SAN FRANCISCO -- Let's get this out of the way before it's even open for question. Padres closer Trevor Hoffman belongs in the Hall of Fame. He's years away from eligibility, perhaps even years away from finishing his career. But all that's left of it will be done with a flourish. In a week or two, maybe less, he'll become only the third reliever in history to notch his 400th save. Then he'll follow that very swiftly by becoming the first reliever to save 400 games for the same team. He's four saves away from the first mark, six away from the latter. Even considering the stilted view of relief pitching, that has to count for something. Like Hall of Fame votes from eligible members of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
"I feel uncomfortable talking about it. I feel like it's a bit selfish," said Hoffman, who struck out the side of Giants in the ninth inning Monday night to record his 396th save and close a 5-3 win. "To strictly say that there's a place for guys who've been closers their entire career, I think so. But where I fit in the whole scheme of things, that's out of my hands." Relievers Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley are already in. Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter are both on the cusp. Gossage and Sutter earned an uptick of votes in the most recent balloting that resulted in Ryne Sandberg and Wade Boggs on the verge of induction. The Class of 2006 is so shallow -- with newcomers like Orel Hershiser and Will Clark on the ballot for the first time -- that Gossage and Sutter have their best chance next year to get in. After that it's the Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken Jr., Mark McGwire class. Gossage still has 11 of his 15 years of eligibility left on the writers' ballot, but Sutter only has three. Then it's on to the Veterans Committee, which now only votes every other year, and doesn't seem to want to let anyone in. A vote for those guys on the next ballot is like a vote for Hoffman, or the Yankees' Mariano Rivera somewhere down the line. "You have to look at the way Goose has been received in the voting and Bruce Sutter," Hoffman said. "Granted, they were from a different era where they had to go multiple innings to get their saves. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't think about it. I'd love to one day write a speech and accept something. But it's hard for me to put myself in that kind of company." Rivera, of course, has those four World Series rings. One (1996) in a setup role to World Series MVP John Wetteland. The other three as the man. Since Hoffman joined the Padres in 1993, they haven't had much postseason success. They won the National League West in both 1996 and 1998. Won the pennant in 1998 and were subsequently swept by the Yankees in the World Series. Rivera saved three of the four games that fall and Hoffman blew Game 3 on a Scott Brosius homer. That aside, Hoffman has been lights out for the Padres. Putting it all into perspective, since Bruce Bochy became manager in 1995, Hoffman has saved 374 of his 790 wins. Those are certainly Hall of Fame numbers. "Obviously, I'm going to be biased, but without question he should be in," Bochy said. "Not just because of the number of saves, but because of his consistency, his percentage and his durability. He's a definite Hall of Famer to me." Bochy got a little taste of what life would be like without Hoffman in 2003 when the reliever missed most of the season after surgery on his right shoulder. But Hoffman bounced back. At times, he doesn't seem like his fastball can shatter a plate of glass anymore. But the man can certainly still pitch. On Monday night, he struck out rookie Lance Niekro and veteran Ray Durham with his trademark changeup. He also unveiled a slow curve that seemed to roll off a table. "I haven't thrown any harder than 85, 86 miles per hour for the last five years or so," Hoffman said. "So I'm always working on something." There are milestones in other areas that always have been instant Hall of Fame qualifiers: 3,000 hits, 500 homers and 300 wins. But because the save has been measured differently in so many recent eras, 400 has yet to mean anything. There are two pitchers above Hoffman on the all-time list, Lee Smith (478) and John Franco (424), who may not receive Hall of Fame recognition. Smith has been on the ballot for three years and hasn't come close. Franco, 44, is still pitching, for the Astros, and won't be eligible at least until the end of the decade. Hoffman is only 37 and he may play that long. He hopes by then closers will be appreciated and recognized for the tough job they do. They should. "It's difficult to talk about your place in the game," Hoffman said. "The question is, where do you stand in the history of the game? It's a tough subject. If you talk about things like 3,000 hits, that's a ticket to get in. Unfortunately, in my specialty role, no criteria has been set yet."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.