A man greater than his numbers
Sure, 500 saves is amazing, but not more than Hoffman himself
SAN DIEGO -- It is always a good thing when the human being making the history is a class act.
And so it was on Wednesday night when Trevor Hoffman went where no man had previously gone, recording the 500th save of his career.
The landmark save came, fittingly enough, against the rival Los Angeles Dodgers in a 5-2 victory that kept Hoffman's San Diego Padres in first place.
Upon the third out in the ninth, a called third strike on Russell Martin, the crowd of 31,541 in PETCO Park went politely nuts, and Hoffman's teammates carried him off the field. Hoffman subsequently addressed the fans on the public address system, telling them that it had been "a privilege" to put on the San Diego uniform and perform for them for all these years.
That was a humble statement for a man who had just entered the stratosphere of closer statistics, but it was typical of Hoffman. His inherent modesty was ever-present even in the midst of reaching this unprecedented milestone. The word "privilege" was repeatedly in the air on Wednesday night, and it wasn't being used lightly.
It was a night not only for celebrating an astoundingly successful career in relief pitching but for celebrating what one individual had meant to one baseball franchise and one community.
Padres manager Bud Black noted how right it was that Greg Maddux was the starting pitcher for this event. And this could not have been better, the two future Hall of Famers together for this epic, Maddux winning No. 338, Hoffman saving No. 500.
"I felt privileged to see it," Maddux said of the historic save. "It was an honor to see a guy hit a number that no other relief pitcher has ever reached. It was a special night. He's raised the bar for relievers. He's taken it to a level the game has never seen and it's up to the guys behind him to shoot for it. Good luck trying to get there."
Glenn Hoffman, third-base coach and older brother, had a telling take: "I know it's just a number, but what it stands for with the club and San Diego is outstanding," he said. "He's a leader. He gave a lot of good memories to the San Diego people. He's my little bro; I've seen him struggle when he was younger. All the hard work, it pays off and he gets to where he is now. It's good to see it happen, not because he's my brother, but because it is happening to good people."
Black and general manager Kevin Towers went on at suitable length about Hoffman's character and his work ethic and his will, the intangible qualities that had driven his success. It took all of this, along with the talent, to account for the singular consistency of this career.
Trevor Hoffman has been so consistently successful for so long at a job that defies longevity for most who attempt it. The downside is that his success has been so consistent that it could be taken for granted. This should not happen. This is man who remade himself as a pitcher from the hard thrower in the early 1990s, to a master of location and change of speeds.
And in a role in which failure and defeat are potential companions every night, Hoffman, year upon year, has essentially succeeded 90 percent of the time. There is diligence, there is durability, there is endless determination, and there is fearlessness in this, too.
It was only last Sept. 24 that Hoffman had posted save No. 479, thus breaking the all-time record previously held by Lee Smith. What was this moment like, compared to that one?
"It's special in its own right; it's like trying to compare your kids to one another," Hoffman said, again making perfect sense.
To the rest of us, 500 saves makes an appeal to both logic and imagination. It is a nice round number. It is also a very large number. It was a number too large to be a relief pitcher's responsible goal.
"I think anybody would be crazy to try to look at a number as a certain goal," the closer said. "I've always taken the approach, one pitch at a time, one out at a time, one inning at a time. I think you have to simplify it that way, otherwise you get caught up in the bigger picture and the game will humble you."
That's the deal. Over time, the game really hasn't humbled Trevor Hoffman in that conventional way, but he's humble, anyway.
If this record meant anything, Hoffman suggested, it would allow people to focus on the role of closer and the success that other closers had achieved. "I'm privileged to be a part of a select group," Hoffman said. "I'm honored to be part of a select group."
But again, he was coming up on the modest side, because the group of closers at 500 saves is a group of one. Reminded of this, Hoffman replied:
"It just throws a number out there that becomes sought after. I'm respectful of the fact that it is a number that hasn't been achieved, but in the same right it's only 22 saves beyond what Lee Smith did."
Where does this rank in the achievements of humankind? I was thinking of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, but that's not quite comparable. Somebody -- American astronaut, Soviet cosmonaut, somebody -- was going to walk on the moon, sooner or later. You could see it coming. But when the save rule was invented, nobody had any notion that one man could compile anything like 500 of these things.
Put 500 saves anywhere you want on your scale of epic events, but make sure it is on the list. It was a night of feeling privileged in San Diego. Trevor Hoffman felt privileged to have the opportunity to have pitched here. And everybody else in the general vicinity of PETCO Park was privileged to watch this remarkable pitcher, and remarkably unaffected man, make history.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.