The electricity is building. The lights feel a little brighter. The sound system crackles to life. In a collective moment of pure excitement, every Padres fan in attendance rises to their feet with the first toll of AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells. The bullpen door swings open and Trevor Hoffman jogs across the outfield grass toward the pitchers mound. The deafening roar of the crowd signifies “Trevor Time.”
For 18 years, 15 of which were spent in San Diego, Trevor Hoffman dominated the ninth inning. And as San Diego has announced plans to retire his number, I began thinking of his place in baseball history.
Hoffman is perhaps the most under-hyped, under-rated holder of a major record in baseball history. With 601 career saves, Hoffman crushed Lee Smith’s previous record and put enough distance between himself and Mariano Rivera that his reign may last for decades. Yet his name rarely comes up when talking about the game’s greats.
There are a few reasons for this. He pitched almost his entire career in San Diego. The big city lights and media attention of New York City often dwarfed the regional coverage Hoffman would get. Also, as his career came to a painful close, Hoffman simply held on too long. In doing so, the most recent memories fans have are of an aging pitcher with a fastball topping out in the low 90’s on a good day and an eventual demotion from the closer role he maintained for so long. Finally, he never achieved that clutch player status for post-season performances that so many greats can hang their hats on.
But those aren’t the lasting memories I have. I remember sitting at Qualcomm Stadium with my dad, watching as Trevor Hoffman, who had already tied the consecutive save record, readied himself to break that record. I remember the anticipation building as my father leaned over and said, “you’re about to see history.”
While Hoffman may have gone on to blow the save in that game (to this day I think my dad jinxed it), I remember his dominance. This is a closer who spent the majority of his career on a losing team. Save opportunities were not abundant. But when he got the chance, Hoffman delivered.
I remember a ridiculously high leg kick delivery and a devastating change-up. I remember season after season of complete faith that the ninth inning was safe with Trevor Hoffman in the pen. I remember a player who should not be punished for a lack of opportunity in the post-season.
Most of all, I remember the feeling of watching Trevor Hoffman come into a tight game and dominate. The goosebumps on my arms would multiply as he stepped to the mound and AC/DC’s classic guitar riff overlapped the tolling bells.
Trevor Hoffman may not make the Hall if Fame on his first ballot, but he is clearly a Hall of Famer in my eyes. The most dominating closer of all-time on an underachieving team deserves more respect. And on August 21, 2011 Hoffman will get some of that respect as his number 51 is unveiled above the centerfield wall in San Diego.