Great closers, it is said, are fearless, have ice water in their veins and all that claptrap.
There’s not an ounce of truth to that for the man who has saved more major league games than any other pitcher. Trevor Hoffman was motivated by his fear.
“Your teammates work hard for eight innings to get that lead,” he once said. “The last thing you want to do is come into the game and (mess) the bed.”
Not even 601 career saves erased that fear. Rather than deny his fear, Hoffman embraced it. Failure in his job meant a loss for his team, almost always, so Hoffman worked as hard as he could to minimize those failures.
To Hoffman, getting that save was his obligation to his teammates. And being a good teammate was as important to him as anything he did in baseball.
“The most coveted title that I carried was ‘teammate’,” Hoffman said at his retirement news conference Wednesday at Petco Park in San Diego. “It’s rewarding that I had an opportunity to have an impact on the people I was around as a teammate every day, striving to become better and working toward a common goal as a team.”
Hoffman’s baseball legacy is secure. His bewildering changeup ranks among the best single pitches in baseball lore. His “Hells Bells” entrance is a lasting memory, “the coolest thing in the game,” former Marlins manager John Boles once said.
The stats call for Cooperstown: 18 seasons, seven All-Star selections, the record 601 saves, a 2.87 ERA and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
Those aren’t the lasting memories for those who had a chance to share a clubhouse with him, however.
“It’s incredible what he accomplished in this game,” said reigning World Series champion manager Bruce Bochy, who was Hoffman’s manager for 13 seasons with the San Diego Padres.
“What’s even more impressive is the person that he was. I consider myself fortunate to have had Trevor as my closer all those years in San Diego. He is the best teammate that I’ve ever seen. He really looked after his teammates.”
Nobody knows that as well as Mark Merila. The Padres bullpen catcher from 1996 to 2006 and now a member of the coaching support staff, Merila was welcomed to the big leagues by Hoffman and given a sense of belonging.
Merila was a good college infielder, good enough to be a college All-American at Minnesota and a member of the U.S. national team. But he was stricken by a brain tumor during his final college season. Although treatment got rid of the tumor, Merila’s playing career was cut short, and the Padres offered the job as bullpen catcher.
Having never caught before, or been on a big-league field, Merila was unsure of himself. Hoffman went out of his way to reassure him that he belonged. Hoffman taught Merila the ropes. And after every save, he waited in the dugout until Merila and the bullpen coach made the walk back from the bullpen with the equipment bags, long after other teammates had retreated to the clubhouse.
Hoffman always shook their hands after a save, just as he had with his other teammates after the final out.
“He let us know we were part of those saves. That meant a lot,” Merila said.
“He’s played with Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn, Hall of Famers, but he treats everyone the same. Doesn’t matter if it’s me or a clubhouse attendant or Tony Gwynn, he treated us all like we are working together, and we all play a part in the success of the team.”
There were plenty of other small gestures. Fellow pitchers with the Padres, and later the Brewers, were invited to try to keep up with Hoffman’s daily work routine, his marathon-like afternoon runs.
In spring training, he called over the new faces, the ones wearing Nos. 73 or 81 or the like, for long chats to help them get comfortable with their surroundings.
In 2003, when he missed several trips while recovering from shoulder surgery, he greeted the team upon its arrival at Qualcomm Stadium with catered meals.
And there were deeper moments.
Merila had gone a decade free of cancer. But his brain tumor recurred in 2006. It grew into his thalamus and was inoperable. He tried to make it through that season, but the tumor started to affect his motor function. He was slowly losing control of the right side of his body. That meant he could catch just fine with his left hand, but he couldn’t throw the ball where he wanted to.
The Padres brought in another bullpen catcher, who worked with most of the other pitchers down the stretch as the team reached the playoffs. Hoffman would have none of it. Merila was his guy.
That was true right down to Hoffman’s final playoff appearance. As Hoffman warmed up to enter Game 3 of the 2006 National League Division Series, Merila’s return throws were erratic.
“The best catches made in that game probably were by him, jumping up to get my throws,” Merila said.
Merila tried to put a stop to it, to call in the other catcher. Hoffman told him: “Just throw it, and I’ll go get it.”
In that pressure-packed moment, readying to go into a game that could have ended the Padres’ season, Hoffman put his teammate ahead of himself.
“He was having his struggles,” Hoffman recalled Wednesday. “He was worried about messing up my routine. You know what? There’s bigger things than going out there to pitch. Let’s take a step back and have some fun. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing, even though it’s a big moment. Let’s get through this.
“He didn’t have to take himself so seriously. He was doing fine. He just needed to hear it.”
Hoffman did get the save that night, his final playoff appearance. It also was the last time Merila was able to catch a warm-up session, for Hoffman or anyone else.
He endured radiation treatments throughout 2007 and then a full year of experimental chemotherapy. Many days, he didn’t have the energy to get out of bed. But he made every effort to stay up long enough to watch the Padres on TV. If Hoffman pitched and got a save, one of the two would call the other after the game for a quick congratulations.
It was a virtual handshake since Merila couldn’t walk from the bullpen to the dugout anymore.
Merila was in a group of 100 patients to receive the experimental treatment, which had been used for colon cancer patients but never tried on a brain tumor. It stopped the growth of his tumor, and Merila has regained much of his mobility.
There are no promises for a full recovery, however.
Merila, 39, has set small goals. Get to the ballpark today. Watch a game from the bullpen, instead of the clubhouse. Play with his three young children.
Hoffman’s retirement announcment, however, has emboldened Merila to set a larger goal. He now is intent on a visit to Cooperstown. The first year Hoffman, 43, could be inducted into the Hall of Fame is 2016.
“That’s my goal now, to be there when he goes into the Hall of Fame,” Merila said. “That’s a long way away for me. I usually take it day by day. But I’m going to do everything I can to be there.”
He, no doubt, will be joined by many teammates.
Published on foxsports.com on Jan. 12, 2011.