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01/12/11 6:14 PM EST

In every respect, Hoffman finished strong

All-time saves leader overcame health issues, position switch

Things didn't always start out well for Trevor Hoffman -- they almost never did, actually. But he sure developed a knack for finishing strong.

After all, being a closer, being the one responsible for finishing the job in the ninth inning game after game, vaulted him to the all-time saves record in an 18-year career in the Major Leagues.

Not bad for someone who lost a kidney as an infant -- an inauspicious start for an athletic life. Not bad for a Minor League infielder whose apparent allergy to wood sent him to the mound -- among the less graceful early steps toward Cooperstown you'll find.

And as anyone who was in San Diego when he arrived knows, not bad for some guy on the wrong end of a very unpopular trade, one that in 1993 shipped Gary Sheffield to Florida a year after he'd flirted with the Triple Crown, for Hoffman and a couple other players nobody knew.

Nope, not bad at all.

It's all good for Hoffman now that he's hung up the spikes, put the best changeup of his time on the shelf and retired from the playing field after setting the saves bar at 601 -- and the bar for character and professionalism within the game of baseball even higher.

His parting words as he announced his retirement spoke to his appreciation of where he's been, and how he got there.

"I kind of went to bed last night thinking about, 'What are you going to come out and say something? Are you going to try to be profound with something?,'" Hoffman recounted Wednesday morning. "The one word that kept recurring was 'thankful.' How thankful I was to be a part of Major League Baseball."

Ah, another strong finish from No. 51.

Hoffman's living proof it's not always about how you start, but how you finish. And finish. And finish.

He recovered from losing his kidney, becoming a star baseball player in Orange County (Calif.), where his father, an ex-Marine, was a singing usher at Angels games. Hoffman became a shortstop at the University of Arizona, and then followed brother Glenn (an infielder for the Red Sox, Angels and Dodgers in the 1980s, and now the Padres' third-base coach) into professional ball.

After two years in the Minors and not much batting potential to show for it, his manager Jim Lett suggested Hoffman try pitching instead, because he had such a strong arm. So he did in 1991, and the rest is now what's known as baseball history.

Selected by the Marlins in the Expansion Draft, Hoffman was only in his third year of pitching -- he hadn't even pitched in high school -- by the time he was in the Major Leagues in '93. The Marlins were able to trade him because they had incumbent closer Bryan Harvey and Robb Nen, who would be the closer on the 1997 World Series champion Marlins and later with the Giants in the 2002 World Series. Ultimately, Hoffman wound up having 110 more saves than his early mentor Harvey (177) and Nen (314) combined.

His first outing for the Padres, however, fit the theme: He allowed three runs (two earned) on four hits in an inning of work -- not exactly the stuff to make Padres fans forget about Sheffield. Gene Harris was the Padres' closer at the time, so Hoffman had just three saves in '93 and didn't exactly become an immediate success in relief.

Hoffman was the full-time closer in 1994 and '95, but then his career hit a crucial crossroads when he underwent shoulder surgery after the '95 season. The surgery sapped a lot of the power from his fastball, so he knew he'd need another pitch.

Enter what Hoffman would call his "equalizer," a modified circle-changeup with a pinch-the-seam grip taught to him by former teammate Donnie Elliott and the arm action of a fastball.

"There's no doubt that without that changeup, I'm doing something else right now," Hoffman said a few years back.

His teammates called it the Bugs Bunny Pitch.

"You could swing at it three times and it still wouldn't be in the mitt," former teammate Andy Ashby once said, bringing up the image of the famous cartoon.

Hoffman rode that changeup -- which was at its best when it was at about 75 mph when he had a 90-mph fastball -- to seven All-Star appearances and four postseasons with the Padres. He ran off 41 consecutive saves in 1997-98, had 13 30-save seasons (Mariano Rivera is second with 11) and nine 40-save seasons (Rivera, six). He also is the all-time leader with 856 games finished and retires with 1.058 walks and hits per nine innings, which ranks seventh all-time.

Hoffman became the all-time saves leader with No. 479, surpassing Lee Smith on Sept. 24, 2006, and just this last September crossed the 600-save barrier with the Brewers. Rivera stands 42 behind it entering 2011, and no one else is even close.

Hoffman's most public viewings include four postseason saves but also two series-clinching losses on home runs, as well as the 2006 All-Star Game in which Michael Young's triple extended the American League's winning streak -- flaws, some say, in his Hall of Fame resume but events, others say, that can't possibly blot out an exemplary career.

Off the field, Hoffman made his mark with teammates as someone who could be a cutup but also a professional dedicated to fitness and preparation, and as a trusted veteran and mentor to literally hundreds of players with whom he played.

A husband and father of three boys -- he proposed to his wife, Tracy, then a Buffalo Bills cheerleader, during Super Bowl XXVII -- he has left his mark on the game outside the lines as well. He was honored with the 2008 Branch Rickey Award for community service and the 2004 Hutch Award for dedication to baseball on and off the field, as well six Roberto Clemente Award nominations. He and Tracy have spent countless hours working with the National Kidney Foundation and in supporting military families.

If that doesn't tell the whole story about a career well-finished, all you need to see are the images from his milestone saves, as he's carried on the shoulders of his teammates like a conquering hero.

Not bad for a one-kidney, can't-hit piece of trade fodder with a bum shoulder, eh?

In the end, it's all good for Trevor Hoffman.

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