Sometime during the 2013 season, a professional baseball player will reach a significant milestone. Unless you live in Louisville, you probably won’t read about it when it happens. And even there, it won’t be headline news. That’s because it concerns a minor league player by the name of Mike Hessman.
If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because he has played parts of five seasons in the major leagues. Put all the games together, however, and they don’t add up to one full-time season. So if Hessman is not a career minor leaguer, he’s pretty close to being one.
During spring training in Florida some years ago, Hessman autographed a 2003 Upper Deck MVP card for me. Since filing the card away in the archives, I hadn’t given him much thought. So imagine my surprise to find out that he’s on the verge of hitting his 400th professional home run.
Of that total, only 14 have been at the big league level, so his 386th minor league home run will be his 400th professional home run. He leads all active minor leaguers in career home runs (378 as I write this; including the 14 he hit at the major league level, that makes 392 for his pro career).
In olden days, when career minor leaguers were more common, this achievement would be a tad less noteworthy. Nowadays, extensive minor league careers are rare. Of course, all but a very few major leaguers start out there, and a lot of them return there, not so much to make a career out of it but in the hopes that some day they will be tapped on the shoulder to return to the Show.
By and large, minor league ball is a means to an end (namely, the majors) and not an end in itself. There are a lot of reasons why a player would want to prolong a major league career; the motivation to prolong a minor league career is much less.
Consequently, Hessman’s total looms much larger on the minor league charts than it would on the major league leader board. In fact, given the shorter minor league season, it is understandable that no minor leaguer has ever hit 500 home runs, which was a sure ticket to Cooperstown for major league sluggers in the pre-steroid era.
In a sense, Hessman is the minor league equivalent of Dave Kingman. He exists to hit home runs. Hessman is built along the same lines as Kingman (6-foot-5, 215 pounds versus Kingman’s 6-foot-6, 210 pounds), and so is his lifetime batting average (Hessman .231 in the minors; Kingman .236 in the majors).
Not surprisingly, Hessman also strikes out a lot. Here he has the edge over Kingman, who struck out a “mere” 1,816 times during his MLB career. At 2,100 and counting, Hessman is way ahead of Sky King.
That strikeout total may be even more impressive than his home run total. Of course, you’d have to be a pretty decent hitter to hang around long enough to strike out that much. If you’re a productive hitter when you’re not striking out, you likely will maintain your roster spot for a long time. Plenty of contact hitters have come and gone since Hessman arrived on the scene.
Drafted by the Braves in the 15th round (452nd pick overall) of the 1996 draft, Hessman, fresh out of high school in Santa Ana, Cal., signed a contract on June 17, then made his professional premiere at age 18 with the Gulf Coast (Rookie) League Braves.
Despite a less-than-promising season (a .216 average and just one home run in 190 at-bats), Hessman was promoted to Macon in the Class A Sally League in 1997. The results there (21 homers, 74 RBIs, and .235) were better and, as it turned out, fairly typical of his early minor league career. As the back of my autographed card notes, “He has averaged 22.5 home runs per year as he has progressively worked his way up the organizational ladder.”
That doesn’t qualify as a meteoric rise, but it does certify Hessman as a power hitter. The card also predicted, “He is expected to get a serious look in Atlanta before the year is over.” Sure enough, on Aug. 22, 2003, at age 25, he made his big league debut with a pinch-hitting appearance against the Rockies at Coors Field. Four days later at Atlanta, he hit his first big league home run, a ninth inning pinch-hit against the Mets’ Mike Stanton.
Between 2003 and 2010, Hessman served played parts of five seasons with the Braves, Tigers, and Mets. He never got more than 69 at-bats in any one season and amassed a career total of 14 home runs in the majors. In between his major league experience, he was logging time, for the most part, in Triple-A ball.
The high point of his minor league career was the five years (2005-2009) he spent with the Toledo Mud Hens. In fact, his worst and best years were back-to-back. If they had a Comeback Player of the Year award in the International League, Hessman would have won it.
After a dismal 2006 (a batting average of just .165, though 24 of his 57 hits were home runs), he came back in 2007 with 31 homers and 101 RBIs and was voted the MVP of the International League—so Upper Deck’s including him in the MVP series proved to be prescient!
Combined with his stats during his tenure with Detroit that year, he had 35 homers and 113 RBIs. He only hit nine home runs for the Tigers during two stints with them in 2007 and 2008, but he remains the Toledo Mud Hens’ all-time home run leader with 140.
In 2008, Hessman took off a month to play for the United States Olympic team that won the bronze medal in Beijing. Despite the lengthy absence, he managed to hit 34 home runs for Toledo. Combined with the five home runs he hit for the Tigers, he had 39 for the year, his best-ever total. And if you throw in the one home run he hit during the Olympics (technically, of course, it was not professional competition), he had an even 40 for the year.
In 2012, at age 34 with Oklahoma City of the Pacific Coast League, Hessman had his best Triple-A home run season with 35. This year he is back in Triple-A, but with the Louisville Bats of the International League.
The Bats are the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, who are not likely to need Hessman’s services as they contend for the National League Central title. Still, Hessman is a corner infielder (in the past he also played the outfield), so if Joey Votto or Todd Frazier goes down with an injury, it is possible Hessman could be called up.
As a September call-up, he could be a handy pinch-hitter for a contending team like the Reds. But I’m guessing that when he hits his 400th home run as a pro, it will be in a Louisville Bats uniform. Since the Bats play at Louisville Slugger Field, surely the Hillerich & Bradsby people, headquartered just blocks away, will find some way to link up with Hessman’s quest.
I have no idea if Hessman has any personal goals, but he is approaching the all-time top 10 minor league home run hitters. To wit:
Hessman is a good bet to catch Graham in 2013. If he comes back next year, the next four names on the list are also within reach.
At age 35, Hessman is also likely to reach 400, and he has an outside shot—if he stays healthy and if he can keep convincing major league teams to reserve a spot for him at Triple-A ball—to become the all-time leader. The independent minor leagues might be an option if he can get within striking distance—and if he can handle the long bus rides.
Granted, Mike Hessman pursuing Hector Espino isn’t Henry Aaron chasing the Babe, but I have to think a minor league veteran on a quest to break an all-time record would put a few extra fans in the stands as he gets closer to his goal.
For my part, I’m going to check in now and then with the Louisville Bats’ web site to see how he’s progressing. And next season, if he’s still playing, in Louisville or wherever, I’ll keep checking.
Granted, Triple-A ball is not major league ball, but the dimensions of the ballparks are not appreciably different. And as Gertrude Stein might have said, “A long ball is a long ball is a long ball.”
And as the years go by, that frequent flyer mileage adds up.