Playing a position traditionally associated with aggression and high velocity, a converted infielder with just one kidney and a diminished fastball became one of the most accomplished closers in history.
Born Oct. 13, 1967 in Bellflower, Calif., Trevor Hoffman grew up in a baseball-centric atmosphere. His father, Ed, was a former Marine who became a fan-favorite as “The Singing Usher” at Los Angeles Angels games, while his older brother Glenn played shortstop for nine seasons in the major leagues.
But for Hoffman, success on the diamond was far from certain. Just six weeks after birth, Hoffman had a damaged kidney removed and was not allowed to play contact sports. Hoffman followed his older brother into baseball, batting .371 as a 150-pound shortstop during his junior season at the University of Arizona. In 1989, Hoffman signed a $3,000 contract as the Cincinnati Reds’ 11th-round draft choice.
After struggling both at the plate and in the field for the Class A Charleston Wheelers, Hoffman switched to pitching at manager Jim Lett’s suggestion. The right-hander found immediate success with a 95 mile-per-hour fastball and shot up through the minor leagues. In 1992, the Reds left Hoffman unprotected in the 1992 Expansion Draft, and he was snatched up by the brand new Florida Marlins franchise.
Hoffman showed immediate promise the following season in Miami, saving two games before becoming involved in one of the year’s biggest trades. On June 24, 1993, the San Diego Padres agreed to send third baseman Gary Sheffield, who had won the 1992 National League batting crown and nearly achieved the Triple Crown, and pitcher Rich Rodriguez to Florida in exchange for three prospects – including Hoffman.
Though the trade was initially unpopular, Hoffman would soon win over the Friars’ faithful.
But before he did, Hoffman had to overcome one more physical hurdle. During the 1994 players’ strike, Hoffman injured his right shoulder twice in one day while playing sports on the beach. He subsequently saw his fastball velocity wither from 95 mph to just below 90 – a potentially career-ending reduction for a power closer.
Looking for an alternative out pitch, Hoffman adopted a discarded change-up grip (one that closely resembled a palmball) from teammate Donnie Elliott. From that day on, his career would be forever changed.
Nicknamed “the Bugs Bunny pitch” by teammates for how it made opposing hitters look silly, Hoffman’s fading mid-70s changeup proved nearly unhittable for National League hitters.
"Some [pitchers] fool you, and some guys overpower you,” said Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza. “Hoffman embarrasses you.”
Hoffman’s brilliance in the Padres’ bullpen quickly helped San Diego rise to a National League contender. In September 1996, he saved the season’s final three games against the Los Angeles Dodgers to lead the Padres to their first division title in 12 years. The following June, Hoffman earned his 109th save to surpass Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers as the franchise’s all-time leader.
Fingers’ record was only the beginning for Hoffman. In 1998, he enjoyed one his best big league seasons, setting an MLB record (since broken) with 41 consecutive converted saves, finishing second in the NL Cy Young Award race and saving three games in the NL playoffs to help lead the Padres to the World Series. At the same time, Hoffman garnered national attention for entering the ballpark to the tune of AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bell’s,” a ritual that came to be known among the Friars’ faithful as “Trevor Time.”
Though the Padres did not repeat their World Series run, Hoffman continued to improve. He was an All-Star Game selection in 1999, 2000 and 2002, and set an MLB record with his fourth consecutive 40-save season in 2001. Most remarkably, he did so even as his fastball kept getting slower, eventually settling below 85 mph.
“He throws a pitch that looks so tempting that you can't lay off it,” said future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. “I feel vulnerable when I throw 93-96 miles per hour. He's throwing 81 and doing it with full confidence.”
After missing most of 2003 to recover from two offseason shoulder surgeries, Hoffman returned in 2004 as good as new, earning 41 saves with a 2.30 ERA. As the years progressed, the steady closer kept rising through the all-time lists until he reached the ultimate summit: Lee Smith’s record 478 saves. On Sept. 24, 2006 – the Padres final home game of the year – Hoffman shut down the Pittsburgh Pirates to become baseball’s all-time saves king.
Though New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera would eventually break Hoffman’s record, the Padres legend will forever be the first man to reach the 500- and 600-save milestones. After 16 years in San Diego, Hoffman signed with Milwaukee and played his final two seasons – including a 37-save All-Star season at age 41 – with the Brewers.
In January 2011, Hoffman announced his retirement at San Diego’s Petco Park. His totals after 18 major league seasons rank as some of the all-time best: 601 saves, 856 games finished, a 1.06 walks and hits per inning ratio, 9.36 strikeouts per nine innings rate and a 2.87 career ERA.
Hoffman was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2018.