Opening Bell is Rang

The familiar ring of "Hell's Bells" will make the transition from Qualcomm Stadium to Petco Park downtown in 2004 and perhaps beyond. Trevor Hoffman and the San Diego Padres agreed to a new deal on the same night the organization handed out its yearly awards.

"Coming out of the bullpen at PETCO Park there will be bells sounding again," said Padres general manager Kevin Towers. "It comes as a great relief to (manager Bruce Bochy) and me to have him signed. He'll go down as one of the great closers in the history of the game."

Towers maintained that getting Trevor Hoffman aboard was the key to the start of the offseason.

"It's huge," Towers said. "This has been my No. 1 priority since the season ended. The last thing I wanted would be to lose Trevor. He's our closer, and we saw how important a closer is the first couple months last year."

Towers could hardly contain his joy. It was the first of what many hope is a prosperous offseason in San Diego/

"This was a vital move for us," Towers said. "It doesn't matter how good your pitching staff is or how many runs you score, as we found out early in the year, if you don't have someone who can close out ball games in the ninth, it's tough to win."

When Hoffman went down with an injury, Brandon Villafuerte was the first of a few failed experiments as a closer. Rod Beck was the only guy, signed off the street, to get a grip on the role.

Hoffman now has a chance to continue his assault on the save records. At 352 he sits fifth on the all-time list and is headed for Jeff Reardon who has 367.

Hoffman, 36, is guaranteed $2.5 million in 2004. If he finishes a certain number of games, he can lock in a salary of up to $6 million for 2005. Add in the $2 million buyout and he has done nicely a year after making just nine appearances.

"It's an opportunity to show the team that I am going to be healthy and that I plan on pitching a few more years beyond this contract," Hoffman said. "This is home. I think that ultimately has the final say."

"It was important to have someone with his kind of character," Towers said. "I think the torch was kind of passed on to him. He's a tremendous role model to the youth of San Diego and he's a guy who is very proud to put on a Padres uniform and he represents the team and the city of San Diego in a very professional manner.

"I'm excited to be a part of the nucleus they're putting together," said Hoffman.

Now the Padres can turn their attention to other matters.

Notes: Mark Loretta was a dual winner at the team's awards banquet Wednesday night. He took home Padres MVP honors and favorite new Padre by the Madres booster club. The local chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America voted for Loretta after he batted .314 with a career-high 13 home runs and 72 RBIs. RHP Rod Beck, 20 for 20 in save opportunities on the year, won pitcher of the year. Manager Bruce Bochy won the Chairman's Award, presented by team owner John Moores and his family for community service.

Denis Savage can be reached at safage@cox.net

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