Work ethic helps keep Hoffman in game
A fan showed up wearing his tribute to the team’s new closer, and it was a retro jersey to boot.
“I don’t know if that was an indication of how old I am,” the 41-year-old Hoffman joked. “I played in ’82. I just wasn’t a part of this team.”
Indeed, Hoffman has been around the baseball block a few times. You don’t compile 544 career saves, most in the game’s illustrious history, in the blink of an eye.
But, in a way, everything is new again for the future Hall of Famer. After 16 years with the San Diego Padres, Hoffman experienced a somewhat painful offseason divorce before jumping into the inviting arms of the Brewers.
“I could close my eyes the last few years and kind of knew where I was going,” Hoffman said. “So, I’m looking for familiar places and where I’m supposed to be.
”It’s different. I’m trying to learn a bunch of new names. Before, I’d just walk in the clubhouse and hold court and wear people out. Now, I have to tread a little lighter.“
Suffice it to say that Hoffman leaves little to chance. Since injuring his shoulder in 1995 -- one of those lucky accidents that resulted in him becoming one of the game’s premier changeup specialists—Hoffman has followed a strict regimen in preparing to throw a baseball.
”It’s a little bit specific,“ he said with a knowing smile.
That diligence has produced a middle-age body with not a hint of paunch, not to mention an amazingly consistent career that included 30 saves in 34 opportunities for an awful Padres club in 2008.
Hoffman doesn’t reveal trade secrets but he spends a lot of time in the trainer’s room to prepare to pitch. It has become such an important part of his process that he requested a lengthy telephone conversation with Brewers trainer Roger Caplinger before signing a one-year, $6 million deal.
”I know I’m a little high maintenance on some things,“ he said. ‘’I know my job is to try to put the ball over the plate. At times, it’s important for me, at an elevated age, that I’m in the best position to do that.
“On ’throw’ days, some of the things I go through are a little more elaborate, just to make sure I’m ready to go.”
Hoffman also spoke with manager Ken Macha in advance of camp to explain his reasons for that precise preparation. Hoffman dislikes the phrase “being on his own program” but didn’t want to step on any toes with his new club.
“Some of the things that ’Mach’ and I talked about were some of my routines,” he said. “I don’t want to get to the point where I’m disrespecting him or my teammates.”
No one is about to quibble with Hoffman at this point of his remarkable career. With 929 appearances, 554 saves and a 2.78 earned run average over 988 innings, let’s just say what he’s doing appears to work.
Before the cost-cutting Padres did the unthinkable and pushed Hoffman out the door, the Brewers had no idea who their closer would be in 2009. Salomon Torres, who assumed that role when Eric Gagne melted down in the early going last year, retired at age 36 despite converting 28 save chances in 35 chances.
Now, Macha is confident that the ninth inning is in good hands, allowing him to concentrate on lining up the bullpen in front of Hoffman. As for the other relievers, Macha said they would benefit greatly from watching how their new closer goes about his business.
Macha recalled a trip to San Diego for an interleague series when he was manager in Oakland.
“We went out for extra BP in the middle of June,” Macha said. “It was smoking hot. We were out there and I’m watching this guy run these laps. I’m going, ’Oh, my God.’ It was (Hoffman).
”He was out there in his work regimen. The good thing about that is these young pitchers, hopefully they’ll take a look at what he does. I haven’t gotten to know him that well, but just being a quiet leader and having everybody else go, ’Wow.’ I think that can be big for some of the young guys in the bullpen.“
Count 25-year-old right-hander Carlos Villanueva among those who plan to act like a human sponge in Hoffman’s presence. Beyond getting pointers on Hoffman’s trademark changeup, Villanueva already has discovered an unexpected generosity in general.
”He’s very approachable,“ said Villanueva, who first met Hoffman in January at the team’s ”Winter Warm-Up“ in Milwaukee. ”You talk to him and he’s a very good guy, a team guy.
“I watched him throw a bullpen (Sunday) and tried to see what he’s all about. You can sense his presence, on the field and in the clubhouse. I’m really happy he’s here. Finally I can talk to somebody in the bullpen who doesn’t throw 100 mph.
”It’s just the way he pitches, the way he uses his fastball and changeup, the location. You can see in the bullpen that he’s not going through the motions. Every pitch has a different purpose. It’s no accident that he’s the all-time leader in saves and has been pitching so long.“
How the rest of the bullpen shapes up remains to be seen. Jorge Julio and Todd Coffey are hard-throwing set-up types, David Riske is back and healthy after elbow surgery, Mitch Stetter has a foot in the door as the left-handed specialist and the staff is interested in seeing Rule 5 pick Eduardo Morlan pitch.
A successful bullpen flows backward from the closer, as the Brewers learned early last season when Gagne faltered. It wasn’t until Torres restored sanity to the ninth inning that winning baseball was assured.
”I worked for the California Angels when Whitey Herzog was the GM there,“ Macha said. ”He said to me in passing one day, ’The two requirements for a manager are a good sense of humor and a good bullpen. A bad bullpen can really make you look bad.’
“I’m glad Hoffman decided to come here. It’s nice to have a guy like that to count on.”