You can look at Mike Hessman’s career and say it’s a product of his inability to stick in the major leagues and you’d probably be right. But even in the minors, sometimes you should just forget the next level. It can’t be about that all the time.
Sometimes you should just salute excellence.
That’s the prism through which Hessman’s career now needs to be viewed. The Toledo Mud Hens slugger is 36 years old and in his 19th year of professional baseball. It’s the 12th year he’s been in Triple-A, so tantalizingly close to the majors and often so far.
Hessman hit his 400th career home run in the minor leagues last month and ranks third all-time in the American minors with 403.
Even more significant is his current quest, as he has belted 258 homers in the International League – tied for the all-time record in the 130-year-old league with 1930s Bisons legend Ollie Carnegie.
One more longball sets a record that will be pretty hard to beat.
“It’s pretty cool knowing that you’ve been consistent for that long to put up those type of numbers,” Hessman said prior to Wednesday’s game against the Bisons in Coca-Cola Field. “I’ve just been extremely blessed to get opportunities from organizations.”
Hessman sat out for the third straight day Wednesday after undergoing a small procedure Monday to remove growths on his forehead and nose. They were found to not be cancerous, and Hessman is waiting for some swelling to go down below his left eye before returning to the lineup, perhaps as early as today.
Hessman is far from an older player hanging around. He’s leading the IL this year with 14 home runs and batting .278, which would be his highest average since 2004.
“He’s keeping his front shoulder in there, staying closed longer in his stance,” said Toledo manager Larry Parrish, the former Montreal Expos all-star third baseman. “He’s getting more base hits in the middle of the field this year. I told him, ‘You’re like wine, just getting better with age.’ ”
“I’ve kept to a game plan and approach pretty well this year at the plate,” Hessman said. “If I stay within my zone, put good swings out there and don’t miss pitches, I can be in that area.”
Hessman has been a particular favorite in Toledo, where he’s hit a franchise-record 154 of his homers over six seasons. He played there virtually nonstop from 2005 to 2009 and basically is to the Ohio city what Jeff Manto was to Buffalo, so folks there have been thrilled to have him back this year.
Manto was an older player who wowed fans here when he showed up in 1997 to help the Bisons snap a 36-year championship drought and win back-to-back titles. Hessman was a little younger (27) when he arrived in Toledo in 2005 and helped the Mud Hens win the IL title for the first time in 38 years. They did it again in 2006.
“The people in Toledo love him, and I know what it’s like with Manto being here,” Parrish said. “Fans love him, are familiar with him and almost know everything about him. They were both lifers in the game.”
When he was coming up with the Atlanta Braves, Hessman carried the prospect label and was a notorious Bisons killer. He once homered in all four games of a 2002 series here for Richmond, and also produced the R-Braves’ only win of the ’04 IL finals against the Bisons with a first-inning grand slam to spark a Game One victory.
The Braves, of course, had some guy named Chipper Jones at third base so Hessman didn’t have much of a chance at a promotion. With Toledo, the Detroit Tigers had Brandon Inge and Carlos Guillen at third base. No dice there either.
At 6-foot-5, Hessman has a big strike zone and a looping swing. The results are predictable at times and give you the reason why he’s never been a regular big-leaguer. He has more than 2,200 strikeouts at all levels of the minors and has rung up more than 150 in a season six times.
Hessman combined for 52 home runs during Toledo’s championship seasons – but also combined to hit just .193 with 283 strikeouts in those two years.
Hessman’s last big-league stint came in 2010 with the Mets, in his one year with Buffalo. He batted .274 with 18 homers and 58 RBIs for the Bisons but hit just .127 in 55 at-bats with the Mets.
Hessman has just one walk-off home run in his career and it came, oddly enough, for Buffalo against Toledo in the 10th inning of a School Kids game here on May 27, 2010. Today at 10:35 a.m. the Bisons will stage their annual Kids festival again with more than 12,000 children in the house.
Perhaps Hessman will break the record here today. Strange coincidence. He said he didn’t know about Carnegie until the Mud Hens arrived in town on Monday.
“I didn’t do a lot of history research into it, and I was thinking, ‘That would be something else,’ ” Hessman said.
“For me playing in Buffalo that one year, I had a great time here. Even when I was on the other side, I’ve enjoyed it here.
“I feel like the fans know a lot about the game and really enjoy the baseball part. If it happens here, that would be awesome. But you just have to go have quality at-bats and not get away from what you’re trying to do.”
As he’s gotten older, Hessman has gone on more of a year-to-year basis as fewer spots open for over-30 players. Someday, like Manto, he could be a hitting coach. But not yet. Not while he’s still competitive.
“I feel I can still help a team win a game,” he said. “As long as I can still add value to a team and compete at the level I want to be at, I’ll keep going. I still think I can do that.”