Hell's Bells

Trevor Hoffman celebrated his 36th birthday yesterday and is still showing he is strong as ever on the hill when he came back from shoulder surgery. The San Diego Padres have a $10 million dollar option on the closer for 2004. $2 million is the price to buy one of the most popular players ever to play in San Diego, making him a free agent. One thing is certain, both Hoffman and General Manager Kevin Towers see the closer in San Diego next year.

"He shouldn't ever pitch anywhere else," Padres general manager Kevin Towers said in the waning days of the 2003 season.

Towers was talking after Hoffman had returned from two rounds of shoulder surgery to allow two runs on seven hits in nine late-season, one-inning appearances. Hoffman looked good. Although his fastball didn't hit 90, the span between his fastball and change was a solid 12 mph.

"I felt good again," Hoffman said. "There was no pain when I threw. I was loose and easy. I've got a future again."

Hoffman, said he wants that future to be in San Diego, which is where he has his year-round home. But before that can happen, Hoffman and the Padres have some tricky negotiating to do.

By 21 days after the conclusion of the World Series, the Padres have to make the decision to pick up Hoffman's option for 2004 at the $10 million mentioned previously or offer him a buyout at $2 million. Buying him out will also make Hoffman a free agent -- and open to all offers.

But the Padres also don't want to pay Hoffman the full $10 million for 2004 -- particularly in light of the fact that Hoffman missed the first five months of the 2003 season following two rounds of shoulder surgery (a cleaning of the rotator cuff last October and the shaving of the right clavicle last spring to remove an impingement).

So the pitcher and the club must renegotiate a contract.

"We'll probably exercise the buyout and negotiate from there," Towers said in the final weeks of the season after it became apparent that Hoffman was back in business.

"To be honest," said Hoffman, "I couldn't talk about 2004 or 2005 until I knew I could pitch again. There was a big question until I did it. Now that I've proven to myself and hopefully the team that I'm pitching again, it's time to think about the future.

"I'd like to reach some type of an agreement that will keep me a Padre through the end of my career. That's my goal. I sense the club agrees. Now we have to work out the details."

Hoffman is the ranking active Padre in terms of seniority. He came to San Diego in 1993 from Florida. All but two of his 352 saves -- the fifth-highest total in major league history -- have come with the Padres. That is also the highest total with a single team.

Also of note, Hoffman was voted to the All-Time Padres team, as voted on by the fans this season. With a new ballpark downtown in 2004, Towers wants to keep the fans happy and coming to the new digs. In fact, Hoffman is so popular he handed the ball to "Mr. San Diego", Tony Gwynn, so he could throw the last pitch ever at Qualcomm.

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