Hoffman looking ahead, not back
PHOENIX -- The message is written in an elementary school student's script, on a piece of note paper bearing a Days Inn logo. It sits atop the receptionist's desk entering the clubhouse at the Milwaukee Brewers' spring training complex.
Dear Trevor, Thank you for being a Padre and for Trevor time. You are my favorite. I will miss you. Anthoni.
Young Anthoni is not alone. Each day, loyal San Diego fans arrive at the Maryvale Baseball Park and gather behind the metal barrier on the way to the workout fields. They come with baseball cards, souvenir programs and 16 years worth of memories.
Trevor Hoffman gladly obliges his admirers with autographs, a smile and the personal touch, as is his custom. But six weeks after leaving San Diego for a final, twilight chapter of his career in Milwaukee, he doesn't have the energy to prolong the drama.
Yes, Hoffman is upset over the way he was treated on his way out of San Diego. No, he could never have envisioned things ending so abruptly, with hard feelings and no farewell news conference. At the risk of overusing a popular buzzword, the lack of "closure" was palpable.
"I appreciated the forum to say my piece, but it's time to not talk about it anymore," Hoffman says. "I know where I stand, but nobody wants to keep hearing me whine about that crap. You know what I mean? The Padres have gone in a different direction."
The detour is taking the franchise straight from "Hells Bells" to Heath Bell, as the Padres make do without the man who amassed 552 of his major league-record 554 saves in a San Diego uniform.
Meanwhile, Hoffman is enjoying a fresh start with the Brewers. After signing a one-year, guaranteed $6 million contract in January, he'll be the anchor of a revamped Milwaukee bullpen. He is also 46 saves short of 600 -- a milestone that his new teammates are on a quest to help him reach.
While Hoffman still looks amazingly fit at age 41, time will tell how much life he has left in his right arm. He converted 30 of 34 save chances last year, and his 46-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio was right in line with his career norm. But he also pitched a career-low 45 1/3 innings, a byproduct of the Padres' last-place finish and the shift toward Bell as closer in September.
Will Hoffman be ready when it's time to crank it up three nights in succession? As a hedge against a lack of stamina from the old guy, the Brewers signed Eric Gagne to a minor league contract last week. Carlos Villanueva and Gagne look like Plans B and C, in no particular order.
But if Hoffman could reinvent himself as an effective closer at 85 mph, his teammates see no reason why the show has to end. Brewers catcher Jason Kendall was taking live batting practice against Hoffman the other day when he noticed a little slider he had never seen. Even though Hoffman's declining velocity makes it tougher for him to get the requisite 10 mph in separation between his fastball and changeup, he's still no bargain to face.
"Television doesn't do his changeup justice," Kendall says. "I wish everybody could jump in the box for two pitches just to see what it's like."
The conventional wisdom is that Hoffman will slip now that he's left Petco Park and the National League West behind, but the numbers don't necessarily bear out that observation. Hoffman allowed seven homers and posted a 4.25 ERA at Petco last season, compared to a 2.87 ERA and one home run ball on the road. And he has career ERAs above 4.00 in Colorado, Phoenix and San Francisco, three NL West cities he will no longer visit so frequently.
Hoffman thinks his biggest challenge will be adapting to a new routine off the field. His wife, Tracy, and sons Brody, Quinn and Wyatt will stay behind in San Diego until the school year ends in June, so this is the first time in a while he won't play home games between family functions and carpooling duties.
Even the move from Peoria to Maryvale this spring has been a bit of an adventure.
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"I could close my eyes at the Peoria Sports Complex and know exactly where I needed to be and what was going to happen," Hoffman says. "Here, I have to read the schedule every day to make sure I'm not on the wrong field, and to know what drills we're doing and what time things start. I don't want to be the guy that they're blowing the horn looking for."
Hoffman can look around the Milwaukee clubhouse and see some familiar faces. He played with outfielder Mike Cameron in San Diego, and threw to Kendall during a Major League Baseball tour of Japan several years ago.
Brewers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr., son of the Hall of Famer, considered Hoffman a baseball uncle of sorts while hanging around the Padres' clubhouse 15 years ago. They talked routinely about Tony Jr.'s Little League exploits in those days, and even threw a football around the outfield on occasion.
In late September 2007, young Gwynn delivered a pinch-hit triple off Hoffman to help kill San Diego's playoff hopes. It was one of the most deflating moments of Hoffman's career, and he naturally gives Gwynn good-natured grief over it.
"Yesterday, he opened up the media guide and said, 'That can't be your highlight. You can't put that down,'" Gwynn says. "I told him, 'I have no control over that personally.'"
Like all those tormented Padres fans, Gwynn Jr. is bothered by Hoffman's unceremonious exit from San Diego.
"In all honesty, he should be in the same situation my father was in," Gwynn says. "He should have been able to retire a Padre, no qualms about it. But with the economy the way it is -- and any other excuses you can come up with -- it didn't work out that way. It's sad, but we're happy to have him here in Milwaukee. We're going to really need him to tie up the back end of our bullpen."
The Hoffman saga won't be truly resolved until there's a rapprochement in San Diego, or he gives his Hall of Fame speech. Padres general manager Kevin Towers told MLB.com that he's holding out hope Hoffman will return someday -- even if only for one game -- and notch one final save before tipping his cap and saying goodbye.
Although Hoffman is grateful to his former teammates for their support and to Towers for saying such nice things, the wounds are still too raw for him to contemplate a reunion.
"Maybe he was talking from his heart, we'll say," Hoffman says of Towers.
Hoffman's heart is still in San Diego, but his changeup, cachet and bullpen anthem have followed him to Milwaukee. It's Trevor Time in a brand new time zone.
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