SAN DIEGO — Closing is no day at the beach…but a day at the beach sure played an accidental role in developing one of the greatest closers in history.
Ah, the sands of time.
As Trevor Hoffman sweats out voting in his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot—results will be announced Wednesday—there is no guaranteeing he will sail into Cooperstown this year on the strength of his legendary changeup.
You might think that 601 career saves, second only to Mariano Rivera on baseball's all-time list, would make Hoffman a no-brainer, slam-dunk Hall of Famer. Eventually, surely, yes.
On the other hand, no pitcher who worked strictly as a reliever throughout his career has ever been a first-ballot electee.
The voting can work in strange ways.
Sort of like life itself.
The day after the 1994 players' strike started, Hoffman and several friends with whom he grew up in Orange County headed to the ocean in Del Mar, a suburb of San Diego.
Playing beach volleyball, Hoffman, with just one full season in the majors at that point, lunged to return a shot that was dropping just over the net. As he landed, fully extended, he felt a sharp pain in his right shoulder.
Not long afterward that same day, Hoffman and his friends set down the volleyball and picked up a football. Playing catch in the ocean, Hoffman dove for a ball in what he thought was reasonably deep water. Instead, he landed on a sandbar. More searing pain.
"I hurt my shoulder twice, basically," he said during a visit with B/R at Petco Park one morning last month. "Did a doozy on it."
By that December, it wasn't getting any better. So he saw doctors and started an injury rehabilitation program.
By 1995, when the strike finally ended and a shortened season started, a fastball that once sat at 95 mph and touched 96, 97, had shriveled to 91, 92. He would end up having surgery later to clean up some debris in his shoulder.
Yeah, for a fleeting instant, with a career hanging in the balance, you bet he beat himself up.
"The next day, when I could barely pick up my arm because it was so inflamed because of the trauma I had subjected it to, there was a lot of remorse," Hoffman said.
"And then having to go through basically the rehabilitation without surgery just to get it up and going again, there was a lot of remorse that that wasn't really what I should be doing. There was the realization that I should be working on improving, rather than trying to get better from a stupid incident."
He was 26 when the players' strike started.
And he hadn't had time off in the summer since his school days.
How could a couple of hours of beach volleyball and throwing a football be a bad thing?
"And then when I realized my velocity was gone, that I didn't touch the mid-90s after that, that was kind of a bummer," Hoffman said.
Far more of a bummer, obviously, had he not perfected his devastating changeup and become the Padres' closer even with an under-construction repertoire in 1995. San Diego traded Gene Harris to the Detroit Tigers on May 11 the previous year, clearing the way for Hoffman.
He already had developed a solid foundation for the changeup out of necessity in the Cincinnati organization in the early 1990s, when the Reds informed him that his days as a light-hitting middle infielder were over. They wanted him to come back the next spring as a pitcher.
From there, the Florida Marlins picked him in the expansion draft and then shipped him to the Padres in a blockbuster deal for Gary Sheffield in 1993.
Even with a fairly crisp fastball that had sparked his rapid ascent to the majors, a little slider, a curve and a basic changeup, Hoffman knew he was going to need more. And that was before his day at the beach.
Now, in 1995, a previous conversation he had with a fellow reliever named Donnie Elliott came into focus. Elliott had shown Hoffman how he gripped a changeup, a lesson that clicked with the young, evolving closer as he tried to navigate his way through the sore shoulder.
Elliott pinched a particular seam on the horseshoe-shaped part of the stitching when he threw his changeup so that, instead of the pressure on the ball coming through the outside of his hand—the pinky finger and finger next to it—it came from the index finger and the thumb.
The idea made sense. He threw his fastball, slider and curve with that area of his hand already. Why would he use a different part of his hand to throw the changeup?
When he employed his index finger and thumb on the changeup, throwing with his fastball motion but using that part of his hand to choke off the velocity, things started to happen.
While the Padres were rebuilding in '95 following a fire sale of the roster a few years before, providing cover for Hoffman (with low expectations for the team, there was more room for experimentation), another reliever named Doug Bochtler debuted and quickly moved into an eighth-inning role as Hoffman's setup man.
As such, the two became catch partners during pregame warm-ups. The inquisitive Hoffman, his career appearing at a crossroads, asked Bochtler how he threw his changeup, an effective pitch the players had nicknamed "The Dreaded Letdown."
"We were doing flat ground work, and he threw me a couple that weren't very good," said Bochtler, who this winter was named San Diego's bullpen coach for 2016. "Then he threw a pitch that went right through my legs and I was like, 'Holy crap!'"
"Can you do that again?" Bochtler asked.
"I think so," Hoffman replied.
"So he throws it again, and I got leather on the next one," Bochtler said. "I tipped it but still didn't catch it. I said, 'Wow, dude, that is legit.' These are like the first Trevor Hoffman changeups he ever really threw.
"Looking back, I remember what it looked like. I asked, 'Why are you fiddling around with that, anyway?' He said, 'Dude, I'm not always going to throw 95.'
"That was Trevor's gig. He had the foresight, the preparation. It was crazy, man, to be there and, literally the first two of that Hall of Fame pitch, one of the best ever, I was on the receiving end of.
"Not that I caught them. But I was there to see them."
Hoffman finished 1995 with 31 saves. At season's end, he wound up having shoulder surgery to clean up his rotator cuff and labrum.
The next season, with Hoffman saving 42 games, the Padres won the NL West. He collected 37 more saves in 1997 and then led the majors with 53 in 1998 as the Padres won the NL pennant.
The legend was born, the signature pitch perfected.
Thanks in no small part to, yes, the beach, the volleyball, a football and, what the heck, for good measure, even the Wiffle ball he played in the backyard as a kid with his two brothers and their friends.
"It seems kind of silly to think about, but there were some fundamental things about throwing a Wiffle ball, trying to screw with the hitters in the backyard, whether it was my brothers or friends, that became a part of trying to learn the changeup with this new grip," Hoffman said.
"Some of the things I was trying to do in the backyard I was trying to do with this pitch in somebody else's backyard."
The backyards became bigger, and more plush.
So did his changeup.
He doesn't spend much time looking back now, of course. There's no reason.
"You can always armchair it afterward," he said. "What kind of career could I have had on the front end if I still had that velocity? Now does the changeup ever show up? Or do you just kind of roll throwing hard?
"I think I had to make that transition to becoming a pitcher sooner than I expected."
In the end, despite the pain caused by that day at the beach, it certainly didn't hurt him. Probably, in a twisted way, it helped.
"It was just stuff you did when you were a kid, man," he said. "Here I am, I get to be in the best place in the world in August, when weather is perfect, I don't have to worry about going to work [because of the strike]. Now I get to be a kid and a summer I haven't had in 15 years.
"I made up for lost time pretty fast. Stupid."
He grinned, and his eyes twinkled.
Hall of Fame careers are not produced on a cookie-cutter assembly line. This is a game for all shapes and sizes. He will be giving a speech in Cooperstown one day, and if there is any justice, it will be this July.
It is a classic story of taking what life gives you and turning it to your advantage. Make lemonade out of lemons, right?
"And I have a home now probably 100 yards from where it all happened," Hoffman said, chuckling. "Poetic justice. I put up volleyball nets now.
"I'm laughing at fate, I guess. I don't know. It was an unfortunate day."
However, as things turned out, it was not such a bad career move.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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