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Veteran Hoffman unfazed by obstacles

Veteran Hoffman unfazed by obstacles

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PEORIA, Ariz. -- The most traumatic part of Trevor Hoffman's winter had nothing to do with his blown saves at the end of last season. It also had nothing to do with recovery from arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow five days after he was rocked by the Rockies, costing the Padres a berth in the playoffs.

For Hoffman, like millions of San Diegans, it was the trauma of wild fires possibly destroying his home that put it all into perspective.

"It affected a lot more people than me," Hoffman said about the fires that raced across San Diego County in late October. "A half a million people were uprooted from their homes and had to find refuge someplace else. It affected the city on a massive level. So it's hard to compare disappointment on a career level as opposed to real-life stuff. You just deal with the things you're faced with."

On a personal level, Hoffman and his family fled the approaching flames fed by swirling Santa Ana winds for the solace of his brother's home in Anaheim. There was a moment, he said, when his own Fairbanks Ranch abode was certainly in peril.

Had it not been for a phone call made by the relative of a former Padres teammate, Hoffman's house might have been reduced to ashes like the home of David Justice, the ex-Major Leaguer who also resided in North County. Instead, it was saved by fire fighters trying in vain to quell the blaze.

"Somehow they got my address," Hoffman said. "Within five minutes of them pulling up in my driveway the flames came over the top of the ridge and were bearing down on my house. If [the fire fighters] weren't there, they wouldn't have been able to call in a strike force team and set a barrier at the back of my house. That's how they staved it off."

And now Hoffman, who turned 40 on Oct. 13 between surgery and the fires, is embarking on his 16th season trying to stave off all the questions.

Is there any life left in his arm after blowing a pair of crucial saves in the final three games of the 2007 season, the first thanks to a clutch triple off the bat of Milwaukee's Tony Gwynn Jr.? And if there is, can he add enough saves to his all-time record of 524 so that the Padres bring him back again in 2009?

John Moores, the team's majority owner, said earlier this spring that if Hoffman, the mainstay of the franchise for more than a decade, still has it, he'll be back. If not, Hoffman may have to go the way of Tony Gwynn Sr. into retirement with a street outside PETCO Park named after him. If so, like Gwynn, the Hall of Fame is undoubtedly waiting with open arms five years after Hoffman tosses his last pitch. A statue next to the likeness of Gwynn is sure to follow.

"It's unfortunate that two or three pitches may have changed how some people view me, maybe not in [Moores'] mind, but in the perspective of where I am in my career," Hoffman said. "Not finishing out the season strongly last year obviously has an effect on it."

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It was more than two or three pitches. First there were the events of Sept. 29 at Miller Park when the pathos of a franchise that is also nearing its 40th birthday came around full circle.

On the mound in the bottom of the ninth was the Padres' best pitcher of all-time, facing the son of their best hitter of all-time, with the visiting team leading by a run, a man on second and two out.

"He's our guy," Moores said. "Other than Tony [Gwynn Sr.], Trevor is the guy. He's been with the club ever since I bought it [in 1995]. He is the continuity."

The best pitcher needed one strike to lock up a playoff berth for an unprecedented third consecutive postseason. Check the media guide. For the Padres that had never happened. It still hasn't. Gwynn Jr. was looking for a fastball, but he never got one. The nasty changeup was low and on the inside corner and he dropped the barrel of his bat, and in a classic case of father-son Gwynn hitting, drove it on a line into the right-field corner.

Game tied. Save and perhaps season blown. The Padres would go on to lose in extra innings.

"That kind of thing doesn't happen very often, if at all, for Trevor to have one or two slip ups like that," said Gwynn, Jr., who has parlayed the biggest hit of his young career into a monster Spring Training at the plate. "In the end it's not a big deal because if you look at the grand scheme of things he's still the most dominant closer to ever play the game."

Then there were the events of Oct. 1 in the 13th inning at Coors Field, the Padres holding a two-run lead over the Rockies in an epic one-game playoff for the National League's Wild Card berth. Again, No. 51 was summoned from the pen by then first-year manager Bud Black. But there was a short history there that only Bruce Bochy, the team's previous manager, knew about.

Because the Padres have been to the postseason only four times in Hoffman's illustrious 15-year career, Hoffman has had few chances to succeed in the glare of that and any other spotlight. And sometimes when the chances were there, the results weren't positive.

Deciding Game 3 of the 1996 NL Division Series against the Cardinals in San Diego: Hoffman came into a 5-5 tie in the top of the ninth inning and allowed a two-run homer to Brian Jordan, virtually ending the game and the series.

