Hoffman prepares for return to San Diego

Hoffman prepares for return to San Diego

MILWAUKEE -- Trevor Hoffman calls his return to San Diego "just another road trip."

Yeah, and he's just another soft-tossing reliever.

Major League Baseball's all-time saves leader will bring his signature changeup home beginning Friday, when the Brewers and Padres start a three-game series at PETCO Park. The weekend set offers Hoffman an opportunity to sleep in his North County San Diego home and play in the ballpark he helped open in 2004, but this time he won't be wearing a uniform with "Padres" stitched across the chest.

"I used to think, 'I hope I finish my career here, but if I didn't, what would it be like, coming through as a visitor?'" Hoffman said. "We're going to find out."

Hoffman pitched in 902 games for the Padres, a record for appearances with one team (though Mariano Rivera, who had pitched 894 games for the Yankees through Wednesday, is gaining). Entering games to the AC/DC anthem "Hells Bells" for most of his tenure, Hoffman recorded 552 of his record 577 saves in a Padres uniform, including nine 40-save seasons, another record. He went to six All-Star games as a Padre and helped the team reach the postseason four times, including a trip to the 1998 World Series.

Even with all the history, Hoffman is unsure how he'll be greeted by Padres fans on Friday night. He is, after all, a visitor, one who didn't depart on good terms.

"It's not like I'm coming back, retired, for a ceremony," he said. "I'm a visiting ballplayer. When I'm retired, then there might be a little more reflection on things.

"For now I hope that the fans understand that things happen in the game on the business side -- the ugly side -- of it. I was lucky to have 16 great seasons in one spot. It's kind of crazy when you think about it."

The Padres are expected to acknowledge Hoffman's return in some way, though by midweek no one in the Brewers organization, including Hoffman, was sure what to expect. Some Milwaukee teammates wondered if the Padres might play "Hells Bells" if Hoffman encounters a save situation. (Hoffman doesn't think they will.)

Hoffman's milestone saves
Save No.
104/29/1993 at ATL
304/8/1994 vs. FLA*
10004/13/1997 at PHI
20006/10/1999 vs. OAK
30008/15/2001 vs. NYM
40005/6/2005 at STL
47909/24/2006 vs. PIT**
50006/6/2007vs. LAD
55504/28/2009vs. PIT***
* First as a Padre
** Became all-time saves leader
*** First as a Brewer

So the whole weekend will be a bit strange, and Hoffman won't be the only one feeling that way.

"Trevor told me once that you can't let your emotions get a hold of you, you need to get a hold of your emotions. That can be hard. Your adrenaline gets pumping," said Padres right-hander Heath Bell, who assumed the ninth-inning duties from Hoffman. "I can't be calm and cool all the time like Trevor was. I get a little ramped up."

Said Tony Gwynn Jr., a former Brewer traded to the Padres in April who grew up alongside Hoffman: "He's an icon. I'm sure he's excited, and I'm sure a lot of fans in San Diego are excited to see him coming back."

Hoffman wishes he was returning on better terms. He's hesitant to rehash the details of his exit, saying that he's "trying to be politically correct." He concedes he has "baggage," but he doesn't want to be portrayed as whining about the manner in which his Padres career came to an end. He got a "nice" letter from San Diego general manager Kevin Towers after the New Year but has not had time to respond.

The bottom line, Hoffman said, is that he wishes a San Diego official had told him to his face that his time was up, that the Padres were moving to a lower-cost option. Call a news conference, explain the decision "and everybody looks good," Hoffman said. "But they couldn't do that."

"I'm a little bitter about how it worked out, man," he shrugs. "A fax to my agent. But it does no good to harbor that stuff. ... I had a great run. A great 16 years. I'm disappointed that I didn't get to finish there, but they're probably happy the way things have turned out, and I'm lucky that I've landed on my feet here."

