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Stories of Baseball
December 31, 2007
The Untold Tale of an Amazing Last Week
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December 31, 2007

Stories Of Baseball

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The Untold Tale of an Amazing Last Week

ON THE morning after the nightmare, and three weeks before the wildfires would close in on him like the devil's breath, Trevor Hoffman awoke to the sound of children's laughter. The lilt in the voices of his three boys—Brody, 11, Quinn, 10, and Wyatt, 8—felt soothing but like a balm over burns, which is to say that the sweetness only masked the pain.

It was a start, though.

Only two pitchers in baseball history know the terrible feeling of a walk-off loss in a winner-take-all tiebreaker game: Ralph Branca and Trevor Hoffman. On the first day of October, 56 years minus two days after Branca of the Dodgers threw the pitch that Bobby Thomson turned into The Shot Heard 'Round the World, the home run that won the 1951 NL pennant for the New York Giants, Hoffman, baseball's alltime saves leader, entrusted with an 8--6 lead over the Colorado Rockies in the bottom of the 13th inning, gave up three runs on just 19 pitches.

It was like watching a five-car pileup unfold on an icy freeway: double, double, triple, walk, sacrifice fly. Maybe the Rockies' Matt Holliday never did touch home plate with the winning run, but by then there was a move-it-along-there's-nothing-left-here-to-see feel to the proceedings. Colorado took the NL wild card, then advanced to its first World Series, winners, ultimately, of 21 of 22 games to get there.

The Padres went home.

"The finality of it ..." Hoffman says. "There was no reward. If it happens in the playoffs, at least you were in the playoffs."

It was the second time in three days that Hoffman had let a playoff-clinching win get away. In Milwaukee two days before, he was one strike away from saving a 3--2 win that would have eliminated Colorado and put the Padres in the playoffs, another celebratory moment in a season full of them. Ace Jake Peavy was on his way to the pitching Triple Crown and Cy Young Award. Hoffman got his 500th career save. His former teammate and close friend, Tony Gwynn, had been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

That one strike Hoffman needed to put San Diego in the playoffs? Turned out he needed it against Tony Gwynn Jr., who as a boy would try to keep up with Hoffman during the pitcher's strenuous pregame workouts. Hoffman loved his company. The two played a game that Hoffman had made up: A trainer would loft a football while you were running sprints, and you'd have to run under it and catch it. Two points were awarded for a one-handed catch, one for a two-handed catch, nothing for a drop. "My hands were too small to catch one-handed," Tony Jr. says, "so I could never beat him."

As Gwynn stepped in with two outs and a runner at second, the Padres stood like sprinters in the starting blocks on the top of the steps of the visitors' dugout, ready to storm the field.

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