Minor Leaguer Trevor Hoffman is now one of the best closers in the game
This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 11, 2006, issue. Subscribe today!
THE PITCH is an accident, a homemade concoction. Baseball moonshine. In 1994, a fellow pitcher showed Trevor Hoffman his discarded grip for a changeup, and 12 years later, Hoffman sits in the visitors' dugout at Shea Stadium, raises his right hand and tells the whole truth about the pitch that will take him to the Hall of Fame.
The story behind the story
When Trevor Hoffman was traded to the Padres, I was covering the team for the The San Diego Union-Tribune. So more than a decade later, I jumped at the chance to do a piece on the man who was by then well on his way to becoming the first closer in baseball history with 600 saves. His record run was built mostly on his changeup, a pitch that confounded hitters, but when he joined the Padres he threw 95 to 96 mph. Only when he suddenly lost that velocity in the spring of 1995 did he develop that changeup by necessity. As I was working on this story, I asked him in the visitors' dugout at Shea Stadium how he had lost his fastball. "Off the record?" he asked. I agreed, and he proceeded to tell me the untold story, of how he went to the beach right after the players' strike began and landed on his pitching shoulder playing football. When the strike was over, he knew full well that he had damaged his shoulder, and it was out of desperation -- a fear that his career was in jeopardy -- that he discovered the life-changing grip. I listened carefully, without taking notes, until he was finished. Then I looked at this person I had known for many years and made my case: "Trevor, you have more saves than anybody, you are going to the Hall of Fame. Who cares now if you hurt your shoulder 12 years ago? It's part of history." He stared back at me silently for a few seconds. And then he said, "Go ahead and write it." -- Buster Olney
Hoffman shows how he propels the baseball with the pads of his palm, with those crimson callouses just below the fingers. The key to the pitch, he explains -- the Coca-Cola formula of his changeup -- is how he pinches the seam of the ball with his thumb and index finger as he releases it. He throws the changeup with the arm speed used to throw a fastball, the hitter thinks it's a fastball, it looks like a fastball. But when the hitter starts to swing, the ball is still yards away from the plate. "Nothing is really catapulting the baseball," Hoffman says. "It's a pitch of deception."
At age 38, Hoffman is trying to catapult the middling Padres into the playoffs, giving the franchise and himself another chance at a ring. He has a much better shot at a different title: all-time saves king. He throws 85 mph on good days now, and yet he keeps closing them out. Other than a bad stretch in mid-July, when Hoffman blew three saves in six appearances -- not including his All-Star Game breakdown that cost the National League home field in the World Series -- he's been as solid as ever. The hitters' anxiety over his changeup is as much a weapon as the pitch itself.
Hoffman is just a handful of conversions away from topping Lee Smith's record of 478, and the truth is that this would make more sense if he threw a little harder than your average third base coach, if he hadn't torn up his shoulder horsing around on the beach during the 1994 players' strike, if he had two functioning kidneys, if he had discovered his out-pitch more conventionally, if he had even begun his professional career as a pitcher.
On the face of it, Trevor Hoffman is an accident of history, just like the pitch he throws.
But are there really any accidents?
IT'S EARLY in the 1994 season, and Hoffman is playing catch with Donnie Elliott, another reliever who came to the Padres in the Fire Sale of '93. Elliott was a secondary piece in the trade of Fred McGriff; Hoffman was acquired as part of the deal that sent Gary Sheffield to Florida.
Hoffman throws in the mid-90s, firing bullets, but he's been pitching a lot and his shoulder doesn't feel great, and he's already thinking about how there will come a day when he can't throw hard anymore. His mother, Mikki Hoffman, always taught him to take responsibility. Bad workmen always blame their tools, she'd say. So Hoffman approaches Elliott, his daily throwing partner, and asks, "How do you throw your changeup?"
A couple of years earlier, Elliott, a righty like Hoffman, had tinkered with the grip on his change. It tended to drift in to lefthanded hitters, which is like blindly reaching into a snake pit. So Elliott invented his own solution: By pinching the seams with his thumb and index finger, he built a wall of flesh that prevented the ball from veering left.
Hoffman tries a few, pinching the seams. "They weren't jaw-dropping," Elliott recalls now, "but he got the feel for it right away."
Hoffman doesn't use the pitch in a game that year -- after all, he has a great fastball. He takes over as Padres closer early in the '94 season, but on Aug. 12, the players go on strike. That weekend, Hoffman is playing football at Del Mar Beach near San Diego and dives for a pass in the foam of the surf, bouncing awkwardly on his right shoulder. Undeterred, he plays some volleyball, hits the sand for a dig and again lands on the shoulder. He hears a strange sound, like the air being let out of a tire.
