Deep in the Heart Hoffman


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Trevor HoffmanERIC HOVLAND WAS 5 when the first invitation was received. While attending a clinic at Children’s Hospital with his mother, Eric was asked by Dina Macdonald, clinical coordinator of nephrology and kidney transplants, if he’d like to attend a Padres game as a guest of Trevor Hoffman.

 

“My wife didn’t know who Trevor was,” says Steve Hovland, who three years earlier had donated a kidney to replace one of his young son’s diseased organs. “But Eric knew.

“We probably were one of the first families to be involved. Over the past 10 years, the Hoffman invitation has been as regular as the seasons. We watch batting practice and the game from Trevor’s box [Trevor and his wife, Tracy, purchase four seats behind home plate].

Trevor will come over at some point and basically hang out with the kids, ask how they’re doing in school, visit with them as a friend. Recently, the kids also have been allowed to go out on the field.

“Every year, it’s the one day Eric looks forward to more than any other.”

Dylan Fortier, another annual guest of the Hoffmans, received a kidney transplant this winter. “Before that, he’d been chronically ill [on dialysis] for 11 years,” says Dylan’s mother, Lola. “He’s always loved baseball, but playing the game was something he couldn’t do.

The illness also made it difficult for him to have long-term relationships, and having this interaction with Trevor Hoffman is something he can talk about with his friends.

“Trevor always comes around and visits with the kids.

He doesn’t do anything goofy. There’s absolutely no attitude. It’s like an outdoor barbecue with family, where the uncle comes over and says, ‘How’s everything going?’

“I doubt you get that sort of caring from most celebrities.

“WHAT I DO IN THE COMMUNITY can be traced to examples set by my parents,” says Hoffman. The Padres’ peerless relief pitcher is taking a break from fine-tuning his 37-year-old body for the demands of a season during which his metallicaccompanied (“Hell’s Bells”) march into baseball’s record books continues. Earlier this season, Hoffman became only the third reliever to record 400 career saves.

“My mother still volunteers every Saturday at a churchsponsored thrift store near her [Orange County] home,” Hoffman says. “A big day for her there is $250 worth of goods sold, but she considers it an important part of her life.”

Ed Hoffman, who died in 1985, met his bride-to-be in England. Mikki was a ballerina, Ed a professional singer who toured worldwide with a group called the Royal Guards. After the two settled in Orange County and began a family, the father—returning from a prolonged work-related absence— was greeted at the door by his wife and first-born, Greg, who turned to Mikki and asked, “Who’s that?”

“My father immediately left the tour and spent the next 30 years working at a post office,” Trevor says. “The only singing he did from that day forward was the national anthem at sporting events. I’d say he left a clear message that family comes first.”

Trevor’s first strides toward creating his own family were taken in the late summer of 1992, in Buffalo, New York. “I was pitching for Nashville—was a starter back then,” Hoffman recalls. “I’d had a good game that day and was out celebrating when I saw this girl across a room and found myself thinking, ‘If I don’t make an attempt to meet her, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.’

“So I approached, and probably said some dumb things.

She was very pleasant, but wouldn’t give me her phone number.”

A Buffalo Bills cheerleader on NFL Sundays, Tracy Burke also was a real estate agent. Through some amateurish but eventually effective detective work, Hoffman matched her with an agency, left a message in which he posed as a potential client and was rewarded with a return message—one that included her phone numbers.

 

Deep in the Heart Hoffman
Tracy and Trevor Hoffman at home in Rancho Santa Fe
Photo: TIM MANTOANI
That was in August. Five months later, on an afternoon when the Bills were being stampeded (52-17) by Dallas in Super Bowl XXVII, Trevor Hoffman, ring in hand, somehow talked his way onto the field and—kneeling before an astonished Tracy—offered his proposal of marriage on the floor of the Rose Bowl.

 

AMONG QUALITIES SHARED by Trevor and Tracy is an abiding respect for the military. Both of their fathers had been U.S. Marines whose service included combat—Ed Hoffman with forces involved in the bloody battle for Iwo Jima during World War II, Charlie Burke in Vietnam.

