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Hells Bells


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Pressure is something you put on yourself, says the famous baseball pitcher. It’s not, as the rest of us might believe, something engendered by 60,000 baseball fans screaming your name as the sound of a giant bell echoes from the surrounding darkness.

BONGGG ... BONGGG ...

So goes the opening to AC/DC’s rock anthem “Hell’s Bells.” That hard-charging song heralds the pitcher’s entrance into the fray. A powerful guitar riff segues in after the bells, which toll for thee—especially if thee are an opposing batter due up to the plate against the San Diego Padres in the ninth inning.

The song now “belongs” to right-handed hurler Trevor William Hoffman. He is, of course, one of the best closers in Major League Baseball. He is paid handsomely—his four-year, $32 million contract is the highest in Padres history—to get three outs in tight games. The 33-year-old is a three-time All-Star. He put the finishing touches on 43 team victories last year. If Hoffman notches that many saves this year, he will be the first pro player to record five seasons with 40-plus saves. The 6-foot, 215-pound hurler with redwood-size thighs is 14th on the all-time list with 271 career saves.

But back to the song. “Hell’s Bells” was an idea spawned by a guy toiling in the Padres’ corporate marketing division. He suggested it to a guy in the entertainment department, who brought the idea to Hoffy. At the time, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” was working just fine for Hoffman. But he agreed to try something new. “Anything that wasn’t Tom Jones, you know?” he says.

“We tried it, and it took off like wildfire,” Hoffman says. “But in the second game I used it, I blew the save. Reporters asked why I changed my song. The song’s not responsible for how I throw.

“But it was exciting how the crowd attached to it really fast. It’s been fun. It’s not something where I’m reciting lyrics out in the bullpen or at home. It’s not the only song I listen to. It’s just fun—and part of the theater and the drama of the game.”

In terms even a non-sports fan can relate to, listening to “Hell’s Bells” and watching Hoffman enter in the ninth rivals: Hearing your Qualcomm stock did a two-for-one split. Finding clear traffic at the I-805 merge. A shoe-shopping high.

Contrary to what we’d believe, the song doesn’t actually pump Hoffman up. “By the time I go in, I’m already there,” he says. “The song does what it’s supposed to do for the fans. But I’m fighting more to calm my emotions than to build myself up.

“It’s kinda fun to know the focal point is on you when you’re coming out of the bullpen. You’ve seen the team fight and scratch and claw to get the lead. And now it’s the final act to the whole play. There’s a little bit of pressure not to f--- it up. You don’t want to send everybody home on a bad note. That’s why I do the things I do during the day of a game. I need to be consistent and have a routine, so I feel like I’m prepared each and every day to do my job.”

His job. When Tony Gwynn bats a fastball through the left side of the infield during the fifth inning, Trevor Hoffman is probably shining his shoes. That’s right. While Eric Owens dives after a gap-seeking line drive in the bottom of the sixth, Hoffman is likely sitting at his locker, applying black polish to footwear.

“I like my cleats to look good,” he booms, with nary a trace of apologia.

So during the team’s April 10 home opener, don’t bother scanning the bullpen in the middle innings for Hoffman. It’s all about routine. His is a unique game-day journey that involves solitary pursuits. Oh, and time spent as a bootblack.

Hoffman’s typical game day (for a 7:05 p.m. start time) begins at 2 p.m. with a 20-minute drive to the ballpark. Last year, he went sporty, driving a Porsche. This year, the father of three will take the more family-friendly Chevy Suburban. During the drive, he goes over in his mind what he’s done the last couple of games. “How does my arm feel?” he assesses. “Am I fatigued? Am I sore? How many pitches have I thrown recently?”

If Hoffman hasn’t been used much lately, he’ll run for 10-15 minutes when he gets to the park. That’s followed by sit-ups and a workout with light arm weights—5-pounders, tops (off-season workouts are much more frequent and strenuous).

Now it’s time for batting practice. He gets into uniform, and the team reports to the field. But seeing as how Hoffman rarely bats in games, batting practice entails “just standing around.” After standing around for about an hour and a half, Hoffman plays some catch.

Then it’s time for soup.

“Tony Petricca is our cook,” says Hoffman. Petricca’s actual title is assistant equipment manager. “The soup ranges from vegetable beef to chicken noodle to chicken rice to bean soup. I like the bean soup. Tony puts in some chopped onions, cheese and some Tabasco. With crackers, it’s pretty filling.”

After chow time, it’s about 20 minutes until the game starts. While the rest of the team is preparing for battle, “I’m playing loud music and screwing around,” Hoffman says. “Then I get my spikes on and organize my game glove and look at what color hat we’re wearing that day.”

Finally, he heads out to the bullpen. “I don’t walk across the field; I take the back way,” says Hoffman. “I take the tunnel and go out before I get to the visiting clubhouse. I don’t like to run into the other team. Nobody ever sees me.”

Why? “I don’t want to see the other team. I don’t want those guys—who I’m going up against and who are trying to take food off my plate—to get to know me. That’s not the time I want to sit or chitchat about how they’re doing or how their kids are.”

