There is a famous quote that goes something like “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” I forget who said it. That is how true that quote is.
I don’t know Trevor Hoffman’s career stats. In a sport that prizes numbers above all else, I could give a shit exactly how many saves he has. It was a lot. You could tell me his post-season ERA was 20 and I’d believe it, he blew some big games. But as a Padres fan in the 90s, I remember vividly how me made me feel: invincible.
The first time I heard the toll of the bell in Jack Murphy stadium, it was a paradigm shift for me as a sports fan. I just gave myself chills thinking about it. As perfect a song as “Hells Bells” is for a closer’s intro music, underrated is how perfectly it played into the Padres’ motif. This was the Mission Valley days, where just a few clicks down Friar’s Road stood the original San Diego Mission, replete with bells, where robed saviors would protect the faithful and banish the wicked to burn in eternal damnation.
Quick confession: I think closers are overrated. The idea that any reliever is ever considered for a Cy Young is ludicrous to me. “If you’re so goddam good, try pitching more than an inning!” I yell to no one in particular. But I concede it takes a certain kind of nerve to perform at your best when the pressure is greatest, and I respect when someone can turn “don’t fuck this up” into a pro-wrestling-level spectacle. In a close game packed with panicked fans, Mariano Rivera was the xanax that put everyone to bed, and Trevor Hoffman was the 4Loko that would kick you in the teeth. Plus he had the mid-90s goatee that the Padres sported so well. As a teenager the idea of looking like a tough asshole really resonated with me. In their time off I imagined Trevor Hoffman and Ken Caminiti would do guy stuff like lift weights and party. It turns out Caminity may have exceeded my imagination. RIP you thicc maniac. But still, it was a great time to be a Padres fan and Trevor Hoffman gave them their swagger.
I don’t know exactly when I started to lose my faith in Hoffman as a clutch save machine. It probably eroded over time during the vast post-’98-world series rebuilding era that continues to this day. But I know exactly when the clock struck midnight on Trevor Time. October 1, 2007. I was living in Boston at the time, and due to a busy grad school schedule and the fact that they were never on TV because no one outside San Diego would even dream of watching the Padres, it was harder to follow the team. But they had somehow ended the regular season in a tie for the wildcard with the Colorado Rockies, so everyone in the nation could tune in to see if the Pads would make the playoffs for the first time since 2005 when they disgracefully stumbled ass-backwards into an NL west title with an 82-80 record.
It was a great game. It had really the only thing that makes baseball exciting: lead changes. A real battle. A young Adrian Gonzalez hit his first grand slam. The score was 6-6 in the 13th inning when Scott Hairston hit a 2-run homer and all but punched the Friars’ ticket to the postseason. I felt so confident. I even went downstairs to start doing laundry. But when I returned to the game I saw Trevor Hoffman warming up in the bullpen. I became nauseated. All confidence evaporated instantly and I watched with indignant horror as Hoffman gave up double after double after triple and squandered the lead. He didn’t get a single out until the sacrifice fly that brought Matt Holliday close enough to home plate that the ump ended the game. I didn’t even care that he never touched the plate. We didn’t deserve to win. And the feeling of invincibility I used to have was replaced by something between indifference and despair.
In a way Hoffman is the Padres, and the Padres are America. Once indisputably great, followed by a decade or two of wayward decline. But as bleak as things have been, I honor the good things that have been accomplished, and the deserving recognition that Hoffman has received. And may he serve the Padres well in his current role of advisor as he did as a pitcher. Because I have the same outlook for the Padres Organization as I do for America: we will be good again in 2020. I don’t care what anyone says, I feel hope.
Jono Zalay is a native San Diegan and co-host of the F*** The Chargers podcast, available on iTunes and all those other places. He now lives in Los Angeles where he can hate the Chargers from close proximity, and see the Padres tank at Dodger Stadium.