabrera's approach at the plate.

• The Jays are taking a chance on Shawn Hill, writes Richard Griffin.

• Some Mets players visited some wounded veterans and came away amazed, writes Mike Puma.

• Roger Clemens' lawyers filed a motion, as Teri Thompson writes.

• A Vanderbilt safety was all over the field last weekend.

And today will be better than yesterday.