The Mass Effect: Trevor Hoffman’s Jersey Retirement Calls for a History Lesson

I attended Trevor Hoffman’s jersey retirement ceremony on Aug. 21 at Petco Park in San Diego. The No. 51 will never be worn again by a San Diego Padre. Hoffman retired from Major League Baseball at the end of 2010 with 601 saves. The Padres gave their greatest pitcher in franchise history a 1958 Cadillac convertible and a warm reception.

A closer known for his dawdling trot from the outfield to the beat of ACDC’s “Hell’s Bells” and his devastating changeup, Hoffman took the microphone and thanked the people of San Diego for their support throughout the years. At the end of his speech, he said, “Success has no shortcuts.”

Hoffman’s career began in 1993 and ended in 2010, with his prime coming in the midst of the steroid era. His closing message had to have been a shot at those who took the shortcut known as “performance-enhancing drugs” throughout his career.

Two names now define the word “save” in baseball: Trevor Hoffman (601) and Mariano Rivera (592). Rivera continues to pitch a couple months short of 42 years old and could pass Hoffman by the end of September or early next season. Although the save statistic has only been around since 1969, the fact that Hoffman and Rivera were able to shut the door on such dauntingly falsified, muscular lineups is astounding and both of them will be forever glorified in Cooperstown.

I was 7 years old when Big Mac (Mark McGwire) and Slammin’ Sammy Sosa wowed America’s pastime with a record chase for the ages in 1998. Home runs were dropping faster than Bill Clinton’s drawers were in the Oval Office.

When evaluating the MLB schedule, I used to look for games that guaranteed a few big flies. The Giants are coming to San Diego, who wants to see Bonds go yard? A-Rod and the Rangers are in town, who’s up for an Angels game? Sosa’s going to be in right field at Chavez Ravine, think he can clear the palm trees and reach the parking lot?

But times have changed. This year, I looked for great pitching matchups and it has paid off. I’ve seen Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander, Dan Haren, Jair Jurrjens, Clayton Kershaw, Ervin Santana, C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando this season alone. I’ve seen shutouts, strikeouts and frustrated batters. And I’ve seen more curtain calls from pitchers exiting in the late innings than I have from hitters after slugging home runs.

Sure a 520-foot home run is a sight to see, but so is a 97 mph fastball that’s blown by one of the greatest hitters in the world. The day of the moonshot home run is going, going, gone.

Baseball has returned to what it was before MTV and cell phones. It may be low-scoring, but at least they don’t decide the winner by penalty kicks (Am I right, soccer fans?).

The captivating home run chase of 1998 and Barry Bonds’ obliteration of opposing pitchers in the early 2000s was a decade break from what baseball used to be, a pitcher’s game. After all, Major League Baseball once lowered the pitcher’s mound in 1969 from 15 inches to 10, after what is now referred to as “The Year of the Pitcher.” In 1968, Bob Gibson had a 1.12 earned run average (ERA) and the average MLB team scored just 660 runs.

Since the MLB began testing for performance-enhancing drugs in 2005, home run totals and runs have plummeted and pitchers have begun to dominate at a pace that has drawn closer to “The Year of the Pitcher” than it has “The Steroid Era.” In 2000, the average MLB team hit 190 home runs, compared to 154 in 2010. Eight-hundred thirty-two runs were scored per team in 2000, compared to 710 per team last season.

In a 10-year span, pitchers have gone from giving up 4.76 runs per game, shivering at the prospect of throwing to names like Bonds, Sosa and McGwire, to painting inside corners and fearlessly going after sluggers. Pitchers were averaging an ERA of 3.90 this year as of Aug. 23.

On Aug. 5, Angels pitcher Jered Weaver threw nine innings without giving up a single run, but he didn’t get the win. The Angels and the Mariners went to extra innings tied 0-0 and the Angels won in 10, after Weaver gave way to relief pitcher Jordan Walden. As of Aug. 23, Padres starter Mat Latos was 6-12 with a 3.83 ERA, compare this to Aaron Sele in 1999, who went 18-9 with a 4.79 ERA.

The diminished impact of the long ball has made wins tougher to come by for pitchers. Granted, run support varies by team, but the point is, pitching duals have become the new slugfest and ERAs that were once exceptional are now average.

No-hitters are on the rise and record-breaking home run seasons are now a thing of the past. From 1997 through 2004 (an eight-year span, for all you math majors) 13 no-hitters were recorded (1.63 per year). Since performance-enhancing drug testing was implemented in 2005, 17 no-hitters have occurred (2.51 per season).

Last season, the Toronto Blue Jays hit 100 more home runs than the MLB average. The Jays hit 146 home runs at home, compared to 69 in 2008. Their right fielder, Jose Bautista, hit 54 home runs. His previous career-high was 16 in 2006. Steroid suspicion swirled as Bautista denied using performance-enhancing drugs.

However, sign stealing has been theorized as a home-field advantage in Toronto and could bring some closure to the performance-enhancing drugs rumors.

But the Blue Jays’ home run totals still seem fishy. The Angels’ Vernon Wells hit .321 at home with 20 home runs and 54 runs batted in as a Blue Jay in 2010. On the road, Wells hit a meager .227 with just 11 home runs and 34 runs batted in. This season, Wells has hit .204 with the Angels, adding 17 home runs and 46 runs batted in. Wells’ downturn could be attributed to a difference in ballparks or, who knows, maybe sign stealing? Wells has definitely proven that he’s not worth $26.6 million per year.

In baseball someone is always trying to find a leg up on the competition. Bautista, Wells and the Blue Jays could have very well been stealing their way to higher salaries. Wells now makes $9 million more than Jered Weaver, one of baseball’s best pitchers and Wells’ teammate.

Hoffman was wrong, there are shortcuts to success. Shortcuts have led to multimillion-dollar paydays and tainted record books. But Hoffman, a man of loyalty who played the game the right way, retires with success, a pure record and a clean conscience.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens may have had their heyday, but instead of running from the law, Hoffman can coast away in his 1958 Cadillac knowing that he didn’t cheat the game of baseball.