It takes just the right amount of talent, bad luck and stubborn love of the game to set a career record in professional baseball’s minor leagues.
Mike Hessman has all three.
A few days ago, during a triple-A game at Fifth Third Field in Toledo, Ohio, Hessman sent a towering shot over the left field fence to give the hometown Mud Hens a 4-1 lead over the Rochester Red Wings. It was his 15th home run of the season, the 432nd of his career, and it tied Buzz Arlett’s nearly 80-year-old record for most home runs in the United States’ minor leagues.
Hessman, 37, has played all over the world, from New York City; Atlanta; Detroit; Oklahoma City; Louisville, Ky,; Buffalo, N.Y.; Toledo; Greenville, S.C.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Macon, Ga.; Richmond, Va.; and Danville, Va., to Aragua, Venezuela; Culiacan, Mexico; Osaka, Japan; and Beijing.
But he got his start at Santa Ana Mater Dei High, and even back then longtime coach Bob Ickes recognized the qualities that would serve Hessman well through 18-plus seasons of late meals and long bus rides.
Ickes says Hessman was a natural leader, well-liked and respected by his teammates. He remembers Hessman’s statistics: 25 home runs, a batting average of better than .400 and a 19-4 career record as a high school pitcher.
And, more than anything, he recalls Hessman’s passion for the game.
It’s the same passion he still sees in a veteran ballplayer whose stubble is now gray, who is still toiling in the minor leagues, and who is about to become the all-time home run king of the farm systems.
It will be a bittersweet title to hold.
In 1996, when Hessman was selected in the 15th round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Atlanta Braves, he was an intriguing prospect with plenty of upside. He hit consistently, rarely struck out, could play all over the field and pitch, with his fastball touching 90 mph.
He decided to skip college, seeing no good reason to delay the start of his professional career.
At first, he struggled. In rookie ball, he hit for a .218 average, struck out more than three times as often as he walked, and hit just one home run.
“It was a shock, coming out from California and playing all over Florida,” Hessman says. “I was just figuring out the grind as much as anything.”
But after that, he embarked on a stretch of 17 years in which he never hit fewer than 16 home runs. In 13 of those seasons, he hit 20 or more.
For portions of five seasons, he played in the major leagues. His first career hit as a big leaguer was a pinch-hit home run for the Braves in 2003. He played 19 games that season and 29 the year after that.
The Braves didn’t need a third baseman, though. They had two-time All-Star Vinny Castilla. At first base, they started Robert Fick, who was in his first year with the Braves after an All-Star season with Detroit. And the outfield was settled with Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield.
By the time he made it back to the big leagues, he was nearly 30 and had moved over to the Detroit Tigers, where he backed up Brandon Inge and Carlos Guillen, getting into 29 games over two seasons.
Ickes laments that Hessman never got a chance to settle in at the major league level.
“You bring a guy up and you play him one game, then he sits three games, then he plays one game, and then you decide to send him back down,” Ickes says. “I mean, he never really got the chance to play day in and day out and show what he could really do.”
Hessman’s final stint in the big leagues was in 2010 with the New York Mets. He played in 32 games, hit one home run and had a .127 batting average.
He doubts he will be called up again. In the last five years, he’s played in the Nippon Professional Baseball league in Japan, and has traveled to Venezuela and Mexico to play in pro winter leagues. In 2014, he came back to Toledo, a Tigers affiliate, with which he also spent the 2005 to 2009 seasons. He holds the team records in home runs and runs batted in.
Hessman has slowed down considerably, but Manager Larry Parrish has helped keep his career going by giving him regular rest and playing him most often as the designated hitter or at first base.
Arlett, whose playing career spanned the 1920s and ‘30s and who was known as “the Babe Ruth of the minor leagues,” retired at 38.
How long might Hessman keep playing?
“I don’t know,” he says with a laugh.
His old high school coach thinks he does. “He’ll play until they drag him off the field,” Ickes says. “Until no one will take him anymore. He’s a field rat, a real baseball junkie.”
Once Hessman is finished playing, there’s no doubt about what he wants to do next.
“I want to coach and manage,” he says. “I’ve had a few conversations with people, and I want to teach younger kids how to play the game hard and the right way.”
Once he passes Arlett, Hessman would need 51 more home runs to match Hector Espino, who played almost exclusively in the Mexican League. Espino’s 484 career home runs are considered the unofficial record for the minor leagues.
At his current rate, Hessman would finish this season with 438 home runs and would need to play at least two more seasons to catch Espino.
With Hessman’s batting average hovering just above .200 and his runs batted in not half of what they might have been in his prime, his career is definitely winding down. He is about a decade older than the average age of his teammates, but as long as he has power left in his compact swing, he says he’ll try to stick around.