BILLINGS — Trevor Hoffman went 2 for 6 with three RBIs in his first professional baseball game, helping the Billings Mustangs beat Medicine Hat 16-10 on June 19, 1989. And just like that, the 21-year-old shortstop was well on his way in his Hall of Fame career. Well, not exactly. Two years later Hoffman, who was drafted in the 11th round out of the University of Arizona by the Cincinnati Reds, hit a major roadblock. The Reds turned him into a pitcher for the 1991 season and the rest, as they say, is history. Hoffman never played for the Reds, but in 18 major-league seasons, mostly with San Diego (with a smattering of Florida and Milwaukee thrown in), Hoffman accumulated 601 saves and was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in January. He became just the second former Mustang, joining George Brett, to reach baseball’s pinnacle. “Pretty crazy,” Hoffman said with a chuckle last week by phone fresh off an appearance in the American Century Championship golf tournament at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course at Lake Tahoe in Stateline, Nevada. “It’s such a small number, no doubt, that are Hall of Famers, so in essence, to have two, is actually probably pretty good.”
Here is more of Hoffman’s conversation with Mike Scherting of 406mtsports.com, with edits for clarity and brevity.
What do you remember thinking as your plane landed in Billings?
“It was just the excitement of starting a professional career. I think it’s everybody’s dream to be drafted and I had a chance to do that with a good friend from the junior college ranks (Cypress College) that I played with. I went to Arizona and he went on to Sacramento State, Rob Blankenship, and we got drafted by the Cincinnati Reds together. So we had a chance to go to Billings that year together.”
Had you ever been to Montana?
“I was quickly taken aback by the views and everything and how beautiful that part of the country is. I had never been there … the vastness, just the sheer beauty of that part of the country is breathtaking.”
Did you come to Billings full of confidence that you could reach the big leagues? You batted a team-high .371 your last season at Arizona.
“There has to be a level of belief for sure, but I kind of had the opportunity to see first-hand how difficult it is. My older brother Glenn, nine years older than I, was kind of finishing up his big-league career in Boston having spent nine years there. I think he was on his way to Anaheim at the time. I mean, I got to see how hard it is to get to the big leagues. Some of the best talent sometimes doesn’t get there. But that being said, I was coming off a decent college run. I was excited about the prospects of trying my hand at pro ball.”
Your very first pro game you went 2-for-6 with 3 RBIs ….
“Really? I don’t remember it. I know it (the hitting success) didn’t last long. (Laughs). I might have deked Dave Keller a little bit, our manager. I might have gotten his hopes a little high. But I scuffled a little bit in the field and the batting average ended up around .240, something like that (actually .249). But I do remember Scotty Pose being on that team, our centerfielder. We ended up making the big leagues together in Florida. We both somehow got to the expansion draft with the Marlins and Scotty and I both made the big leagues together after being in Billings together.”
You mention scuffling in the field … do you remember you also made three errors in that game? Was that an indication of what was to come?
(Laughs) “Honestly, you talk about — and I would imagine most guys would be this way — you kind of, unfortunately, remember the negative stuff instead of the positive stuff. I remember making a lot of errors. I don’t remember hitting all that well. It’s kind of funny that I probably could recall the three errors before I could recall the two hits and three RBIs.”
You weren’t thinking while you were standing on second base with a double, ‘Ah, this is going to be easy?’
“That’s the beauty of box scores, though, too. It could have been a couple of duckfarts that landed over the first basemen’s head just inside the line, not a bullet to the left-center gap (laughs).”
It’s kind of interesting that you don’t remember the individual moments but more so the feelings from your early days.
“Yes, those type of things are easy to recall, you know, the uniform, what it looked like … the stadium. You’d think I could remember the playing stuff but it’s such a blur and a lot has happened since then, for sure.”
Fast forward to when the Reds said your days in the field were done and that they wanted you to pitch. Did you ever have the feeling they were giving up on you?
“That’s kind of a great question. It really is important that the player be on board completely. I think having finished up in Billings not terrible, but not great, getting a chance to play the next year in Charleston, West Virginia, my first half not going great on a good team, I knew I was somewhat letting the team down (Hoffman batted .212). I’d gotten to the point where I realized my future wasn’t going to be as an infielder. It wasn’t a matter of giving up on a dream it was a matter of let’s embrace the opportunity of a different path to get there.”