He never throws 95 again.
Elliott is sore-armed too, and while they're eating lunch together one day during the strike, Hoffman says to his friend, "Me and you are never going to be the same." After the strike ends in April 1995, Elliott makes only one more major league appearance. Hoffman's dead-arm phase continues, but he doesn't let on how worried he is. He'll eventually have surgery for a torn rotator cuff after the season, but in the meantime he needs an equalizer on the mound. He likes the feel of Elliott's changeup, and decides to try it the first week of the season. Immediately, Padres catcher Brad Ausmus sees that hitters can't pick up the ball. After two changeups, Ausmus thinks, This is going to be a dominating pitch.
No clues distinguish Hoffman's changeup from his fastball. The arm speed is the same, the spin is the same, even the movement doesn't give it away. "It doesn't move down, like a splitter," says Ausmus, who's now with the Astros. "It moves on a straight line, but it just doesn't get there."
Hoffman also seems to know when to throw it, what hitters are expecting and how they think. This is no accident.
THE CHILD is an accident. By 1967, Ed and Mikki Hoffman of Bellflower, Calif., already have two sons, 13-year-old Greg and 9-year-old Glenn, and Ed is 55 when Trevor is born. (Mikki is 20 years younger.) "Is this your grandchild?" Ed is asked, over and over. He responds genially, firmly, proudly: "No, this is my son."
In the years before Trevor came along, Big Ed Hoffman -- a barrel-chested, 6'2", 245-pound ex-Marine -- was a singer with the Royal Guards, a troupe that traveled the world and played Vegas with Sinatra. But one day, as Ed arrives home from another long trip, little Greg sees his father at the door and asks, "Mom, who's that?" Ed quits traveling and takes a job sorting mail for the post office before dawn. He helps start a Little League in Anaheim, and he waits for his kids to get home from school, rising to greet any friend of his sons, to offer them something to drink, to make them feel welcome.
At the post office, a co-worker asks Big Ed if he wants to be an usher at Angels games. Sure, easy enough. But when the national anthem singer doesn't show up one day, Ed Hoffman walks onto the field with a harmonica, in front of thousands of people, and sings the first of many renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner." His wife and sons watch nervously, praying he doesn't buckle under pressure and forget the words. He never does.
Ed loves to sit in his chair in his backyard, smoke his pipe or a cigar and watch his sons play basketball or Wiffle Ball. When Trevor is out of diapers, Ed insists the older boys let him play. Because he had to have a damaged kidney removed as an infant, Trevor isn't allowed to play football or wrestle. Big Ed won't let him pitch, either; he doesn't trust coaches to protect his son's arm. So Trevor becomes a middle infielder, a 150-pound shortstop. When he goes undrafted out of Anaheim's Savanna High, he attends junior college and starts lifting weights. At one point, he badgers his Cypress College coach into letting him pitch during a workout. He throws 10 pitches -- eight are crushed. "Tryout's over," Hoffman says, walking off the mound. He's a shortstop.
Padres GM Kevin Towers, then an area scout, sees Hoffman play in college and jots down that his bat speed is "not good." But Towers scores him high for baseball instincts, work ethic and athleticism.
Those qualities convince the Reds to draft Hoffman in the 11th round in 1989, but by the next summer he's barely hitting .200 for Class-A Charleston. He finds the pressure of being a position player unbearable. He obsesses over failure, and even the good hitters fail 70% of the time. Still, manager Jim Lett likes the way Hoffman hangs in on double plays and how he runs out every ball. Pitching coach Mike Griffin admires his powerful right arm and wonders, Has this kid ever tried pitching?
With Hoffman facing a flameout as a hitter, Lett and Griffin meet with him in the shoebox that is the visiting manager's office in Greensboro, N.C., and ask him about switching. Most players would react defensively: Screw that, I'm a shortstop. Hoffman listens and says, "Let's go for it." But he's really scared of what might happen, remembering how he got hammered in college.
Five pitches into their bullpen session, Griffin is blown away. Hoffman is balanced, with great extension, and throws free and easy. "You sure you haven't pitched before?" the coach asks him. Then Griffin says to Lett, "We've got something here. This guy is going to be somebody."
Hoffman isn't so sure. He reveals his fears to Darron Cox, his catcher, after that first session. "He was concerned his career might be coming to a quick end," Cox says now.
While still a backup infielder, Hoffman throws in the bullpen the rest of the year. He asks around until he gets a pitcher's off-season program that satisfies him -- If there's a job worth doing, do it well, Mikki likes to say -- and in spring training of 1991, he starts smoking hitters. In his first year on the mound, split between Class-A Cedar Rapids and Double-A Chattanooga, he strikes out 75 in 47µ innings and saves 20 games. He seems perfectly suited for the closer's job, perfectly prepared for its pressures. This is no accident.