So now the game’s about to start. “I find my seat about the time they play the national anthem. Then it’s an all-out verbal assault among the relief pitchers for five innings. A guy’s new haircut will get abused. A new suit worn on the last road trip will get ripped. Whatever you’ve done recently to screw up is gonna get exploited. ... Our main ‘giver’ is bullpen coach Greg Booker. He sets the tone.” Insults aside, Hoffman admits his penchant for bean soup sometimes makes it odiferously dangerous to sit near him.

After Hoffman has belittled and tortured everyone for five innings, he leaves. “I work my way back to the clubhouse,” he says. “My goal is to get ready.” To that end, Hoffman sits at his locker and polishes the ol’ spikes.

“I get them nice and shiny,” he says. “Polishing shoes helps me escape the helter-skelter of the game that you feel sitting in the bullpen. The drama builds. I know what I have to do, but if I sat there my stomach would get nervous. By removing myself from that situation, my stress level isn’t going up the wall. So I shine my shoes.”

Then it’s shower time. “It’s not a fun, leisurely shower, where I shampoo my hair,” notes Hoffman. “I go in and turn the hot water on my [right] shoulder. It kinda relaxes it.”

If Padres starter Woody Williams is pitching—Williams works fast—Hoffman takes a quick shower. Then he towels down, puts on his socks and his uniform pants. In the training room, trainer Todd Hutcheson helps him with a “pre-game” stretch—as if the game hadn’t started hours ago. Hoffman  puts a special blend of “hot stuff”—kind of like a Tabasco-infused version of Ben-Gay—on his right arm, and then dons a T-shirt.

All the while, he’s been following the game via radios and televisions in the clubhouse. Finally, those shoes are dry. It’s time.

“I turn from my locker and go,” he says. “I keep my head down. It’s tough. Fans are in the tunnel, but I don’t want to run into anybody. Fans don’t understand I’m 10 minutes from going into the game. I’m ready and focused.”

Padres manager Bruce Bochy says the toughest outs in baseball are the last three. “It takes a special makeup to pitch under that pressure,” he says. “You need special emotional control. You have to have mental toughness. If things don’t go well, you have to be resilient and able to come back and do it again. Trevor has all those qualities.”

When Hoffman’s needed, Bochy calls Booker on the bullpen telephone and says, “Get Hoffy up.”

Then Booker turns to Hoffman and says, “All right, Hoffy, you got it.”

Soon after, the bells begin ringing. You know what happens next.

“Hell’s Bells” is not allowed on the stereo system in the beachfront Del Mar home of Trevor and Tracy Hoffman. “At the ballpark, the song gives you the chills,” says Tracy. “But I don’t like the lyrics.”

It’s hard enough chasing three young boys around a house without instrumental accompaniment. The Hoffman boys are Brody, 4; Quinn, 3; and Wyatt, who turns 2 in March. “Brody looks like Trevor did when he was a child,” says Tracy, a pretty and gregarious brunette from Buffalo, New York. “Quinn looks like me, and Wyatt is a mix of our looks and personalities.”

The house is awash in dinosaur toys. There’s a kid-size Monopoly pinball machine here, a 4-foot stuffed monkey doll there. White walls are filled with photos: the boys in batting helmets at Qualcomm Stadium; family portraits; beach shots taken during a Maui vacation with the couple’s extended family —including Glenn Hoffman, Trevor’s older brother, who’s a coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Tracy smilingly calls her husband “a goofball.” It’s no stretch to picture Trevor more like the fun-loving older brother than as a dad. But Tracy says the children have a settling effect on Trevor—especially after a bad outing at the ballpark. “Before the kids, he’d come home sad if he didn’t win,” she says. “But the kids don’t understand when Daddy has a bad game. So he’s just always so cool with them and has fun with them whether he wins or loses.”

This season, Trevor wishes he wasn’t facing the all-too-likely prospect of putting on the happy-daddy façade after games. “I’m not into predictions,” he says. “But our division has gotten a lot better. The Colorado Rockies spent a lot of money—$180 million in the free-agent market. They got Curt Shilling to go with Randy Johnson on the mound. The Dodgers re-signed Chan Ho and picked up Andy Ashby. The Giants are the defending champs of our division. What did we do? We went from a $54 million payroll to $37 million. We’re kind of going in the wrong direction. It’s going to be tough to compete, but we’ll try to stay healthy and do it with our young guys.”

An adamant Hoffman believes a new downtown ballpark is a vital part of the team’s recipe for future success. “If they don’t get that stadium done, I would venture to say that the franchise would move on to another city. The ballpark will be a vehicle for added income right off the bat,” he says. “You’ve seen what Camden Yards did for Baltimore. It’s a cathedral that’s been erected where people can go and feel in touch with the national pastime. That’s something that needs to be done here in San Diego.”

Hoffman keeps tabs on the political struggle surrounding ballpark construction. “I think the integrity of the project is legit. I don’t think anybody’s out to cheat anybody. The good of what it will bring should be weighed. ... I think some people need to think about the good that will come out of this thing, and back off.”

BONGGG ... BONGGG ... Oops, sorry, not in the house.

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