How did you have the confidence to do that, though? Did you have much pitching experience even?
“My dad didn’t let us pitch after Little League because he didn’t want us to run into an overzealous coach. I think to a degree, that could have helped, I could have been a little blinded, we’ll say. But having not pitched since I was 12 years old and have them come to you and say, ‘hey, you’re not going to be an infielder anymore we’re going to have you be a pitcher’ at 23 years old could have been a little scary. But I did have the good arm. I felt, you know what, let’s give this thing a shot. I’ve got a plus-fastball, I can learn some other things.”
And it went OK from the start?
“I just kind of got out of the gate good. I came to spring training (in 1992) having worked with Larry Barton, the longtime scout with the Reds, on a scout team in Orange County and he showed me a few things. In Charleston, West Virginia, I had worked the last three months with Mike Griffin and got comfortable with the mound. My first manager as a pitcher was Frank Funk, the former big league pitching coach with the Royals, and then the assistant coach was Mark Berry, who spent a long time with the Reds big-league club. I think it was just kind of a perfect storm of the transition was right with the right people around me and a willingness to do it.”
But if you didn’t have the accuracy to throw a ball from shortstop, how did you do it from a pitching mound?
“Most of my errors weren’t because of throwing errors it was because I was kicking the ball all over the place out in the field or I’d bobble it and rush a throw. I actually had a pretty accurate arm and so really, going from a not-very controlled environment trying to throw it across the diamond to a controlled environment of 60 feet, I was actually able to have control pretty quickly. I was somewhat comfortable not worrying about the wildness of what pitching could be like.” (Hoffman wound up 9-7 with a 2.93 ERA and 26 saves in 147.2 minor-league innings).
You had to have no inclination when you landed at the airport in Billings that you’d wind up in the Hall of Fame as a closer. That had to be the furthest thing from your mind.
(Laughs) "Totally. It’s a pretty long stretch to believe those are the heights you can reach, but that’s the uniqueness about my story. I’m going in with a guy in Chipper Jones, a lifelong Brave who has accomplished a ton of things in the game, and Jim Thome, a 600-plus homer guy. Vlad Guerrero, a freak talent. And then you have me, along with (Jack Morris and Alan Trammel on the Modern Era ballot), and I’m kind of the opportunity for kids to look at and go, hey, there’s more than one way to get not just to the big leagues, not just the Hall of Fame, but to embrace some opportunities that might come along your way. But I absolutely couldn’t agree with you more. When I arrived in Billings the last thing I was thinking was a Hall of Fame career. Let’s survive Tuesday and worry about Wednesday tomorrow.”
It’s kind of appropriate, talking to you now with this year’s Mustangs arriving in Billings in a few days. You really do have a story they can plug into when the grind hits.
“More than anything, my opportunity was victim or victorious. You have to find a way to be victorious in anything that’s presented to you. If things don’t go your way — you don’t even have to take into account a career change or a position change — but just on a daily basis, you get wrung up on a tough pitch or you don’t get the calls from an umpire. If you have the attitude I’m a victim here, you don’t really get over it, you’re not really a great teammate. Understand there are people around you who can help smooth things over. It’s just that attitude you bring on a daily basis that can help. Ultimately, whether you make it or not, just enjoy the time wherever you’re at.”
Any favorite haunts or places to eat from Billings that you remember?
“Dudley’s is a place I think we’d go to. And then the Perkins across the street from the ballpark, and I know Perkins is still there. My family and (former MLB catcher and Detroit Tigers manager) Brad Ausmus’ family, the first year after retirement in 2010, we went on an RV trip across the country and it took us through the Grand Canyon, up through Utah, and we stopped off in Billings. We ended up getting lunch at Perkins and walked over to the ballpark after it was redone ... it looked pretty awesome. It was pretty cool to go back and see it.”
How’s it been preparing for your July 29 induction?
“It’s excitement leading up to it, obviously. I try and think of the moment when I get a chance to get up at the podium in front of a few thousand people and a group of Hall of Famers behind me, and I don’t think you can really prepare for that particular moment and what that message is going to be like. I wake up in the middle of the night and I can’t go back to bed because I’m thinking about it (laughs). It consumes me a little bit. So I’m looking forward to the opportunity to thank a lot of people who got me to that podium, but in the same light I’ll welcome when it’s over and done with to truly be a Hall of Famer and kind of relax a little bit and unwind.”