Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Tall Tale of Toledo: Michael Steven Hessman and the Long and Winding Road

To label Mike Hessman as a tragic figure would be a mistake. It is easy to assume that a thirty-seven year old with only 109 Major League games under his belt would be long past his dream of a baseball career. Not so for Hessman, who has spent nearly as much time in the Minor Leagues as Derek Jeter did in Yankees pinstripes. He is the all-time International League home run king, and if he can stay healthy for a few more years, the all-time Minor League record of 484 is within reach. Friday night in Indianapolis, Mike Hessman hit the 423rd home run of his career. It was a grand slam, scoring the only four runs of the night for the struggling Toledo Mud Hens. It went largely unnoticed, however Mike's dream of big league stardom has now changed to that of a mentor to the young players of the game he loves.
It all began back in the 1996 MLB Amateur Draft. The Atlanta Braves selected Hessman, a power-hitting first baseman out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California with the 452nd overall pick. He wasn't initially viewed as a standout prospect. After all, not many fifteenth round picks make the Majors. At age eighteen, playing for the Braves' rookie-level team in Florida, Hessman batted .216 and hit one home run. He also struck out forty-one times. I simply do not have the resources to track down everyone he interacted with following that season, but I think its safe to assume that there were a few voices in his ear, doubting his ability to survive in the game.

He was assigned to the low-A level Macon Braves to start the 1997 season. If my trip to a low-A ballclub last year was any indication, the level of play is considerably raw. This fit exactly what Hessman was- a broad-shouldered kid with a tendency to swing for the fences with every try. His average was up, and so were the home runs and strikeouts, as would fit his profile. A year later he was given a uniform for the advanced-A level Danville 97's. The home run strength showed promise, and in the height of baseball's power surge, it was growing more evident that a player like Mike Hessman could be an asset.

Then Danville relocated to Myrtle Beach and became the Pelicans, a team that exists to this day as a member of the Cubs' organization. Hess improved in nearly every facet of the game. His plate discipline had matured, which saw his on-base percentage jump nearly ninety points. Of his ninety hits in the summer of 1999, twenty-five were doubles, twenty-three were home runs. As the Minor Leagues go, if you're any good, you won't stay somewhere very long.

Hessman spent the next two seasons in double-A Greenville, where he crossed the one-hundred career home run plateau to little fanfare. Making it up to Atlanta was his goal, and the statistics in the Braves system were merely resume fodder. In 2002, he made the triple-A Richmond Braves. It was clear that Hess had come a long way, and playing his way up to the cusp of the big leagues was a victory in itself. 18,175 players have made a Major League roster. Compare that to around 221,860 players in Minor League history. There was the free-swinging kid from California, full-steam ahead, just a heartbeat from the Majors.

On August 22, 2003, Mike Hessman got the call. In the top of the seventh inning, Braves manager Bobby Cox placed Hess in as a pinch hitter for Greg Maddux. On the fourth pitch of his at-bat, Mike grounded into an inning-ending double play. His day was over much quicker than it had started. Four days later, against the New York Mets, he would be given another opportunity. In the bottom of the ninth, he was sent in to pinch hit. On the sixth pitch he saw from Mike Stanton, Mike Hessman got his first Major League hit- a home run. It would be one of two that season for the twenty-five year old. Things were looking up, and it seemed as if there might be a place for him in Atlanta.

Hess began the 2004 season playing for the Braves. Over the course of three months, his batting line wilted to an abysmal .130/.155/.261, leading to his demotion to triple-A after the game on July 1st. Once the season was complete, the Braves declined to renew his contract and he was granted free agency. At twenty-six, having freshly flamed out of his first stint in the Majors, Mike Hessman was at a crossroads. He would later say in an interview with Sports on Earth that he had no backup plan; that baseball was it for him. He was a baseball player, so he pushed on. In January of 2005, he signed with the Detroit Tigers, and continued his Minor League journey.

It was then he suited up for the Toledo Mud Hens for the first time. When he first broke into triple-A, Hess was three years younger than the average player at that level. At twenty-seven, he was of average age and had some Major League experience to work with. It would be two years before his next chance at the bigs, but in that time, he crossed the 200 home run barrier.

Over the course of his first five-year stint in Toledo, Hess clobbered 140 long balls. His time in Detroit was considerably less impressive. He was given only twenty-nine games over two seasons with which to earn a spot on the Tigers' roster moving forward. After limited action in the Majors in 2007 and 2008, Mike played all of the 2009 season in Toledo. All of his numbers fell, and it seemed as though his last chance at achieving his dream and come and gone. In October of that year, he was again granted free agency. He was thirty-one and rolling out of his prime years, but was still a productive player who could be an asset to an organization.

