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Saves king Hoffman at crossroads as '11 looms

Saves king Hoffman at crossroads as '11 looms

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MILWAUKEE -- Trevor Hoffman is 43 years old, but still open to the idea pitching in 2011. Physically, he knows he could do it. Emotionally, he's not so sure -- and there's also the not-so-minor matter of whether any team is willing to give him a job.

He's sure about one thing. If he's thrown the final pitch of a Hall of Fame-caliber career, Hoffman is glad he reached his milestone. His 600th career save, on Sept. 7 at Miller Park, was a memorable moment amid an otherwise forgettable season.

"I would have been really miserable right now had I not been able to get there," Hoffman said from his San Diego home. "That's for sure."

In one sense, No. 600 was a moment of redemption, of perseverance through struggle the likes of which Major League Baseball's all-time saves leader had never known.

10 for '10
12/24: Hoffman at crossroads
12/25: McDonald honors dad
12/26: A-Rod's HR historic
12/27: Season of gems
12/28: Rookies steal show
12/29: Galarraga moves on
12/30: 20-inning epic
12/31: Dangerous celebrations
1/1: Mattingly's mound gaffe
1/2: Conrad relishes slam

But there's another way to look at it. Hoffman entered the '10 season with 591 saves and, in a normal year, would have wrapped-up No. 600 sometime in May. Instead, his early-season struggles cost Hoffman the closer's job and sent the Brewers spiraling in the National League Central. When he finally reached his milestone, rookie John Axford was the regular closer, Hoffman's ERA began with the number six and the team was 15 games out of first place.

"I see it both ways," Hoffman said. "Any time you're talking about individual accomplishments versus team accomplishments, it's going to fall short. I would have rather got it in the context of doing my job.

"But at the same time, it kind of validates the work that you put in along the way. It put me in a position to ask myself, 'Are you going to be a malcontent, a squeaky wheel? Or are you going to do the right thing, work to get better and take the opportunity to teach?' I think you earn some respect from your teammates when you do things a certain way."

That was evident the night of Sept. 7, when Hoffman was called upon to close a 4-2 win against the Cardinals at Miller Park.

By then, he had put his early-season struggles behind him. Hoffman suffered blown saves in five of his first 10 chances before now former Brewers manager Ken Macha tried the rookie right-hander Axford in the closer's role. Hoffman's changeup wasn't right, his fastball was getting hammered and, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, his right elbow was hurting.

Hoffman received a cortisone injection over the All-Star break and suddenly started looking like himself again. He didn't allow a run in his first eight appearances out of the break and picked up a save on Aug. 7 against the Astros, when the Brewers had a three-run lead. He picked up another save on Aug. 18 after Axford faltered in the ninth inning at Busch Stadium, and another on Aug. 29 when Hoffman recorded the final out of a win against the Pirates for save No. 599.

No. 600 would come about a week later. Leading, 4-2, against a Cardinals club fighting for the postseason, Macha used Axford as the eighth-inning setup man to Hoffman, who entered for the ninth with AC/DC's "Hells Bells" testing the limits of Miller Park's sound system.

Hoffman surrendered a leadoff single, but then induced a Randy Winn double-play grounder. The next batter was Aaron Miles, who sent a routine ground ball to Wisconsin's own Craig Counsell at shortstop, who threw to first for the final out.

Hoffman threw both arms in the air and a crowd of more than 33,000 erupted like it did two years earlier when the Brewers made the playoffs. Hoffman's teammates carried him off the field, while a banner hanging over the bullpen that had tracked Hoffman's progress finally flipped to a nice, round number: 600. Hoffman's wife, Tracy, and his three sons took part in the celebration.

"To be a part of it was great because of how much admiration we all have for Trevor," Counsell said that night. "That's what makes it special. Hopefully, that came out [in the celebration]. The way he does his job is the way we all try to do ours."

"Wow," Hoffman said. "You always hope your teammates feel like that, but it doesn't always happen that way. It shows that they cared a lot about the milestone itself, and also the person getting it."

Hoffman logged one more save before the end of the season to give him 601 in his career. The Brewers, to no one's surprise, declined his '11 option and made Hoffman a free agent. His parting gift came in the form of a pre-arranged deal to decline arbitration, which could net the Brewers an extra Draft pick in June because Hoffman is a Type B free agent.

Hoffman would have to sign with another team first. Right now, the offers are sparse. But Hoffman, a light-hitting shortstop who converted to pitching in 1991 and made his mark over 16 seasons with the San Diego Padres, still isn't resigned to retirement.

His best fit might have been with the D-backs, but they signed closer J.J. Putz to a two-year deal during the Winter Meetings.

"Arizona got hot there for a little bit, but that closed when J.J. signed," Hoffman said. "It seemed like a pretty good opportunity.

"I haven't come to grips yet whether, if something comes along, I want to pitch. That needs to be cleared up first," Hoffman said. "I'm kind of enjoying being normal and having an offseason. Usually, after only a few weeks you're beginning the process again of getting your body in tune. I haven't really engaged in the continual workouts like I've done in previous years, and it's been a little refreshing. I'm hoping it will bring clarity into the decision."

It's not just the opportunity to play dad to sons Brody, Quinn and Wyatt. Hoffman has been having fun himself -- golfing, surfing, playing tennis with Tracy and road biking up the California coast. He's keeping his arm in shape by throwing batting practice to his kids.

If he's done, he'll always have 600. The Brewers presented Hoffman with a painting commemorating the milestone, and it hangs in a "dig me" hallway at Hoffman's home with other memorabilia from his big moments.

"It definitely ranks up there," Hoffman said.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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