Game 3 of the 1998 World Series against the Yankees at San Diego: Hoffman came in with a runner on first and none out in the eight inning to protect a 3-2 lead and allowed a three-run homer to Scott Brosius. The Yanks went on to win the game and sweep the series. Brosius was named MVP.

The 2006 All-Star Game at Pittsburgh: Hoffman was brought in to protect a 2-1 NL lead in the top of the ninth inning. After easily getting the first two outs on grounders, Paul Konerko singled, Troy Glaus doubled and Michael Young tripled, giving the American League a 3-2 lead. Mariano Rivera closed out the game in the bottom of the inning.

But all these paled in comparison to the events of last Oct. 1. The younger Gwynn, already back in San Diego where his wife was about to give birth to their first child, was now pulling for Hoffman and his hometown team. He didn't need the good-natured grief all winter that his big hit had given him.

"I flipped the game on in the seventh inning and I was just praying they would get it done," he said.

And here's the ironic part of it: because of what was to come, Gwynn Jr. is now a major part of Padres lore "and I've never even put on a Padres uniform," he said.

"But if the Rockies hadn't come back to beat him, my at-bat wouldn't have been a footnote."

And beat Hoffman they did. Hoffman faced five batters and was racked before recording a meaningless out, allowing two doubles, a triple, an intentional walk and a sacrifice fly to right field that scored the clinching run when Matt Holliday slid around a rainbow throw from Brian Giles and barely touched the plate in the ensuing collision with catcher Michael Barrett. Or did he? Replays were inconclusive and no one will ever know.

It was perhaps one of the most complete meltdowns by a great pitcher in baseball history. But only days later it was learned that Hoffman had pitched that last weekend, in fact, much of the season in which he saved 42 games in 49 opportunities, with floating particles and a bone spur in that elbow.


"I was definitely devastated. Almost the blank stare, I was at a loss for words, not knowing how to deal with the questions I was asked. But I wasn't bawling. That's part of being professional. If I wasn't crying in Colorado, I don't think I'd be crying in Milwaukee."
-- Trevor Hoffman, on last season's late collapse

While Hoffman refused to make the injury an issue, the twin blown opportunities at the end have to be tainted by that fact, don't they?

Here's Gwynn's perspective:

"He's going to wear [the losses] just like everybody else is going to, but in that situation he was hurting. I'm pretty sure that if he wasn't hurting he might have had a different outcome."

Here's Hoffman's:

"You don't want to dump on yourself too bad when you're looking at a handful of screwups vs. a ton of good ones. And I'll never know the mileage I would've gotten out of it if I hadn't been pitching with a bad elbow. I made a great pitch to Anthony. I had thrown it one too many times. I'm not going to armchair quarterback that thing. I'm pretty comfortable with that. I just didn't have much that night in Colorado.

"I'm not going to point to the elbow and being up three or four times [during that game], I just didn't get the job done."

The aftermath has been emotional, Hoffman said, with much support coming from his friends, neighbors and mostly the San Diego fans who are usually a forgiving lot. Moores, emotional himself after the twin losses, said he never saw Hoffman more distraught in the clubhouses after blowing those games.

"He was bawling," Moores told a national magazine.

Since then, that perception has been disputed by Hoffman and many eyewitnesses who were there in the Milwaukee and Denver clubhouses late last season.

"I was definitely devastated," Hoffman said. "Almost the blank stare, I was at a loss for words, not knowing how to deal with the questions I was asked. But I wasn't bawling. That's part of being professional. If I wasn't crying in Colorado, I don't think I'd be crying in Milwaukee."

When asked about the quote, Moores equivocated: "Maybe bawling like a baby was over the top. There were a lot of tears. I thought it was an endearing story about this guy. He was very upset and more so than I've ever seen him. His eyes were bleary. It's exactly the kind of emotion you want to see from a guy you're giving a ball to at the end of the game."

Life, though, has a way of overtaking events.

Gwynn's wife had the baby. Hoffman had the surgery. Both Hoffman and Gwynn, the elder, were among the millions who had to flee their homes because of the wild fires. Neither house was damaged.

If there's anything to build on from those days late last season, Gwynn Jr. summed it up in one phrase:

"It gave me confidence."

Hoffman, well, he's one of the best there's ever been at dusting himself off after defeats. Somehow, they always lead to further success.

"If I get that punchout or he grounds out or something, the perception of where I am in this organization and in baseball is totally changed," Hoffman said. "Now, people are going, 'He had a bad slide during the second half of the season, he's getting older, there are young guys in the bullpen who are up and coming.' A lot of stuff has been talked about and talked about with a velocity that wouldn't have been there if we had gone to the playoffs.

"Ultimately this is the natural progression. I knew I was going to be faced with it. I've got to get back out there and get on a roll and somewhat squash a little of it until we get back in that position."

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.

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