There was nothing ominous in the sound of these bells. The bells that for so long represented joy and victory in this town rang again Wednesday, long and loud. The good old days were back, at least for a day.
Hells Bells indeed. It had been one hell of a lousy sports year here.
The Chargers bolted for Los Angeles this time last year. The Padres lost their first game last season 14-3 and finished 33 games behind the despised Dodgers. San Diego State had the nation’s leading rusher, but he did not get a sniff of the Heisman Trophy.
The Hall of Fame called for Trevor Hoffman on Wednesday. The Padres introduced him at a news conference with his trademark entrance music. His wife, Tracy, wore a black AC/DC Hells Bells T-shirt. Hoffman stepped to the podium, in no great hurry to speak, savoring his song.
“We’ll let the bells stop,” he said.
It was a good day for the Angels too. Vladimir Guerrero, who graced their outfield, was elected to the Hall of Fame. And so was Hoffman, who grew up in Orange County.
His late father, Ed, was the singing usher at Anaheim Stadium. Ed would lead his section in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” He was the Angels’ trusty backup voice for the national anthem.
“If they were missing a singer that day, they would call him up,” said Mikki Hoffman, Trevor’s mother and Ed’s wife.
Trevor Hoffman was a shortstop at Savanna High in Anaheim, then at Cypress College. His mom still lives in Anaheim.
But, when Hoffman retired, he continued to call San Diego home. When the Padres organized a civic rally last February, inviting fans to trade in Chargers gear for Padres gear, Hoffman was a featured speaker.
The Padres are the only major league team in a market spurned by the NBA, NFL and NHL. They are the only game in town, and the Padres’ game is to be terrible for two to four years in the hope they might be good in another year or two.
January is not yet over, and yet San Diego might already have scored its biggest sports victory of the year.
Hoffman earned 601 saves, all but 49 with the Padres, the most in major league history for any pitcher not named Mariano Rivera.
He was a closer. There should be no shame in that.
“This was my job title,” he said. “This was what I was asked to do, and I did it pretty well.”
The save has gone out of vogue, amid a cascade of clinical statistical analysis, and the accompanying notion that any pitcher good enough to get three outs with a three-run lead in the seventh inning should be able to do the same in the ninth inning. And the corollary: a talented pitcher saved for the ninth inning might be better deployed in a tight spot in the seventh inning.
Yet, there is something unquantifiable about the closer’s role, even if the save statistic could stand a bit of refinement. There is that sense of invincibility, that anticipation of victory, when “Hells Bells” and Hoffman go together at Petco Park, or “California Love” and Kenley Jansen at Dodger Stadium.
When Eric Gagne came in, it really was Game Over. Give up the tying run in the seventh inning, and your teammates can pick you up. Give up the winning run in the ninth, and that walk off the mound can be mighty lonely.
“That becomes the joy in it,” Hoffman said. “I think that becomes that tightrope act, that you’re comfortable not having a net. …
“I couldn’t imagine being in a different role. There’s nothing better than flying those doors open, hearing some cool music, getting the fans riled up and having that home cooking, going out and trying to get things done. It’s a great role. It’s something I cherished. I appreciated the opportunity that my managers gave me. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Hoffman smoothly thanked his family, his fans, and the Padres, choking up only when he saluted former Padres general manager Kevin Towers, who is fighting cancer. Hoffman’s mother smiled at the thought of what celebratory songs her husband might have sung Wednesday.
“He was my Mario Lanza,” Mikki said. “Bless his heart, he would be so thrilled.”
Hoffman was the third child, the third boy.
“Trevor was supposed to be our girl,” Mikki said with a smile.
He was the man of the hour in San Diego on Wednesday, and probably the man of the sports year.
“We all know what the city has gone through the last 24, 48 months,” Hoffman said.
He talked about how the Padres have done their best to invigorate local sports, on the amateur and professional levels. But you can only trust the process for so long before you need a victory to avoid losing faith, and Hoffman’s election gave a beaten-down sports city an appreciably big win.
“To have something personally be able to give joy to the city, knowing that I’ve been backed by so many so well for so long, there’s a lot of pride there,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement to be able to give back, finally other than just saying ‘thank you.’
“I think people are going to be able to stick their chests out a little bit and say, he’s one of ours and we’re proud of him.”
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin