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January 14, 2011

On the Beat

Reflecting on Trevor Hoffman

by John Perrotto

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Trevor Hoffman saved 601 games in his 16-year career, more than any relief pitcher in history. Even if many in the sabermetric community believe the save is a relatively useless statistic for evaluating player performance, it is still impressive that Hoffman could stay on top of his game for that many years as a top-flight closer. 

However, it's not all the saves that I'll remember most about Hoffman. Instead, my best memory of him is the great dignity and class he showed on what had to be the most difficult night of his career. Hoffman had the greatest season of his career in 1998 when he converted 53 of 54 save opportunities, had a 1.48 ERA in 73 innings, and career-best 7.6 WARP. He was so dominant that I voted for him for the National League Cy Young, even at the risk of having my slide rule confiscated. Hoffman did not win the award; it went to Tom Glavine. But Hoffman was still considered quite the curiosity when he pitched the Padres to the NL pennant and into the World Series.

Hoffman was a relative unknown back then, playing in a small market for a franchise that generated few headlines. Seemingly the only thing that stood out about him was that AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" blared over the public address system at Qualcomm Stadium whenever Hoffman came through the bullpen gate and made his way to the pitcher's mound.

Finally, though, Hoffman got his moment in the national spotlight in Game Three, as he was summoned to replace Randy Myers with one on and nobody out in the eighth inning and the Padres clinging to a 3-2 lead over a Yankees team that went 114-48 in the regular season.

And it all fell apart. Bernie Williams hit a drive to deep right field that Tony Gwynn caught just in front of the fence. Then Tino Martinez walked on five pitches, and Scott Brosius followed by drilling a game-winning three-run home run to right field. That gave the Yankees an insurmountable 3-0 lead in the series. They would finish the sweep the following evening.

Not surprisingly, the scene in the Padres' clubhouse was fairly solemn following the game. The players knew that their season had basically ended with one swing of the bat against the man who had been nearly automatic all season. Wave after wave of reporters kept coming to Hoffman's locker looking for an explanation.

It would have been easy for Hoffman to have been short with his answers, perhaps even surly with the media. He could have also cut off the questions after a few minutes and headed for the trainer's room or the showers. Yet Hoffman stood there and answered every question, both patiently and politely. He also gave insightful answers, even though the questions were generally the same, just phrased differently.

I had the pleasure of dealing with Hoffman many more times over the years. Each conversation was a treat, whether the subject was how he dealt with the pressure of almost always pitching with the game on the line or what criteria he felt defined a Hall of Fame reliever since just five bullpenners have made their way to Cooperstown so far: Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, and Hoyt Wilhelm.

Hoffman admits he isn't into advanced metrics, but he does place great emphasis on consistency and longevity. Thus, his standard of greatness for a reliever is 30-save seasons. Hoffman finished with 14 of those, more than anyone in history. By that or any measuring stick you chose, he deserves his place in Cooperstown when he becomes eligible in 2016, both as a pitcher and a person.

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Mets general manager Sandy Alderson hasn't been heard from much as far as making major moves to reshape the roster of a team that has finished fourth in the NL East each of the last two seasons. However, he has made his voice heard with the fans quite often since being hired in October. Alderson held a conference call with a group of bloggers, and has also been regularly sending e-mails to fans. Alderson's latest communiqué primarily dealt with how new manager Terry Collins plans to run spring training and explaining his approach to roster building.

"We wrapped up two days of meetings in Port St. Lucie where we went over organizational philosophy and how to implement it throughout the major and minor leagues," Alderson wrote. "It was also the first opportunity for Terry Collins and his staff to sit down and discuss the mechanics of spring training and determine how they will emphasize fundamentals, mental and physical preparation, and hard work. As Terry has said, the driving force will be playing the game the right way, which will lead to more wins."

Alderson has quickly grasped that the Mets' fan base is disillusioned after the past two seasons, which culminated in the firings of GM Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel. While the ulterior motive of the updates is obviously to sell tickets, Alderson is proving to be more open with the fans than many general managers.

"Over the past two months, we have followed our plan of filling out our roster with reasonably-priced players who have significant upside potential," Alderson said. "As I have said before, our payroll—which will be among the highest in baseball—gives us limited flexibility, but we do have money to spend. We have acquired players who we think can thrive at Citi Field and complement our existing group of players."

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Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson admits to being old school, and takes pride in being labeled as such. He also makes it clear which manager he wants to pattern himself after, and that's Sparky Anderson, Gibson's skipper during his days as a Tigers outfielder.

Gibson, in fact, loves to regale the media with tales of Anderson, who died last November 4. One of Gibson's favorites is the story of Anderson's slippers.

"He had team meetings," Gibson said. "He put his slippers in the middle of the clubhouse and he'd walk around and talk about things that happened within the game, things that happened that shouldn't have happened. At the end of the meeting, he'd turn around and point to his slippers and say those are Cinderella's slippers, make sure you try them on. 'If they fit, there is a white horse outside the clubhouse door and you're welcome to get on it.' And a day or so later somebody would be gone."

And Gibson also likes to retell the story of Anderson's garden.

"He said he likes gardens," Gibson said. "He doesn't like weeds in his gardens. 'If I see a weed, I'll pluck it right out of there.' Virtually, what he taught us was that you're on his program, our program, or you're not. If you're not, you're not a part of the program. Again, the game has changed and it's not that easy. I understand you can't just say you're not in the program and we'll get rid of you. Yet I will address it. I will confront it. He (Anderson) is not with us anymore, but I made a statement that I will continue to spread Sparky's good words as long as I'm in the game."

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New Brewers manager Ron Roenicke was a behind-the-scenes guy during his 10 seasons as an Angels coach. Thus, one of the aspects of the game he has had to adjust to since being hired in October has been media attention. He still gets caught by surprise at times when Brewers media relations director Mike Vassallo calls with another interview request.

"In doing the interviews, it's really hit me that I'm the manager now and I'm not a coach anymore," Roenicke said. "It's not where I'm answering one or two questions. Now it's talking about the whole team. It was always before a specific question to what I was doing, so it was outfield questions and baserunning questions."

The interviews will pick up in frequency once the regular season starts, as managers generally meet with the media both before and after games. Roenicke, though, seems to be looking forward to it.

"Now I have to talk about everything, which I enjoy," Roenicke said. "One of the things I missed when I got to the major leagues as a coach was being able to talk about the whole game and giving my input into all areas. I enjoyed that part of it as a manager in the minor leagues and I'm looking forward to being in that situation again."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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