SAN DIEGO — Trevor Hoffman used to arrive for work late at night, with heavy metal music blaring from the speakers.
Batters knew what was coming and usually failed miserably as Hoffman almost always got the toughest outs in a baseball game — the final three.
Hoffman, baseball’s all-time saves leader, was back at Petco Park on Wednesday, this time in the morning sunshine to announce his retirement at age 43 after 18 seasons in the major leagues. He’s taking a front-office job with the San Diego Padres, the team with which he became a star.
Wearing a suit and tie and standing at a podium at home plate, Hoffman said he spent part of Tuesday night figuring out what he’d say.
“Really, the one word that kept recurring was how thankful I was to be a part of major league baseball, how thankful I was to be able to put a uniform on and be a kid until I was 43, to be a part of the baseball family,” he said.
Hoffman had 601 saves in 667 opportunities, including 552 in 618 chances in 15½ seasons with the Padres. A seven-time All-Star and the Cy Young Award runner-up in 1998 and 2006, he also pitched for the Florida Marlins and Milwaukee Brewers.
Hoffman’s home save opportunities were always lively because AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” began blaring from the sound system the instant he started jogging in from the bullpen.
Known for his high leg kick, menacing glare and deceptive changeup, Hoffman became the career saves leader when he notched No. 479 at home on Sept. 24, 2006, breaking the previous mark of 478 by Lee Smith. The following June, Hoffman reached 500, also at home and against the rival Los Angeles Dodgers.
Manager Bud Black said Hoffman “was a pillar among Padres, and I think there are only certain guys you can say that about.”
Part of that dependability came from Hoffman’s preparation, which began several hours before game time with a workout in the outfield.
“It’s kind of ironic we’re having this get-together in an empty ballpark because it was so apparent throughout my career that this is really where I did a lot of my work, where I found a lot of private time and a lot of opportunity to think and prepare for that moment that I would have an opportunity to step onto the field and compete inside those white lines,” Hoffman said.
His Padres career ended abruptly after the 2008 season when contract talks fell apart, and he spent the last two seasons with Milwaukee.
After a difficult 2010 season with the Brewers, Hoffman said he wanted to take some time to decide on his future.
“I wanted to make sure, I wanted to take that time away from the game and see if the fire would rekindle in a way I would want to go out and compete,” he said. “The opportunities weren’t there and it was apparent that this is the direction I wanted to go.”
Then an unknown rookie, Hoffman had two saves for expansion Florida in 1993 before being acquired by the salary-slashing Padres on June 24, 1993, along with two other players for Gary Sheffield and Rich Rodriguez. Then-general manager Randy Smith said the Padres received “value for value” in the deal. But fans, steamed at the exodus of talent, booed Hoffman during his first several appearances. As he grew into the closer’s role, it was clear Smith had indeed traded for a valuable player.
In 1992, Sheffield won the NL batting title with the Padres and made a run at the Triple Crown.
Dick Freeman, the Padres’ team president at the time, attended Wednesday’s news conference.
“As I said to somebody the other day, everybody thought there was a Hall of Famer in that trade, but I don’t think many people thought it was going to be the guy we were getting,” Freeman said.
Hoffman was converted from shortstop to pitcher in the minor leagues when his manager got tired of him overthrowing first base. He said his changeup developed over time, starting when he learned a new grip from Donnie Elliott, who was acquired from Atlanta in the Fred McGriff trade in July 1993.
Hoffman, a native of Southern California, said another factor in relying on the changeup came in the mid-1990s when he “jacked up my shoulder screwing around on the beach, throwing a Nerf football and playing volleyball.”
While that affected the velocity of his fastball, his changeup got better.
“When you’re out there as a closer you want to get strikes and you want to get them quick,” Hoffman said. “Sometimes you don’t want to waste your whole repertoire to get into an out situation or a count. If you have pretty good conviction on two pitches, I think that’s enough you want to deal with.”
Former Padres teammate Phil Nevin, now the manager of the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, marveled at how quickly Hoffman mastered the changeup.
“Remember, I first started catching when I was here, and the darn thing was hard to catch, and I knew it was coming,” Nevin said. “Every time he threw it, you thought he crossed you up because it would come out of his hand like a fastball even though you knew it was a changeup.”
Hoffman was part of four NL West championship clubs and helped the Padres get to the 1998 World Series. He had only four postseason saves, though, and gave up Scott Brosius’ stunning three-run homer in Game 3 of the 1998 World Series, which the New York Yankees swept.
There was also the disappointing end to the 2007 season, when he blew two save chances in three games.
One strike from clinching the wild card on the final Saturday of the season, he allowed a tying RBI triple to Tony Gwynn Jr., and the Brewers went on to win 4-3 in 11 innings.
Two days later, in a wild-card tiebreaker at Colorado, the Rockies rallied for three runs against Hoffman in the bottom of the 13th inning to win 9-8.
Hoffman called it the toughest loss of his career.
Black recalled Hoffman taking responsibility for the blown saves.
“He stood up and answered all the questions at the most difficult times,” Black said. “He was sturdy. It goes back to being a pillar. He’s sturdy.”