May 18, 2010.
That was the day on which Trevor Hoffman stopped being a closer, and started being something else. On the 18th of May, Hoffman turned a 4-1 lead over the Reds into a 5-4 loss. It was his fourth blown save of the young season, his ERA was 13.15, and manager Ken Macha had seen enough. Exit Hoffman, enter rookie John Axford.
Hoffman was 42. Most closers don't make it that long, and nobody lasts forever (though Sinatra gave it a shot).
The problem was that Hoffman was four saves short of 600, and we do like our round numbers. A couple of months later, Hoffman got No. 597. Eleven days later, No. 598 (after a couple of poor outings). Eleven more days later, a quick (and exceptionally easy) two-out save against the Pirates for 599. And 10 days later -- noticing a pattern here? -- Hoffman pitched a solid ninth inning against the Cardinals to hit that big round number.
I wish I could say that one of Baseball's Greatest Mysteries is why the Brewers and Hoffman didn't stop right there. After all, would there be any number more memorable in this era than Trevor Hoffman's 600 saves, if he'd stopped right there?
Alas, it's not much of a mystery. In this case, utility (and perhaps a bit of sentiment) trumped roundness. On the 29th of September, the Brewers played two games against the Mets. In the first game, Milwaukee took an 8-7 lead with two runs in the eighth. In the bottom of the ninth, young John Axford -- who had taken over as the Brewers' closer, and with great success -- retired the Mets in order to earn the save.
If there hadn't been a second game, that probably would have been that.
But there was a second game, and even though Axford had thrown only 14 pitches in the first game, Hoffman got the call to protect the Brewers' 3-1 lead and pitched a perfect ninth of his own. Goodbye, 600; hello, 601.
Milwaukee would play four more games, but there was only one more ninth-inning save situation and Axford converted it; Hoffman didn't pitch again. Happily, while that last save pushed him above 600, it also dropped him below 6; entering that last appearance, Hoffman's ERA for the season was 6.02, but afterward it was 5.89.
So he's got that going for him.
Not that he really needed it. Those 601 saves should be plenty. I don't think Hoffman's Hall of Fame chances will be hurt by Mariano Rivera any more than Alan Trammell's were hurt by Cal Ripken, or Tim Raines' were hurt by Rickey Henderson.
OK, bad examples.
Still, it's hard to predict exactly what will happen when Hoffman appears on the Hall of Fame ballot. It will be an exceptionally crowded ballot. Hoffman will still be No. 1 or 2 on the all-time saves list ... but how much good did that do Lee Smith, who pitched exactly 200 more innings than Hoffman and finished with roughly the same ERA.
When it comes to relief pitchers, Hall of Fame voters should be exceptionally picky. They weren't with Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter, but Sutter had the splitter and Fingers had the handlebar. They've been picky with Smith, and were picky for many years with Gossage.
Things don't always happen the way we think they will. Hoffman had to sweat for No. 600. He might be sweating again, five years from now.