Two months later, the New York Mets called. He would begin the 2010 season with the Mets' triple-A affiliate Buffalo Bisons. At this point, Mike Hessman had become well known for his power display. Only eighteen times did he homer in the summer of 2010, but it was enough to begin the chatter that he was a well-kept secret of the Minor Leagues. Creeping close to his mid-thirties, the ship had sailed on being an MLB hall of famer, but that was not what it was about anymore. Hessman loved the game, and it was who he was.

Hess had already passed the 300 Minor League home runs threshold the previous year, and his consistent season with the Bisons prompted a call up to New York in late July. He would finish the season out in New York, but again his performance was less than desirable, batting an atrocious .127 in fifty-five at-bats. Following the 2010 season, the Mets granted Hess his free agency. What followed would be the strangest turn of his career.

From Buffalo to the Buffaloes, Mike Hessman's journey made a stop where many mid-thirties career-Minor-Leaguers do- Japan. He signed with the Orix Buffaloes of the NPB, and the culture shock was real. Hessman, an avid fan of classic rock and country, was far from the comforts of his home in the land of the rising sun. He only played in forty-eight games for Orix, and batted .192. He had flamed out of Major League Baseball and now had squandered his shot in Nippon Professional Baseball, a league that is widely considered to have a talent level between triple-A and the Majors. Alas, the Houston Astros brought him into their organization that winter. Hess was back home, and still earning his stripes.

Immediately he was back in his comfort zone. Mike hit thirty-five home runs in 2012 for the Oklahoma City Redhawks of the Pacific Coast League. There would be no call up to the Astros that year, despite the team losing an astounding 107 games. As he had been by the Braves, Tigers, and Mets organizations, the Astros let Hessman go following the season. The Cincinnati Reds gave him an opportunity soon thereafter. He had become a full-fledged journeyman, but his ride was not close to being over.

For the sake of brevity, Mike Hessman hasn't set foot on a Major League diamond since the last game of the 2010 season. The Reds assigned him to their triple-A affiliate Louisville Bats, where he would remain all season. He broke 100 hits for the third straight year and continued to produce, despite being on the wrong side of thirty-five. He had become a teacher and a positive influence in a clubhouse full of young players scraping to get a chance like the one he had years ago. More than the home runs and the strikeout liability that comes with it, Hessman's true worth had become rather incalculable. When prospects have a rough day, he could be there to help them through it. He had been there. Then the Reds let him go, too. It was time to return to Toledo. Detroit signed Hessman to be the designated hitter and clubhouse influence for their triple-A team. This time it was different. There was no real threat to make the team. Before the season started, Hess turned thirty-six.

On May 21, 2014, Mike Hessman became only the sixth player to hit 400 home runs in the Minor Leagues. A month later, he hit his 259th home run in the International League, breaking a nearly seventy year record for career dingers. He had achieved cult hero status among die-hard baseball fans.

As a positive turn of events from his previous postseasons, Mike was not let go by his organization. Instead, he decided to play winter ball in Venezuela and Mexico. After the awkwardness of his time in Japan (a video of which I added at the bottom), Latin America was no problem. He only played twenty games between the two leagues, only posting one home run, but for a man like Hess, it was all about getting a chance to play the game he loves.

I finally had an opportunity to see him in person early this season. It was the fifth game of the season for Hessman's Mud Hens and my hometown Indianapolis Indians. Hess, without a hit to that point in the season, was up with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. The bases were loaded, and Toledo was down 5-0. After getting ahead in the count 1-0, Hessman swung violently at the next pitch. Strike one. He swung even harder at the next. Strike two. With everything he had left, he swung at the fourth pitch. As his follow through guided him around, he let out a groan. It was that opportunity to be a hero that he had just let slip. The game was over. The Mighty Hessman had struck out.

Baseball will grant opportunities if you are willing to endure the pain that comes with earning such a prize. Last night, the Indians again hosted the Mud Hens. The bases were loaded, and Mike Hessman was at the plate.

The thirty-seven year old slugger had driven in his team's only four runs of the night. As he crossed home plate, waiting for him were the men he drove in- Corey Jones- 27, Xavier Avery- 25, and Jefry Marte- 23. In his first game in triple-A, Hess was three years younger than the average player at that level. He was now a full decade over that line, but still serving a purpose, perhaps even more now than ever before.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Full List of teams Mike Hessman has played for:

West Palm Beach Braves
Macon Braves
Danville 97's/Myrtle Beach Pelicans
Greenville Braves
Richmond Braves
Danville Braves
Atlanta Braves
Toledo Mud Hens
Detroit Tigers
Buffalo Bisons
New York Mets
Orix Buffaloes
Oklahoma City Redhawks
Louisville Bats
Tigres de Aragua
Tomateros de Culiacan

And as promised, a post game interview from Japan:

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