“That’s allowed us to strike a resonant chord,” says Jack Ensch, the Padres’ director of military marketing. Known along the hallways of Petco Park simply as Captain Jack, the former U.S. Navy pilot accumulated over a 31-year military career some 3,000 flight hours and 800 carrier landings in F-4 Phantom and F-14 Tomcat fighters. Shot down by a surface-toair missile over North Vietnam in August of 1972, Ensch was a prisoner-of-war for seven months. His combat medals count may approach the number of saves Trevor Hoffman records during any normal season.

Dismissing his personal background, Captain Jack says, “I have a great deal of respect for the Hoffmans.” He delineates: vouchers purchased by the Hoffmans to provide hot dogs and drinks for military recruits who attend games as guests of the Padres; military families adopted for the Christmas holidays by the Hoffmans, who personally shop for gifts and deliver them as a family (the Hoffman boys—now 8, 7 and 6—included); their stadium box shared with military families on as many as 10 evenings during a season.

Captain Jack recalls a time during the mid-1990s when Trevor Hoffman and Brad Ausmus (then a Padres catcher) were airlifted to the carrier Kitty Hawk, where they spent a night mingling with ship personnel.

“At one point,” says Ensch, “Trevor took control of the camera crew that was following him and just turned it around—began interviewing sailors, asking where they were from, about their families, thanking them for what they were doing for our country. He made them feel important.

“I’ve never been in a situation with Trevor where he didn’t make people feel at ease. He’s a natural leader. If Trevor were in the military, he’d be going right up through the ranks. He’d be a commander.

“I get the sense that he also uses these things he does in the community to help his children learn life values. I’d guess that Trevor’s a great family man.”

“OUR BOYS ARE APPROACHING an age where they need to understand how blessed they are, and that they’re part of a world that includes a lot of different people in a lot of different circumstances,” Hoffman says. “Tracy is the key in being able to balance things we do. She deals daily with three energetic young boys, yet in our community activities she’s always been by my side—never behind me.”

For one routinely escorted from bullpen to mound by a throbbing “Hell’s Bells” and the cheers of thousands, it’s a sobering contrast to walk quiet, antiseptic halls of a building where children suffer, await transplants and have very little but another dawn to look forward to.

“It definitely tugs at you,” Hoffman says. “Those kids—they know something’s wrong with them, and if you can make them forget this for even a few minutes, how can you not want to do that?” Says David Gillig, executive director of Children’s Hospital, “The thing I notice most about Trevor is that he doesn’t look at it as an obligation. He truly has a heart for kids. Beyond arranged visits, he quietly comes over here a bunch of times every year and just interacts. You have to see the faces light up to understand what that means to us and to kids who’ve been dealt a tough set of cards from a health perspective. “He’s also great with parents. They’re the ones who are really frightened, and he seems to understand that.”

EARLIER THIS YEAR, Eric Hovland had a second kidney transplant, this one donated by his mother. “Eric’s doing well and, as always, looking forward to his summer visit with Trevor,” Steve Hovland says. “We had our first contact with him in 1994, which was the strike year. I’d given up on baseball at that point. Trevor Hoffman turned that around for me.”

Months after his first transplant, Dylan Fortier is completing his freshman year at Point Loma High School. “He still can’t play baseball, but he’s so much better in other ways these days,” says Lola Fortier. “Over those tough years, the support of people like [Children Hospital’s] Dina Macdonald, who’s a human angel, and the Hoffmans made a huge difference. How do you thank people like that?”

Understanding that there are barriers, both physical and imagined, between celebrated athletes and those who follow them from a distance, Trevor Hoffman has, in effect, helped reduce the barriers. “There’s a wall between our ballpark seats and the players,” he points out. “That’s why I wanted more access for the kids. Once they’re out on the field, there’s no fence between us.

“I’ll never forget the night when a 12-year-old boy shared our seats with his parents. After being out on the field and then seeing the game, he told me it was the greatest day of his life. “How do you respond to a comment like that—in his case, especially?” asks Hoffman. “Earlier that same day he’d been told he has leukemia.


© 2006 San Diego Magazine

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