Around the World with the Minor League Home Run King

Mike Hessman has hit home runs on multiple continents. (via Cake6)

Mike Hessman has hit home runs on multiple continents. (via Cake6)

You probably read this summer that Toledo Mud Hens third baseman Mike Hessman broke the career minor league home run record that had stood for 80 years. That alone makes Hessman unique to the game.

Probably no one will ever top Hessman’s minor league dingers. There will always be capable sluggers. But no one else will be able to keep winning minor league roster spots through age 37 as Hessman has managed to do. In today’s climate of coveting prospects, those spots are just too precious.

Hessman’s perseverance has been widely chronicled for years: 20 years as a pro baseball player with just 250 major league at-bats spread over pieces of five seasons. There’s been a new flurry of stories following his record-breaking grand slam at Toledo’s Fifth-Third Field on Aug. 3.

But one still untold story is that he actually has savored every stop his career has taken him to. No one does that. Not coaches and managers who are too busy serving as part babysitters and part mentors to young athletes. And certainly not players, whose focus is on leaving wherever they are to get to the next level.

From the moment he signed with the Atlanta Braves as a 15th-round pick in 1996, Hessman was ready to enjoy the ride, no matter where it took him.

“I’ve always enjoyed traveling,” he said recently. “Even when I was growing up in California, we’d go on a lot of trips as a family. We’d go down into Mexico on fishing trips and stuff. I’ve always liked to get out and see different places.”

And he knew that signing with Atlanta would give him the chance to see a part of the country he’d never explored before. So at age 18, he packed his bags and flew to West Palm Beach, Fla., to report to the Braves’ rookie-level Gulf Coast League team.

“I know early on when some guys start playing they have a hard time with the adjustment of being away from home and traveling,” he said. “But for me, I saw it as an opportunity and experience. It was something I wanted to take advantage of and enjoy.”

He didn’t at first. Anyone who’s been to Florida in June, July and August can understand why.

“I got down there and the 30 of us just worked non-stop and sweated like we’d never sweated before,” he said. “But it was one of those things that deep down I knew I wanted to do. When you’re young like that you just figure it out.”

The first thing Hessman figured out is to do as the natives do, spending as much time as possible in air conditioning. He couldn’t avoid the intense humidity during practices or games, but he and his teammates retreated to air-conditioned clubhouses and hotel rooms the same way the rest of us seek cover during rain storms.

That lesson would come in handy for the next few years as Hessman made his way up the ladder in the Braves’ system, which has every one of its teams in the Southeast. In 1997, he hit 21 homers in south Georgia for Low-A Macon, which relocated to Rome in 2003. A year later, he hit 20 more for the High-A affiliate’s temporary home in Danville, Va.

That team relocated to a brand new ballpark at Myrtle Beach, where the Braves assigned Hessman in 1999. Repeating a level is a bummer for any aspiring big leaguer, but Hessman said that season was momentous anyway. He turned 21 that year and met his wife, Sabrina, there. Myrtle Beach is now where they and daughter Madalyn live full time.

“We dated for about five years and have been married for 10,” said Hessman. “That was in my younger days. Myrtle Beach was wild. You have to keep your head on straight in that town, that’s for sure.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Hessman spent 2000 and 2001 at the Braves’ old Double-A affiliate in Greenville, S.C., before beginning his assault on the International League career home run record — which he now also owns — with Triple-A Richmond in 2002.

“Having been at the Triple-A level for a long time now, I probably know those cities best,” he said. Hessman said he has enjoyed the views of the naval shipyards in Norfolk, Va., and the old brick tobacco warehouses and factories peeking over the ballpark walls in Durham, N.C. He has enjoyed the close, neighborhood feel of McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, R.I.

“Louisville is a great city I feel lucky to have been able to see while I played there,” said Hessman. He remembered a highlight being touring the Louisville Slugger factory and museum. “When you’re on the visiting team, you don’t really have the chance to enjoy the city. You come in, go to the hotel and go to the field.”

Hessman has spent most of his career in the Braves’ and Detroit Tigers’ farm systems, but a few blips have exposed him to even more places. He had one season in the Pacific Coast League, in 2012, as a member of the Houston Astros’ Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City. He loves that town.

“It was just a cool atmosphere and a great stadium,” he remembered. “There was a lot to do around downtown. We had a good team that year and stayed right downtown. I could walk to the field, which was awesome. It was a fun year.”

Except for one thing. The heat, which was different from anything he’d felt in his native California and even south Florida.

“I think we had 10 or 15 days straight of 100 degrees or more,” he said. “It was smoking. I can remember walking out of the stadium at night and it was still 90 degrees. I was sweating bullets the whole summer.”

Baseball has also allowed Hessman to travel the world. He played for the bronze medal winning team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In 2011, he played for the Orix Buffaloes in Japan.

“I’ve also played just about everywhere in the Latin winter ball circuit,” he said. “That’s different. In the Dominican, there were a few times the lights at the stadium went out, and we had to sit there for 20-30 minutes waiting for them to crank them back up.”

But the strongest memories he has from his experience in the Caribbean are of the fans.

“The were crazy,” he said. “They’d start throwing bottles at the umpires and we had to clear the infield and meet behind second base so none of us would get hit. But that’s just all part of the experience of enjoying other parts of the world.”

Is there anywhere he’d love to return to on a week-long vacation with the family?

“I’d go back to Australia in a heartbeat if I could,” said Hessman, who played for the Melbourne Monarchs of the Australian Baseball League in the winter of 1998-1999. “At that time the league was on the down, and I know they lost it for a few years. I got there the year it was struggling, but they had some good players who played in the States. It was just a great time.”

