Crew coach set Hoffman on right path

Crew coach set Hoffman on right path

MILWAUKEE -- Nearly two decades after the bullpen session that changed the course of a career, the scrawny little shortstop and his open-minded manager are poised to reconnect.

That shortstop-turned-prolific closer, Trevor Hoffman sealed a one-year contract with the Brewers on Tuesday. With it comes a ticket to Spring Training at Maryvale Baseball Park and a reunion with Jim Lett, who is entering his second season as a coach in Milwaukee's Minor League chain and was the former manager who helped turn Hoffman into a star.

Hoffman is now 41 and Major League Baseball's all-time leader with 554 saves, but in 1990 he was a wiry shortstop in the Cincinnati Reds' farm system with a .212 batting average and little hope of ever seeing Double-A, much less the Major Leagues. Lett was his manager at Class A Charleston, and helped concoct the idea that would make Hoffman millions of dollars.

"He had a great arm and he was a great athlete, but the question was whether he would ever hit enough," Lett said. "But he was a great kid and we kind of decided that we shouldn't give up too early, so let's give him a chance to pitch.

"Who would have known it would come to this?"

One day in the summer of 1990, Lett and pitching coach Mike Griffin led Hoffman down to the bullpen at Charleston's old Watt Powell Park. Lett had admired the way Hoffman could go into the hole to field a ground ball and still fire to first base for an out, so he was fully expecting to see Hoffman throw hard.

He was not expecting Hoffman to "pitch."

"It was kind of striking that the first thing you saw from him was that this guy has got pretty good control," Lett said. "All of a sudden, he's 60 feet, six inches away, and he's banging strikes. It wasn't like he was throwing balls all over the place and we had to chase them down. He was in the strike zone from Day 1, so it was like, 'OK, we need to keep this going for a while and see what we can get."

"I just remember how natural he looked -- it was such an easy thing for him," Jon Fuller, the catcher who was behind the plate that day, told MLB.com in 2007. "It looked like he had been pitching forever."

Hoffman's signature changeup would be born a few years later, after he hurt his shoulder. When Lett and Fuller saw him pitch for the first time, Hoffman was a fireballer.

But beyond the natural talent, Hoffman committed himself to the position switch, Lett said. That does not always happen.

"I was an unproductive infielder, really," Hoffman said in '07, just after he became the first player to notch his 500th save. "I wasn't fielding very well and I was scuffling as a hitter. The struggles that I had ... they weren't ones that were fun to go through. I knew the writing was on the wall."

Hot Stove
Hoffman did not pitch in a game that season but he went to the fall instructional league to continue working. He pitched in 1991 at Class A Cedar Rapids and Double-A Chattanooga, posting a 1.89 ERA in 41 games. By the end of 1992, Hoffman was at Triple-A Nashville.

The going-nowhere shortstop had suddenly become a Major League prospect, so the Florida Marlins plucked Hoffman away from the Reds with the eighth pick in the 1992 Expansion Draft. He made it to the Majors the following season, appearing in 28 games with Florida before he was traded to the Padres with two Minor Leaguers for slugger Gary Sheffield and lefty reliever Rich Rodriguez.

Hoffman was installed as San Diego's full-time closer during the strike-shortened 1994 season, when he notched either a save or a win in 24 of the Padres' 47 victories and started tinkering with the changeup that would become his trademark. He's posted at least 30 saves in every season since 1994, with the exception of 2003, after he had shoulder surgery.

"I guess it was the luck of the draw," said Lett, who will be the hitting coach at Milwaukee's Double-A Huntsville affiliate this season. "He impressed the right people. The rest is history."

In a twist of fate, Lett watched Hoffman make history on Sept. 24, 2006, when he notched career save No. 479 to break Lee Smith's all-time record. Lett was the Pittsburgh Pirates' bench coach, and Hoffman needed 14 pitches to secure a 2-1 Padres win.

Another of Hoffman's former Minor League managers, Jim Tracy, was Pittsburgh's skipper at that time.

"It was pandemonium, and I'll never forget it," Lett said. "Jim Tracy and I are standing there in the opposing dugout and we've just been defeated. Everybody was excited and congratulating him, or whatever. After it died down, he looked over at us in the dugout and kind of tipped his cap.

"It was like he was saying, 'I appreciate it. Thank you.'"

Hoffman will be able to say so in person next month when he reunites with Lett in Spring Training.

"He's going to be an incredible influence on our young pitchers in Milwaukee," Lett said. "That's the kind of guy he is. No one works harder than him."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.