MILWAUKEE -- It took longer -- much longer -- than he would have liked, but Trevor Hoffman finally has his nice, round number.
Major League Baseball's all-time saves leader notched No. 600 on Tuesday night at Miller Park, working around a leadoff single to close out a 4-2 win over the Cardinals.
When Wisconsin's own Craig Counsell fielded a grounder and fired to Prince Fielder for the final out, Hoffman threw his hands in the air and was mobbed by teammates who understood well the magnitude of the milestone, especially considering how hard those final four saves proved to get.
With a crowd of more than 33,000 cheering like they did two years ago, when the Brewers punched their ticket to the postseason, the big banner over the left-field bullpen, the one that was stuck on 596 for nearly three months, finally read "600."
"It's hard to describe this moment," an emotional Hoffman told the crowd. "Just ... thank you. Thank you to everybody that stuck around. Thanks for enduring a long season. Thank you to my family on the field and the family off the field. What tremendous support I've been given by everyone. ... I appreciate every one of you guys. I hope we all remember this forever.
"I think you could feel the energy tonight. ... These fans have been behind me the entire way, and I really appreciate it."
Hoffman, a light-hitting shortstop who converted to pitching in 1991 and finds himself bound for Cooperstown and the National Baseball Hall of Fame when he finally calls it quits, stands 45 saves ahead of the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, who is No. 2 all-time with 555. Lee Smith (478), John Franco (424) and Atlanta's Billy Wagner (417) round out the top five.
Who could have seen his march to 600 taking so long? Hoffman notched 37 saves in 2009 and made the National League All-Star team in a fabulous debut season with the Brewers, a seemingly seamless transition from his 16 seasons with the Padres. He entered 2010 with 591 saves but it was a struggle from the start, as he converted only five of his first 10 save chances and lost the closer's job in June to rookie John Axford.
Trevor Hoffman's milestone saves
vs. Colorado (first as a Padre)
vs. New York Mets
at St. Louis
vs. Pittsburgh (breaks Lee Smith's all-time record)
vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
vs. Pittsburgh (first as a Brewer)
vs. St. Louis
Two career saves with the Marlins, 552 saves with the Padres, 46 saves with the Brewers.
Axford has been excellent in Hoffman's stead, saving 20 games in 22 tries. In the meantime, Hoffman worked with pitching coach Rick Peterson on some mechanical tweaks, took a cortisone shot for a sore elbow that he still refuses to use as an excuse and rebounded to the tune of a 2.63 ERA in his last 29 appearances.
"I didn't go out and get my job done early," he said, "so it became more of a battle of attrition to get there and have that banner turn over. I understand there is more of a life lesson. ... Some things aren't easy to get to."
True to form, he deferred the credit: To his wife, Tracy, who followed the team in June and July to give her husband moral support. To his teammates, for the pats on the backside after his meaningless mop-up innings. To the fans in Milwaukee, who never uttered one boo.
"The outings I had in the middle of June and July, when I had to kind of get back on track, the applause that I would hear really meant a lot to a player who was down and questioning whether he had enough to get things done," Hoffman said.
The possibility that Hoffman could notch No. 600 on Tuesday was announced by fans standing along the railing atop the Brewers' bullpen when Hoffman stood and started to stretch while the Brewers batted in the bottom of the eighth inning. The applause started there and spread to the rest of the stadium.
Then, as usual, came "Hells Bells," the AC/DC anthem that has blasted through sound systems from San Diego to Milwaukee as Hoffman trots to the mound.
"It was a great feeling," Counsell said. "I told the guys, that's what you feel like when you play in playoff games or the World Series."
The roar was silenced when Hoffman surrendered a leadoff single to Colby Rasmus but returned when Randy Winn was erased on a double-play grounder.
That brought up another pinch-hitter, Aaron Miles, who swung through a 1-and-1 changeup -- Hoffman's signature pitch -- but worked the count full. Hoffman threw a fastball, and Miles sent a ground ball to shortstop Counsell for the final out.
Hoffman clenched his fists in the air, and his teammates enveloped him. "Hells Bells" was cued again. Hoffman's three young sons and Tracy, back in town after attending the first week of school in San Diego, joined the celebration.
"To have your teammates have that kind of outpouring, it's hard to describe," Hoffman said. "It shows you you're doing things right and you're having an impact in a positive manner. It shows you that if you appreciate them and appreciate the game, they'll appreciate you back."
"It was great because of how much admiration we all have for Trevor," Counsell said. "That's what makes it special. Hopefully, that came out [in the celebration]. The way he does his job is the way we all try to do ours."
Added outfielder Ryan Braun: "He's the ultimate teammate. It couldn't have happened to a better guy. All of us, we're just proud of him with how well he's handled the situation. He's set an amazing example of how to handle adversity and just how to carry yourself as a professional in this game."
Cue the questions about Hoffman's future. He will turn 43 on Oct. 13, and the Brewers are expected to decline his $7.5 million option for 2011. After notching save No. 599 last month, Hoffman might have accidentally given a hint, saying, "If this is the last season, then it would be hard to walk away knowing you're one shy of a big number."
He quickly took back the notion of "last season." That decision, he reiterated on Tuesday, will be made only after the season.
"The ultimate goal is to put a championship ring on my finger, and I know we've not met that expectation here in Milwaukee," he said. "[Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio] said it from Day 1, that he wants to have a competitive ballclub that's going to go out and win, year in and year out. Unfortunately, I was a part of the problem this year in not getting my job done early and getting some momentum going.
"As far as what the future holds, I'm going to enjoy this. I'm going to continue to grind until we get to Oct. 3, and we'll make a decision then. ... This was really a neat individual feeling."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.