SAN DIEGO - It all seemed too surreal. Trevor Hoffman, driving to the ballpark from his suburban Rancho Santa Fe home Friday, much like he had the previous 16 years, listening to the Padres flagship radio station only to hear that Jake Peavy had been traded to the White Sox.
Just a few hours later, with highlights of his career dominating the left-field scoreboard and AC/DC’s Hells Bells blaring on the public address system, there was MLB’s all-time saves leader, climbing up the steps of the dugout. A mere few minutes before first pitch at PETCO Park, with ‘Welcome back, Trevor’ now on the scoreboard, Hoffman reached field level, faced the crowd and repeatedly tipped his cap to its standing ovation, as well as from the opposing dugout, while also pointing at his heart as his eyes welled.
On the Padres' 51st home date of the season, with his team boasting a 51-51 record, No. 51 stood in front of more than 32,000 of the city’s most loyal baseball fans. The man who became the face of the Padres following the retirement of first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn; the man who had made more Padre appearances than any pitcher in its history in recording 552 of his 577 career saves; the man who had posted nine 40-plus save seasons and led San Diego to four postseasons was again the center of the attention — yet he was wearing a Brewers uniform.
“I couldn’t believe it when he said he didn’t know what kind of reception he’d get,” said 12-year Padres season ticket holder and Hoffman fan, Richard Sevaly, wearing a No. 51 Padres jersey. “My eyes got watery. I felt a lot of emotion.”
Added Peavy: “The pregame tribute to him was awesome. He's an icon here. To get traded on the day Hoffy returns to San Diego is certainly bittersweet.”
It all seemed too surreal. And to his former teammates, it still is. Hoffman's Padres locker, second on the right as one enters the home clubhouse at PETCO Park, with the No. 51 above it — remains empty. And eerie.
After all, wasn’t it just a season-and-a-half ago that Hoffman and Peavy were teammates, having All-Star seasons, just one strike away from their third consecutive postseason appearance as Padres? They were in Milwaukee of all places.
Sept. 29, 2007, Miller Park. Padres leading 3-2, Hoffman facing pinch-hitter Tony Gwynn Jr., son of “Mr. Padre,” in the bottom of the ninth. The Brewers' Corey Hart leading off second, with two outs and two strikes on Gwynn Jr., who slaps a triple off Hoffman, tying it up and sending the game into extra innings. Milwaukee would go on to win the game.
The next day, the Padres blow a 3-0 lead to the Crew, forcing San Diego into a one-game playoff at Colorado, where Hoffman can’t hold a two-run cushion in the 13th inning. The Padres lose. Hoffman weeps after both heartbreaking defeats. Its postseason dreams gone — and San Diego was just one strike away. No thanks to Gwynn Jr. of all players, the same kid that Hoffman had taken under his wing as a youngster so many years ago. No thanks to Milwaukee. It all seemed too surreal.
San Diego lost 99 games last season with the former Reds farmhand shortstop-turned-reliever recording just 30 saves, his lowest MLB total since the strike-shortened season of 1994, not including 2003 when he pitched just nine innings following surgery on his pitching shoulder. He was used just 42 times in 2008, his fewest appearances since 1994, and now he was a free agent again.
Talks between the Padres and Hoffman had been icy following the 2005 season, but the two eventually agreed to a three-year, $21 million deal. Yet this past off-season was beyond icy, it was downright ugly, with the Padres pulling a $4 million offer and Hoffman’s agent, Rick Thurman, accused by then-team CEO Sandy Alderson of “popping off” publicly about the negotiations.
Did the Padres think Hoffman was finished? No. 51 thought so, and he was bitter about it. Sure his 3.77 ERA in 2008 was the highest since 1995, the year he lost his Dad, a former Angels singing usher who had introduced him to baseball. But remove two games in which he’d surrendered more than two runs, and Hoffman’s 2008 ERA dropped to 2.44. Hoffman had, in fact, converted all but four save opportunities a year ago.
“This winter with the Hoffy deal wasn't fun,” explained Padres General Manager Kevin Towers. “We were as close as a player and general manager could be (over the years). But we didn't have a lot of dialog this winter and spring.”
With Solomon Torres retiring, the Brewers needed a closer, and with a $6 million base salary with up to $1.5 million in incentives based on games completed, just like that, Hoffman was finished with the Padres and going to, of all places, Milwaukee.
ATLANTA (AP) - Matt Harvey pitched six hitless innings, John Buck homered and the New York Mets held off another Atlanta comeback, beating the Braves 4-3 Tuesday in the first game of a doubleheader.
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