- Doug Williams
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Nobody ever sets out to be the best home run hitter in minor league baseball, and that includes Mike Hessman.
But with 367 home runs over 17 professional seasons, Hessman is just that, a 34-year-old veteran with major league pop playing in Triple-A parks across America. He’s the real-life alter ego of Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis in “Bull Durham,” a comparison that doesn’t bother him in the least.
“I don’t get it as much as people might think. I get it here and there. It is what it is,” he says, laughing. “I guess that’s me. It’s fun. It’s cool. You’ve got to have some fun in the game.”
Hessman, in his first season with the Oklahoma City RedHawks (the top affiliate of the Houston Astros), has been hitting home runs here, there and everywhere since he was selected in the 15th round of the 1996 draft out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif.
He has 347 home runs as a minor leaguer -- by far the active leader -- six in Japan with the Orix Buffaloes, and 14 in the majors in 109 games over five brief stints with the Braves, Tigers and Mets. He’s homered in China (as a member of the U.S. bronze-medal team at the 2008 Olympics), Japan, Australia, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
“I’ve covered some miles, and it’s been a great ride,” he says. “I still enjoy doing it and will do it as long as I can.”
Lately, he’s been torrid, hitting three home runs in a game June 3 and two the following day after being selected the Astros’ minor league player of the month for May (.338 batting average, eight homers). On Sunday, he hit two more. Overall, the 6-foot-5 first baseman/designated hitter has a .294 average with 17 home runs and 37 RBIs as he keeps doing what he’s been doing since President Bill Clinton outpolled Sen. Bob Dole to win his second term: see the ball, hit the ball out of the ballpark.
Of course, Hessman is hoping he can hit his way back into the majors, but he knows that’s out of his hands.
“Those are things I can’t control,” he says. “I’ve learned over the years that the older you get, you can’t figure their moves out or what they’re thinking or what they want to do.”
Primarily a third baseman for most of his career, Hessman has had the misfortune to be stuck at Triple-A behind players such as Chipper Jones and David Wright. But Hessman acknowledges his strikeout rate is a factor, too.
He’s struck out more than 2,000 times, or nearly a third of his career at-bats.
“There’s times when I go through ruts where I’m going to strike out a lot, and there’s times when I’m going to get hot and run into some balls as well,” he says.
He can’t really explain his power, other than to say he has stayed aggressive at the plate and has “a gift I’ve been given” that comes alive in games.
“I don’t hit a lot of home runs in batting practice or have eye-opening power during BP, but for some reason, it all comes together in the games,” he says.
Over 17 seasons, Hessman has played with and against some of the best. He once played all nine positions in a game, was the 2007 Most Valuable Player in the Triple-A International League, is the all-time home run leader for the Toledo Mud Hens (140) and has surpassed or is closing in on some impressive power numbers.
The career record for minor league home runs is 484 by Hector Espino, and 400 is within range. Are those in Hessman’s sights?
“I haven’t really thought about it that long, to see where it’s going to take me,” he says. “As long as my health can keep me on the field and keep me playing, wherever I end up is going to be great. To hit over 300 is kind of special.”
Among other highlights of a 17-year career:
• Making it to the majors, and playing for the U.S. in the 2008 Olympics and winning a bronze medal. Getting his first big league hit -- a homer in his second at-bat of a 2003 call-up to the Braves after seven seasons in the minors -- also was sweet. “It was off Mike Stanton. He was with the Mets,” Hessman recalls. “Your first hit, you’ll never forget it, and for me it was a home run, which was even better.”
• He came up through the Braves' system about the same time as a few others who are still in the game, such as Jason Marquis, Bruce Chen and Mark DeRosa, but the most memorable is former All-Star second baseman Marcus Giles. “He was a big influence,” Hessman says. “He played the game hard ... he was one of the smartest guys on the field.”
• Stephen Strasburg, then still in college at San Diego State, made a big impression as an Olympic teammate. “Talk about guys who can’t miss; he was one of them,” Hessman recalls. “We actually faced him in kind of an intrasquad thing to get ready while we were out in China, and we were talking that that’s the best arm we’ve seen all year, and we’d been playing Triple-A for half a season and the kid was in college.”
• Playing in Japan was eye-opening and made him better. “Those guys work nonstop,” he says. “At the end of game, we’d go back to the hotel and just dry swing in the parking garage for 20 minutes, just working on our swing.”
Now back in the States, Hessman is again hammering homers and enjoying the game. Be it minors or majors, it’s still baseball.
“Since I came out of high school, this is really all I’ve ever done,” he says. “I love being on the field, hanging in the clubhouse with the guys, staying late after games and talking about the game.”
And, if he’s Crash Davis, does that mean there are Annie Savoys (Susan Sarandons) out there in the minors, too?
“I don’t know if I can answer that one,” he says, laughing.