THEY ARE his brothers, but Greg and Glenn Hoffman are so much older than Trevor that they speak to him like parents. When Trevor came home from one of his first Little League games, Greg asked, "How'd you do?"
"Two-for-four," Trevor said.
"That's the last time you tell me how you did before you tell me how the team did," Greg snapped. "How'd the team do?"
"We lost," Trevor said.
"Don't ever tell me how you did when your team lost," said Greg, who is struck by how earnestly the boy listens.
To Trevor, his brothers are larger than life. Glenn became a shortstop in the Red Sox farm system, and for a couple of years, the Hoffmans spent their family vacations following him through the minor leagues, in Winter Haven, in Pawtucket. Trevor shagged flies and watched his brother play, and when Glenn became Boston's shortstop, Trevor got to play catch with Carl Yastrzemski.
Years later, when the Reds ask Trevor to become a pitcher, Glenn tells him it's a great opportunity; at shortstop, you can't control the game the way you can on the hill. When the Marlins select Trevor in the 1992 expansion draft, Glenn tells him to trail reliever Bryan Harvey, his former teammate. You'll learn a lot from him, Glenn says. When Trevor is shaken by the trade to the Padres, Glenn calls him, knowing how that first trade hurts and how much Trevor liked pitching for the Marlins. This will be the best thing that could happen to you, Glenn tells him.
Without even knowing it, Greg and Glenn trained their little brother to be a closer. After each save chance, successful or not, Trevor sits in the dugout for about five minutes, staring out at the field. "I like to de-adrenalize," he once told Ausmus. He turns the page, for good. The day after a particularly brutal blown save in New York, in the mid-1990s, Towers bumped into Hoffman on the 7 train, and the pitcher was as upbeat as always. Towers couldn't help himself: "What's it like to blow a save like that? How do you get over it?" "What are you talking about?" Hoffman said, staring at the GM. "You know, last night. Tough game." "What are you talking about?" "Yesterday's game … ?" "What are you talking about?" And Towers thought: Okay, I get it.
Years earlier, Greg and Glenn, who didn't want their runt brother interfering with their competitions, had designed a rule to hasten his exit: If the score was 7-0 in basketball or Ping-Pong, he was skunked out of the game.
Thing is, Trevor kept coming back.
WHEN HOFFMAN saved the game to clinch the NL West on the last day of the 1996 season, Randy Smith -- who'd traded for him as GM of the Padres before moving on to the Tigers -- was watching on TV and smiling. Hours later, at 2 a.m., a ringing phone woke Smith from a deep sleep.
"Randy, I wish you were here," Trevor said. "You're a part of this."
Smith, who remembers Hoffman weeping when he signed his first big contract, was overwhelmed by the gesture. A decade later, it's Smith who chokes up as he recounts Hoffman's thoughtfulness.
The pitcher's athleticism and focus come from Mikki, a former ballerina and London native who survived the Blitz. Trevor's bigheartedness and humility? Greg says that's Big Ed.
In 1998, Glenn was managing the Dodgers. When they arrived in San Diego for a series, a ballpark security guard told him what a great guy his brother was. Glenn thought, Yeah, that's because he's a good pitcher. But then the guard explained that after he had had a heart attack, Trevor visited him in the hospital. Later, an usher rambled on about Trevor: He came to my wedding. I'm a teacher, and he spoke to my class. A few winters ago, a teenager recognized Hoffman on a beach in Maui and mentioned that he was a pitcher too. Hoffman told the kid to find a ball and a couple of gloves, and showed him his changeup. In June 2005, the kid, Jeffrey Lyman, was drafted by the Braves in the second round. A scouting blurb noted that Lyman has "a good sinking changeup."
No accident there, either.
AFTER BIG ED died in 1995, at age 83, surrounded by his family, Trevor took his father's chair and had it restored. These days, he sits in his mother's backyard, smoking a cigar, watching his three boys: Brody, 10; Quinn, 9; and Wyatt, 7. "It's incredible how much like Dad he is," Greg says of Trevor.
Glenn, now the Padres third base coach, thinks there's a reason all this has happened the way it has. He'll be in the dugout when his little brother -- the kid who once painted Glenn's dog, Willie, blue -- becomes the all-time saves leader. The coach will be nervous, just as he always is when watching Trevor pitch. All the Hoffmans will be nervous, praying that Trevor doesn't buckle under pressure.
He never does.
Are there really any accidents?