The baseball was just the half of it. There was the open sea fishing in the South Pacific and the drives into the Australian Outback. Hessman realizes that without baseball, he never would have seen it.

Through it all, however, one career stop has felt like more like home than any other. Hessman has played parts of seven of his 19 seasons in professional baseball in Toledo. His first year there was 2005. He said he remembers staying at a place in Perrysburg, Ohio, a small town just south of Toledo along the Maumee River.

“That was just a great small community with a nice downtown that had the best breakfast place,” he said.

The name escapes him now, but what he does remember is getting up ahead of most of his teammates to sip coffee and read the paper in anonymity as the people of Perrysburg went about their business.

“I’ve met some really great people here, including a few who have taken me fishing out on Lake Erie,” said Hessman, an avid outdoorsman. “They have a Bass Pro Shop and a Cabela’s here, so I always have someplace to go to kill some time if I need to.”

Then there’s golf. When the Mud Hens played a series in Louisville earlier this year, he and a few teammates took advantage of a rare off day to play a round at the Valhalla Golf Club. Ranked among America’s 100 best courses by Golf Digest magazine, Valhalla has hosted the the Ryder Cup, the PGA Championship and the Senior PGA Championship.

“That was a bucket list type thing,” said Hessman. “It was tough, but I shot in the 80s. It could have been a lot worse.”

But it wasn’t, because Hessman has gained experience playing other difficult PGA-level courses over the years. The most notable is right there in Toledo. Inverness Golf Club has been the site of four U.S. Open tournaments, two U.S. Senior Opens, two PGA Championships, and a U.S. Amateur.

“I’ve just been blessed to have been able to play on some amazing courses,” he said.

By now he’s done a number of interviews like this, answering questions that prompt him to look back on his career and life in baseball. Hessman occasionally sounds wistful, as if he knows his long baseball life is over. It isn’t. By the time he set the home run record, he had already told the Mud Hens’ major league affiliate, the Detroit Tigers, that he wanted to coach and manage after he retired.

“I’ve let the organization know to keep me in mind if anything comes available,” said Hessman. “I don’t know when I’ll shut it down, but when that day comes hopefully I can get my name up there for consideration.”

His manager in Toledo, former player Larry Parrish, understands why, even now, Hessman is hedging his bets about retiring. Parrish wrestled with the same decision in 1988, the final year of an All-Star career that spanned 15 big league seasons.

“How difficult the decision is really depends on whether you have a choice,” Parrish said. “I had a bad knee and it was just getting to the point where the rehab, the running, just hurt every day. I had no more games in me. I realized I was through playing.”

Hessman, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound specimen, is perfectly healthy and has been relatively durable throughout his career. When he takes ground balls at third, he still moves like a 20-year-old. So his decision to walk away, said Parrish, is even more difficult.

“If he is still wondering if he could still play…I’ve seen coaches who want to get in there and take batting practice thinking they’re not sure they made the right choice,” said Parrish. “When you walk away with the idea that you’re done, the transition isn’t too tough.”

Parrish said he and Tiger executives talked to Hessman about coaching last year.

“You could tell he just wasn’t ready yet,” said Parrish. “The home run record was still out there. But now, I just get the feeling he’s probably ready.”

Parrish said having Hessman in the dugout has been like having a bench coach. Hessman mentors young players such as Tigers top prospect Steven Moya, who fits the same mold as Hessman — he’s even bigger at 6-foot-7, 260. Moya has lots of raw power, but struggles recognizing pitches and strikes out a lot.

Parrish said he has spent the last two seasons peppering Hessman with questions to prepare him to manage one day.

“I’d ask ask him, ‘What would you do right here?’” said Parrish. “‘How would you handle this?’ ‘Would you make a change here?’ ‘What do you think of this guy? Would he help the big league club right now?’”

No matter where Hessman winds up coaching and managing, he will emphasize the same thing to all his players — to hustle and play hard every single day. Oh, and there’s another thing he’ll tell them, too — enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts.

“I feel blessed to have been able to play this game for so long and see so many places along the way,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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8 years ago

Good story. Thanks Chris.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago

I thought Crash Davis set the minor league home run record. 🙂

How do you make a living playing minor league baseball for 17 years?

8 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Once a player has Major League experience he gets paid a reasonable salary in the minors because they were protected by the player’s union. I read somewhere that Hessman is making over $80K this season, for 6 months of baseball. Top prospects sign big bonuses but I feel bad for the senior signs, no bonus and earning way below minimum wage, at least they are doing what they love with the chance to crack big money in the future.

John C
8 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Actually, Hessman only holds the record for the U.S. minor leagues. If you count the Mexican League, which is part of organized baseball and considered a AAA league, Hector Espino holds the record with 484, three of them in the U.S. minors and 481 south of the border.

And there will be other career minor leagues like Hessman in the future. There always have been and always will be. After a while, they become de facto player/coaches, as Hessman has. After he finally does retire, he’ll probably manage in A-ball until he’s 70.

Graham Clayton
8 years ago

I really like Hessman’s attitude – if he was a full-time Major League player, he would have never been on such a varied and interesting journey.

Yehoshua Friedman
8 years ago

What a wonderful guy. I would love to have a beer with him sometime. That is true love of the game and love of new places and people. Somebody should ghost-write his story when he finally ends his coaching and managing career years from now.

M. G. Moscato
8 years ago

What a fun piece of reporting! I’d missed the previous stories on Hessman–so thank you for introducing me to this fun-loving, spirited player!