Most 30-plus save seasons
Trevor Hoffman13
Mariano Rivera11
Lee Smith10
Dennis Eckersley8
John Franco 8
Troy Percival8
Billy Wagner8
John Wetteland8
(Entering 2009)

He's more than landed on his feet. Hoffman ultimately chose a one-year deal with the Brewers that offered $6 million plus incentives and a guarantee that he would be the closer, and he is 23-for-25 in save opportunities so far with a 1.80 ERA. In San Diego, Bell has settled nicely into the closer's role, posting 25 saves this year with only one blown save and a 2.02 ERA. Both made the NL All-Star team, Bell for the first time and Hoffman for the seventh.

If anyone is surprised by the quality of Hoffman's season at 41 years old, it isn't the pitcher himself.

"I wasn't the one saying I had nothing left in the tank," he said.

Brewers general manager Doug Melvin wasn't, either. Melvin looked at Hoffman's 2008 record -- 30-for-34 in save opportunities with a 3.77 ERA, his highest since 1995 -- and noticed that two games skewed the numbers. Take away the only two outings in which Hoffman surrendered more than two runs, and his ERA dropped to 2.44. Remove the only other game in which he surrendered more than one run, and it fell to 2.08. Plus, because the Padres weren't in the pennant race, Hoffman was used only 42 times, his fewest appearances since 1994. (He appeared in only nine games in 2003 as he was recovering from offseason shoulder surgeries.)

Most 40-plus save seasons
Trevor Hoffman 9
Mariano Rivera 6
Dennis Eckersley 4
Jose Mesa 4
Robb Nen 4
Francisco Rodriguez 4
John Wetteland 4
(Entering 2009)

Hoffman and the Brewers briefly considered a two-year deal, but both sides preferred the one-year option.

"He's still going to give you that high confidence level," Melvin said. "It's sort of fun to see, because he's deserving of everything. Like I said when he made the All-Star team, he's had an All-Star career, and he's having an All-Star season."

It's too early to talk about whether there might be more seasons, though Hoffman, who will turn 42 in October, did say that if he pitches in 2010, he would like it to be in Milwaukee.

"The transition away from what I was used to hasn't been as bad," Hoffman said. "It's actually been nice to have things slow down. The phone's not ringing at the house. You don't have commitments all around town. You don't have school stuff thrown at you for the kids. They come out for the summer, and it's family time. There's not a lot on the plate."

Hoffman's three sons -- Brody, Quinn and Wyatt -- and his wife, Tracy, traveled back to San Diego on Monday ahead of the series. Hoffman will join them on Thursday evening, and he will commute to the ballpark for the Brewers' series in San Diego and Los Angeles.

It's the smallest details that will be the strangest. Dressing in the visitors' clubhouse. Shuttling to the visitors' dugout. When a reporter asked where he planned to park, Hoffman was stumped. He figured he'd sweet-talk his way into the players' lot by bringing along his bulldog, Bubba. Hoffman's big brother, Glenn, is the Padres' third-base coach, so Trevor will try to arrive early enough to commandeer the parking spot marked "HOFFMAN."

These are all considerations Hoffman never thought he would have to consider. It leaves one of the best closers in baseball history unable to come up with closure of his own.

"I was in it for the long haul because I had invested so much time and I didn't want to sever that legacy. You see it here with Robin here," Hoffman said, referring to Hall of Famer Robin Yount, who played all 20 of his seasons in Milwaukee. "Even though I wasn't a lifer -- I started in Cincinnati and went to Florida for a bit -- I was as close as you're going to come. I'm moving on, but I'm never going to have that finish like I want.

"I'm excited to go back, but I kind of have to treat it as another road trip. We're only there for a couple of games, and these are all important games for us here. We can't get lost in anything else. The big thing is that what's past is past."

Mike Cameron, Hoffman's Padres teammate in 2006 and 2007, thinks San Diegans will remember the past fondly. He doesn't expect Hoffman to hear any grief.

"No," Cameron said flatly. "Some of them might start crying."

Said Brewers manager Ken Macha: "They should give him a standing ovation. He did a lot for that organization. There should be no question."

Hoffman isn't so sure.

"I'm a little uncertain," Hoffman said. "A little nervous. You want to go home and do well."

Even when going home means playing on the road.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporter Corey Brock contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.