COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- One of the joys of baseball is that in every generation a great player comes along who is different from anyone who played in the Major Leagues before. They are made for their time. Think of Ichiro Suzuki, who brought with him a Japanese style of play the game had not known before. Think of Fernando Valenzuela, with his odd windup and the way he looked at the heavens. Think of Aaron Judge, who is simply bigger than any player before him.
Trevor Hoffman was such a special player.
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Hoffman was a lightly regarded shortstop coming out of the University of Arizona; the Reds took him in the 11th round of the 1989 Draft, perhaps because he came from such a great baseball family. Trevor's father, Ed, gained some fame for being the singing usher at Angels games. His brother Glenn had played in the Majors for a few years, primarily for the Red Sox in the 1980s. Trevor remembered being a little kid in the clubhouse at Fenway.
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"Mr. Rice reminded my kids that he would slap me on the back of the head for being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Hoffman said of Red Sox Hall of Famer Jim Rice. Notice, he still calls Rice, Mister.
So maybe the Reds took a chance on some genetics or Hoffman's obvious baseball intelligence, but it took only a couple of years to see that Hoffman wasn't going to be a big league hitter. He was a good fielder. He had a rocket arm. But he slugged .289 his first year in Billings, Mont., then he went to Charleston, W.V., where he slugged .277. That's not getting anybody to the big leagues.
But, yes, he did have that live arm. A one-time light-hitting infielder named Jim Lett was managing the Charleston team, and along with pitching coach Mike Griffin, they told Hoffman that his best bet was to move to the mound. He agreed, and they began working Hoffman out in side pitching sessions a couple of times a week, just to see.
"Things turn out best," Hoffman said Sunday, quoting UCLA's great basketball coach John Wooden, "for the people who make the best of the way things turn out."
Let's pause here to say that Hoffman quoted Wooden several times in his Hall of Fame speech, which was fitting because Wooden's entire philosophy was about getting the best out of yourself. This is Hoffman's philosophy, too. The way Hoffman figured it, Wooden's words spoke for him.
"Talent is God-given," Hoffman said, again quoting Wooden. "Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful."
Back to the Minors: Hoffman went to the mound. It wasn't easy. He had a little success, but then ran into real trouble in Triple-A. A lot of position players try to pitch as way to save lost careers, and almost all of them hit the wall at some point in the Minors. The Reds liked Hoffman, but they suspected that he had hit that wall. They left him unprotected in the Expansion Draft. The Florida Marlins took Hoffman and put him in their bullpen.
Then, almost immediately, the Marlins traded him to San Diego for Gary Sheffield. It was not a great trade to be involved in. The Padres had decided to have a full-fledged fire sale, and unsurprisingly, Padres fans weren't too happy to lose Sheffield and get back a former shortstop turned pitcher. There were some boos in the early days. They quickly dissipated.
Hoffman pitched well in 1994 all the way up to the strike, but he wasn't the pitcher that he would become. He was all fastball, all the time. Then, during the strike, Hoffman was playing beach volleyball and messed up his shoulder. The next year, 1995, was a real struggle with pain and performance. Hoffman knew that he needed to do something.
That's when Hoffman asked a teammate named Donnie Elliott to show him how to throw a changeup. Hoffman already had a changeup, but it wasn't particularly effective. Elliott showed him a new grip; to Hoffman it almost felt like throwing an old-fashioned palm ball. It felt really good. Hoffman found that no matter how hard he threw the ball, it came out of his hand slow.
In baseball, the greatest compliment you can give to the pitch is to call it a Bugs Bunny changeup. That's the ultimate. Almost overnight, Trevor Hoffman had a Bugs Bunny changeup. Almost overnight, Hoffman became the greatest one-inning closer in National League history.
"When I was a struggling shortstop," he said Sunday, "I could have never imagined being here. That transformation -- from infielder to pitcher to closer -- is just amazing."
It is amazing, and it's unique. No one else had a journey quite like this -- from position player to pitcher, from non-prospect to Expansion Draft pick, to the guy coming over in an unpopular trade to legendary closer. It is a story that simply could not have have happened in a different time. Just think, if Hoffman had gone through a similar scenario a generation earlier, well, he might not have had a coach who encouraged him to pitch. He might have been buried in the Minors. Also, there were no one-inning closers back then.
"I look back," Hoffman said, "and I cannot even believe my luck."
Of course, you cannot tell Hoffman's Hall of Fame story without at least about "Hells Bells," the AC/DC song that brought him out of the bullpen. He mentioned it in his speech and made the powerful point that, "It was the San Diego fans' enthusiasm -- the way you would start cheering on that first bell -- that made it special, that made every home game amazing."
That's right. The song was good. But it was the crowd's reaction that brought the goosebumps.
Hoffman's career -- the 601 saves, the 856 games finished, both National League records -- was a testament to his perseverance. He is one of the most unlikely stories of the Hall of Fame. My favorite moment in the speech was how he began because it pretty much put his distinct career in perspective.
"It's an honor," he said, "being up here with the other great shortstops of the game," Hoffman said.