One Hundred Eleven

One Hundred Eleven

I know without looking that Trevor Hoffman’s single-season career high in strikeouts is 111 and that he accomplished the feat twice. It’s a neat party trick: Folks either want to talk to you more or get the hell away from you.

Stats are fun, occasionally meaningful. I’ve studied baseball numbers probably longer and more deeply than is healthy, but a guy’s gotta do something. Certain vices aren’t all that harmful, and if remembering Hoffman’s strikeout totals is the worst that can be said about someone, that’s not so bad.

But stats don’t make the man, and though the mention of 111 strikeouts might elicit a few knowing nods among the—well, probably just me—it doesn’t begin to hint at what Hoffman meant and still means to San Diego.

He didn’t start his career here, nor did he end it here. But what he did for the Padres and their fans between those two points won’t soon be forgotten.

There’s no easy way to quantify the value of his presence. Seeing the stadium lights dim, hearing the ominous bell reverberate throughout Mission Valley and then downtown, and watching number 51 trot in from the bullpen to put the final nails in the opposition’s proverbial coffin brought chills to those who bore witness. It still brings chills to me as I type this, nearly a decade after Hoffman fired his final pitch for the Padres.

Trevor Time was something special. It brought us all together in a way that precious few things seem to do these days. We were a part of a greater whole.

Coming over in the infamous 1993 Fire Sale, Hoffman emerged as the team’s closer a year later and held that job for the better part of 15 seasons. He was here in 1996, when the Padres reached the playoffs for the second time. He almost won the Cy Young Award in 1998, when he helped lead the team to its second World Series appearance.

And yet, perhaps the most telling indicator of his significance to San Diego came in 2003. My wife and I had season tickets that year, and Hoffman missed most of it recovering from surgery. It’s the only year he failed to record a single save, but when he came trotting in from the bullpen on a Tuesday evening in September after five months of sitting on the sidelines, the crowd went nuts. In a lost season among many lost seasons, we found something important that night that had also been lost: Trevor Time.

The game itself meant nothing, although on an existential level, the same could be said of any game. But on a symbolic level, it suggested that things were right in San Diego again. Our team might stink, but we were okay.

* * *

Others can and will debate whether Hoffman belongs in the Hall of Fame. There are valid points to be made on both sides, but as with most things in life, arguments become political, which is when I tend to lose interest.

The statistical case for Hoffman’s inclusion is either strong or tenuous depending on which metrics one chooses to believe offer the best representation of his considerable achievements. There’s also the difficulty of distilling a man’s work into a single overarching number that defines him. It seems an impossible goal and not a terribly worthy one either, but that could just be me. Then again, it’s possible that I have undermined my own argument by titling this piece “111.” These things happen.

I’m happy and relieved (pun intended) that Hoffman has earned a spot in Cooperstown, alongside baseball’s other greats. There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing him join old friends Tony Gwynn and Jerry Coleman. Sadly they aren’t here to enjoy the moment with the rest of us, but their presence will still be felt, as it always is.

* * *

Specific memories tend to blur and bleed into one another. This is true for me not only in baseball but also in life. I have trouble differentiating events that happened years or even decades apart. It’s why I still think of Green Day as a new band despite the fact that their first album came out less than a year after Hoffman was drafted.

There are a few lasting impressions, though, captured from various portions of Hoffman’s career. Obviously his trotting in from the bullpen to “Hells Bells,” but we all share that.

I remember Hoffman’s 479th save, but only parts of it. Specifically I recall Freddy Sanchez hitting a grounder deep into the hole at shortstop and thinking Geoff Blum couldn’t possibly glove the ball and make the throw in time to get the out, then looking back and seeing Sanchez stumble out of the box and never reach his intended destination. After that everything got crazy on the field, in the way that celebrations do.

I remember going to Peoria one spring, I think this was Justin Upton’s rookie year, and watching Hoffman’s boys “warming up” in the bullpen. They looked pretty damn happy, and why not?

I remember Hoffman coming to where I used to work and giving a speech. He wasn’t necessarily the smoothest speaker, but he came across as honest and as someone who cared, which counts for a lot in my book. He took time after his speech to talk to folks, especially the kids, and looked much more comfortable connecting with individuals than standing in front of everyone talking at them.

I remember meeting him once myself several years later, after he’d retired, and having that first impression confirmed in my own mind. We spoke for maybe a few seconds, and I’d love to claim that it was life changing, but my days of hero worship have long since passed (and I doubt he was much affected by the experience). As I left, though, I recall thinking, “There’s a pretty decent fellow who happens to have 601 career saves.”

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but you get the idea.

Hoffman didn’t start his career here, nor did he end it here. But what he did between those two points made a difference. There’s a good lesson in that, which is left as an exercise for the reader.

Meanwhile, if you ever see me at a party, don’t lead with hello. Just say “111” and we’ll have a nice chat while everyone else gets the hell away from us.

* * *

Geoff Young used to write about baseball a lot and now writes about beer a little when he isn’t busy brewing or drinking it.

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