LOS ANGELES – Trevor Hoffman(notes) will be 43 years old before the next World Series is played and his ERA is so ugly he can hardly look at it and every completed ninth inning means a save no one else has gotten before.
None of that has Hoffman thinking about retirement.
Billy Wagner(notes) announced this week he was done after the season. Five years younger than Hoffman, sixth all-time in saves, Wagner said he'd had enough. He was going home and let everybody know it.
Not Hoffman's style.
Still the coolest guy in the room, Hoffman has lounged in the ninth-inning crucible for more than 15 years, many of them with a fastball that wouldn't make it through a junior college tryout. But, along with Mariano Rivera's(notes) cutter, Dennis Eckersley's slider and Bruce Sutter's splitter, the Hoffman changeup became a signature of baseball's end-game.
He has ridden that, along with the courage to throw it, to within five saves of 600, and a sure bust in the Hall of Fame, and to a place where four blown saves in eight tries this season is disappointing but not even close to ruinous. But little streaks of loud imprecision like that do tend to get people wondering again, because pitchers can't throw even 84 mph forever, much as it would seem otherwise.
''If this is my last year,'' Hoffman said, ''I don't need to tell you. I just won't be back.''
Such is the nature of the game and his role in it that Hoffman has been reassuring folks ''for 10 years, probably,'' that yes he feels fine, that yes he throws just as hard as he did last year, that yes his changeup will go on fooling hitters, that yes he'll start getting outs again tomorrow. They are the conversations that come with the ninth inning, and that multiply when one's prime years begin drifting into one's mid-30s. Imagine, then, when one kicks four save opportunities in 19 days, as Hoffman did in April, and partly as a result one's ballclub falls 7½ games out of first place, which the Brewers did after four days of May.
Closers don't hide in a rotation with four other guys. They can't hope their slump gets swallowed by seven or eight other guys who are hitting. They walk off the field hoping not to get trampled by the other team's celebration or the fans' sprint to the parking lot.
It's a heck of a way to make a great living.
''In this job,'' Hoffman said, ''you don't get to fade into the sunset. It's pure gunslinger every night.''
He doesn't talk like a guy whose ERA is nearly 12. Ten innings in (and 15 hits, six of them home runs), it's been determined that Hoffman is not throwing as many fastballs as usual, which means fewer changeups and even fewer outs. His velocity, such as it is, hasn't lost an inch. The fact is, he said, his fastball location has been poor, making his fastball hittable, meaning he never gets to his put-away changeup. It happens. It's not pretty. And he feels awful about it. But when it happens at 42, and there is no guaranteed job beyond this season (there is a $7 million mutual option for 2011), well, he's had a fine career.
''You get to this stage of your career, you understand the magnitude of how it affects the team,'' he said. ''It hurts. It hurts a little more.''
Two seasons ago, Kevin Towers, as general manager of the San Diego Padres, had some of the same thoughts. Hoffman left the Padres, signed with the Brewers, went to the All-Star Game and had one of his greatest seasons.
''When he starts hearing things like that, he's only going to get better,'' Towers said. ''He'll say, 'Challenge me. Go ahead.' Last year he took on the challenge and made us all look bad. Hoffy's like that. He's the type, if he didn't think he could get opposing hitters out, he'd retire. In the meantime, he has zero doubt he's still as good as anybody in the game and better than the hitters he's facing.''
That, an 84-mph fastball, the perfect changeup and endless laps around the ballpark get you to 600 saves. Almost. They also get you to another night, another ninth inning, another shot at it.
What's important anymore, Hoffman said, is the same things that were important when he began.
''Being a good teammate,'' he said. ''Obviously the quest, trying to win a ring. I enjoy the game, as we speak today. The game is a machine. It keeps running with or without you.''
He'll watch it go some day. The bullpen door will open and somebody else will run through. He doesn't know when. Or isn't saying.
''I don't know, kiddo,'' he said. ''I don't know. This is very much a day-to-day role in the approach you have to take. I know where I'm at and what I've done. Nothing's going to make me feel better than a little wind in my sails.''