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