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01/12/11 7:35 PM EST

Respect for Hoffman resonates around Majors

All-time saves leader earns praise for deeds on, off field

From saving 601 games to mentoring scores of young players, Trevor Hoffman earned plenty of respect from around Major League Baseball during his 18-year career.

Praise for him rolled in on Wednesday, as the all-time saves leader officially announced his retirement. Hoffman's former teammates and coaches, as well as a host of opponents, commended him for his character and work ethic off the field and his performance between the lines.

"As much as the talent with Trevor, it's the person," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who managed Hoffman for more than a decade with the Padres. "He's such a great person and family man. He was really a great pleasure for me to manage. He was so respectful to the game and his teammates and did whatever I ever asked of him. I consider myself fortunate to have had Trevor Hoffman all those years I had him."

Commissioner Bud Selig weighed in on Hoffman's success, saying that he was always impressed with the hurler's classiness and leadership.

"He earned the universal respect of his peers and the people throughout our game, and he built a profound legacy in the city of San Diego and in his two years in Milwaukee," Selig said in a statement. "Trevor Hoffman has been the consummate professional, representing all the best of our national pastime. I am delighted that he is setting out on a new course in a role with the Padres, the club with which he will be forever linked. I have truly appreciated Trevor's friendship over the years, and on behalf of Major League Baseball and his admirers throughout the game, I wish him and his wonderful family all the best in the years to come."

Hoffman began his career as an infielder in the Reds' system, but he was converted to a pitcher in 1991, while playing in Cincinnati's farm system. The move was first suggested to Hoffman before the '91 Draft by Jeff Barton, the Reds scout who initially signed him. From day one, Barton said, Hoffman undertook the switch with the same vigor that characterized his preparation until his career's end.

"Before the Draft, I asked if he had played another position," Barton said."We talked about catching, because his arm was so good, as well as getting on the mound. At the time, anything Trevor could do to further his career, he was willing to do."

Current Padres manager Bud Black saw Hoffman's hard work for two seasons from up close. Black said Hoffman's training regimen was as strong as any he's ever seen.

"The daily preparation for his job, that focus and dedication each day to prepare for the ninth inning ... It was incredible to see live," Black said. "I played with George Brett, a Hall of Famer who was a great worker. But Trevor took it to a level and a commitment and Hall of Fame caliber."

As a result, Hoffman became known for his longevity and commitment. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is within striking distance of Hoffman's career saves mark -- he trails by 42 -- but it could be a long time before anybody besides those two approaches the 600-save plateau. Aside from Rivera, Billy Wagner is closest to Hoffman among pitchers who were active in 2010, with 422, but Wagner retired at season's end. Next up among active pitchers was Jason Isringhausen with 293, but Isringhausen's attempt last season at a comeback to the Majors stalled after seven appearances in Triple-A.

"You may find guys that will approach that number, but it will be a long time coming," said MLB Network analyst Mitch Williams, who saved 192 games in the Majors. Williams added that he admired Hoffman's durability above all other traits: "He took the ball. I can't understand closers that are unavailable because they pitched two or three days in a row. The whole idea behind being a closer is that you're available every day."

Hoffman's longevity is all the more remarkable because his career was almost derailed by an arm injury in 1994 that sapped a significant amount of his velocity. Before the injury, Hoffman was known for his booming fastball, which regularly touched the mid-90s -- Barton called it a perfect 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale.

After the injury, however, Hoffman's fastball sat around 90 mph, meaning that he needed to adapt to survive. He did, developing a changeup that ranked among the game's best. From that point on, Bochy said, it didn't matter if hitters knew what Hoffman was going to throw. More often than not, they still couldn't hit it.

"They called it the Bugs Bunny changeup," Bochy said. "Basically, it stopped at home plate. Guys hadn't seen a pitch like that, and they couldn't adjust to it. He pitched so well off his fastball they couldn't just sit on it every pitch. But even if they did, they hadn't seen a pitch like that so they didn't know how to hit it."

Armed with his cartoonish out pitch, Hoffman became the late-inning force the Padres envisioned when, in 1993, they made him the centerpiece of a deal that sent Gary Sheffield to the Marlins. It was a deal that was initially unpopular in San Diego.

"It was brutal -- we got crushed," said Randy Smith, then the Padres general manager, who pulled the trigger on the trade. "There was an outrage in San Diego. ... Both of us weren't too popular. But we forged a fast friendship as we both tried to punch our way out together."

"He was the key in the deal from our end. I just didn't think that 18 years later that we would still be talking about him."

As much praise as Hoffman garnered on the mound, he inspired just as many kind words off the field. Hoffman was known as a leader in the clubhouse, one who tutored younger players. In fact, he mentored his successor in San Diego, Heath Bell, and the man who likely will succeed him in Milwaukee, John Axford.

"Just watching him go about his business was a big thing to me," Bell said. "He would go have fun but be serious when it was time to be serious. He helped me get out of my shell."

Axford, who spent the 2010 season competing with Hoffman for the closer's role, said that the two bonded. Axford said he spent the season soaking up Hoffman's advice.

"He's a fantastic teammate, a great person, and in all honesty, the things I'll remember most are the things that happened off the field," Axford said. "He treats you fantastically. He took the bullpen out to dinner when we were on the road, and he invited us over to his home when we were in Milwaukee. He treated you like a friend, and respected you like a friend."

Hoffman was no friend to opponents in the ninth inning, though. He blew only 76 saves during his career, giving him a success rate of nearly 89 percent. Missteps were rare for Hoffman, and when they happened, there were often extenuating or unlikely circumstances.

One of the few came in July 1993, Hoffman's rookie season, a few weeks after he was acquired from San Diego. Well into the morning, Hoffman entered the 10th inning of the second game of a doubleheader against the Phillies.

It was well after 4 a.m., and the score was tied -- not a save situation.

After allowing a walk to Pete Incaviglia and a hit by Jim Eisenreich, Hoffman rebounded to strike out Darren Daulton, bringing Williams to the plate.

On a 0-1 pitch, Williams, who went 3-for-16 in his career, rapped a double to left-center, plating Incaviglia and winning the game. It was the rare case of a closer getting a walk-off hit against another closer.

"I got a game-winning hit off him at 4:11 in the morning," Williams said. "I can tell my grandkids that I got a hit off one of the best closers in the game."

He is one of the few who can make that boast.

Sunil Joshi is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.