Contract impasse forces Hoffman out of San Diego

Updated: November 11, 2008, 11:30 AM ET
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

Trevor Hoffman, the all-time leaders in saves and the face of the San Diego franchise, will not return to the Padres for 2009. The team has withdrawn its contract offer for 2009 to Hoffman, who is eligible for free agency this fall.

Hoffman has played the last 16 seasons with the Padres, tenure which ranks behind only John Smoltz's 20 years with the Braves among active players. He also ranks first all-time among active pitchers in career save percentage, at .892.

Olney on Hoffman

After 16 years, the relationship between Hoffman and the Padres ended via cell phone. Buster Olney has the details. Blog

Padres general manager Kevin Towers confirmed to The Associated Press in a text message that "our offer was withdrawn."

It is now unclear whether Hoffman's relationship with the team will be repaired. This is much is for sure: He will never pitch for the Padres again. "That door is totally closed," said Rick Thurman, Hoffman's agent.

It is closed from the Padres' side -- and from Hoffman's perspective, as well. "Trevor is upset with the way they've handled the situation," Thurman said.

The Padres are in the midst of making a dramatic cut to their payroll, at a time when owner John Moores is going through a difficult and costly divorce. The San Diego payroll was about $74 million in 2008, and if they complete a trade of pitcher Jake Peavy, as expected, and eventually swap outfielder Brian Giles, their payroll -- now reduced by the departure of Hoffman -- will be cut by about half.

Hoffman made $7 million last season, and the Padres' initial offer to him for 2009 was for $4 million, plus some incentive bonuses. Some friends of Hoffman felt San Diego's offer was a polite way to nudge him out the door; sources familiar with the Padres' offer said it reflected, to a degree, Hoffman's diminished performance in 2008.

The Padres indicated that their $4 million offer was the best that they could do, so Hoffman asked Thurman to arrange a meeting -- with Padres president Sandy Alderson, Towers and Moores. If Hoffman's time with the Padres was going to end, his feeling was that he wanted to hear it directly from the team's executives.

But the Padres declined to arrange the meeting, and last Friday, the day after Thurman spoke publicly about Hoffman's desire for a face-to-face sit-down, Towers called Thurman and indicated to him that the Padres intended to withdraw the offer. The organization was upset, Towers told Thurman, that the details of Hoffman's offer had leaked out.

Hoffman, in Puerto Rico, again told Thurman that he wanted to arrange a meeting, with Alderson and Towers. He wanted to be told by Alderson that the Padres were ending his time with the team.

Hoffman
Hoffman
Towers told Thurman that the offer was withdrawn, the negotiation was over. He spoke to Hoffman over the phone Monday night.

When Hoffman was last a free agent, after the 2006 season, his negotiations were sometimes contentious; in one meeting, he spoke angrily to Padres president Sandy Alderson. Hoffman seriously considered taking an offer from the Cleveland Indians before making a deal with the Padres.

This time around, the Indians again are in the market for a closer, as are the Cardinals, the Mets and other teams. Working just 45 1/3 innings for a team which rarely had save chances, Hoffman posted a 3.77 ERA, his highest since 1995, and went 3-6; he converted 30 of 34 save opportunities.

Hoffman was originally drafted as a shortstop by the Cincinnati Reds, but after he struggled to hit, staff members in the Reds organization suggested that he try pitching. Hoffman quickly adapted to the new position, impressing coaches with his ability to repeat his delivery. The Florida Marlins picked Hoffman in the expansion draft in the fall of 1992, and the following year, he was the centerpiece of the package of players shipped to the Padres for Gary Sheffield.

Hoffman pitched in 39 games for the Padres in the final 15 weeks of 1993, and took over as the closer the following year, replacing Gene Harris and picking up 20 saves before the '94 players' strike.

On the first day of the strike, Hoffman was playing at a beach in San Diego and dove for a football in the surf, landing on his shoulder; years later, he would describe the sound of the impact as like the air going out of a tire. Hoffman would never again throw the mid-90s fastball that he had shown in his first seasons in the big leagues.

He already had been tinkering with a changeup, and the following season, he implemented a homemade grip for the pitch shown to him by former Padres pitcher Donnie Elliott. Hoffman pinched a seam of the ball with his index finger and thumb, the ball tucked into the palm of his right hand. Hoffman threw the pitch with the same arm speed as his fastball, but the changeup tended to approach the plate about 10 mph slower than his fastball -- and immediately, the pitch was effective for him, becoming his signature weapon.

Hoffman registered 31 saves in 1995, and other than in 2003, when he was hurt, Hoffman has posted at least 30 saves every year. He has 554 saves in his career, 72 more than the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, who ranks second all-time in that category. He has twice finished second in the Cy Young Award voting, and has received top 10 MVP votes in five different seasons. He has made six All-Star Game appearances. It is expected that Hoffman will eventually be voted into the Hall of Fame.

His entrance into games will forever be remembered by Padres' fans, as well as opposing players, because as he made his journey from the bullpen to the mound, the AC/DC song "Hell's Bells" -- which opens with the deeply resonating sound of a church bell -- would play. Now, that song, and Hoffman, will likely be playing elsewhere.

Buster Olney covers baseball for ESPN The Magazine.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine