Mike Hessman is the home run king… of the minor leagues. The career minor leaguer has scratched the surface of the majors, but has spent most of his professional life riding buses. Brandon Magee takes a look at his unusual baseball career.
If you were considered the 50th best dentist in the whole world, people would flock to you. If you were considered the 50th best administrative assistant in the world, companies would make special offers to gain your services. If you were considered the 50th best chef in the world, you would have cookbooks to sell and television shows to appear on. Being the 50th best in the world is an accomplishment, one that usually brings a certain amount of fame or renown. When you are the 50th best 3rd baseman or the 50th best 1st baseman, one that can also play some outfield when called upon, you are a career minor leaguer. This player has a name, Mike Hessman. And Mike Hessman now has a certain amount of fame, for on Monday, August 3rd, Hessman put himself atop the Minor League Home Run Mountain by slugging his 433nd minor round tripper, a grand slam no less, his 453rd professional dinger.
Hessman was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 15th round of the 1996 First Year Player Draft, one pick after the Red Sox picked a third baseman by the name of Mark Robbins (who did not sign or play minor league baseball) and a pick before the Indians drafted Tonayne Brown, who also did not sign that year, being drafted by the Red Sox in the 36th round of the 1998 Draft. Brown would spend three seasons at the AA level with the Red Sox and last played professionally for the St. Paul Saints in 2005. Others drafted in that round were Tripp MacKay, Theo Fefee, Greg Beavers and Mick Pageler; all of whom were out of baseball when Hessman made his first trip to the Majors in 2003.
Hessman’s journey started as an eighteen year old in the Gulf Coast League, where he managed a line of .216/.277/.295 while showing no indication of what was to come, hitting one and only one home run in his first 53 professional games. Promoted to full season ball in Macon, Georgia in 1997, Hessman plopped 21 balls over fences around the South Atlantic League, putting up a .427 slugging percentage. He would hit 88 more homers over the next four season as he meandered his way through the lower levels of the minor leagues. He was never a top hitting prospect though, hitting only .230/.298/.450 in his second season of AA baseball in Greenville in 2001.
Reaching AAA Richmond in 2002, he continued to slug balls over fences, blasting 26 that season, his fifth time over 20 in his first seven seasons. The next season, he would only hit 16 for Richmond, but would make his Major League debut in late August. His first hit for Atlanta came as a pinch hitter in his second game for the Braves. And of course, it was a home run. He would hit one more during the 2003 season and would start the 2004 season with Atlanta, and riding the Richmond-Atlanta shuttle during the first half of the season. Hessman would hit his third and fourth major league home run that season, adding 19 more in Richmond. It was his final season for Atlanta, ending his Braves career with 175 home runs, 171 in the minors.
Hessman would move onto the Detroit Tigers organization for the 2005 season, making Toledo his primary home for the next five seasons. No surprise, he continued to crush dingers, with five consecutive 20 home run seasons, including his first two 30 home run seasons in 2007 (31) and 2008 (34). And, his overall stats were fantastic, batting .254/.356/.540 in ‘07 and .271/.374/.602 in ‘08. Alas, he could only garner 31 games with Detroit in those two seasons. Not so shockingly, he mashed there too, with nine of his 20 MLB hits going over the big league fences. After five season as a Mud Hen, hitting 140 more minor league home runs, Hessman moved onto his third organization in 2010.
Signing with the New York Mets, Hessman moved further north to Buffalo in his ninth season in the International League. In 64 games for the Bisons, Hessman hit a further 18 four-baggers. He also played in 32 games for the Mets, hitting only a single home run in his, thus far, final appearance in the Major Leagues. At 33 years old, Hessman took a chance and signed with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan. Alas, Hessman did not have Wa, hitting only six home runs in 48 games for Orix.
As Hessman returned from Japan, his career was at a crossroads. For many, the failure in Japan coupled with the inability to get any traction in the majors would indicate that a change in profession was at hand. No one would have blamed him, 349 home runs in 16 seasons, even if most were in the minors, is nothing to sneeze at. He was in elite company in the minor league home run compendium, having passed his peer Izzy Alcantara and other names of earlier minor league seasons, Stephen Bilko, Harry Heslet, and Joseph Macko. He sat one behind Ken Guettler, who had 62 home runs in 1955. But, Hessman decided to keep going, signing with the Houston Astros organization for 2012.
In his first and only season in the Pacific Coast League, Hessman banged out a career high 35 dingers for Oklahoma City. Hessman entered the top 10 in minor league home runs at the end of the season, one shy of Gordon Neil who hit 365 during his minor league seasons of the 30s and 40s. Hessman signed with Cincinnati for the 2013 season, coming back to the International League with the Louisville Bats. With 219 International League home runs, he was quickly rising up the all-time home run list in the league as well. Slamming 25 dingers for the Bats, Hessman passed Neil and Ted Gulic on the all-time list.
But it was his fourth one-and-done season in a row, as he would re-sign with Detroit in 2014, going back to Toledo. And, not surprisingly, he hit 28 home runs, his 13th minor league season with 20+ homeruns. On July 1st, 2014, Hessman hit his 259th International League four-bagger, breaking the record set by Ollie Carnegie set in 1945 after twelve seasons in Buffalo. Hessman was at 417 home runs at the end of the season, moving into third all time after passing Jack Graham, Jack Pierce, Bobby Prescott, Joe Hauser (who had two 60 home runs seasons in the 1930s), and Merv Connors.
Back for his seventh season as a Mud Hen, Hessman quickly tied Nick Cullop with a two home run game on April 30th. He would pass him with his 421st home run a week later against the Charlotte Knights in front of the home fans. It would take another three months before he would get to 432, tying Buzz Arlett, the minor league legend who last played in 1937, on July 29. He would wait another week and a return back to Toledo to break the record.
How unusual is Mike Hessman? At age 37, he leads all active minor leaguers in runs scored (about 200 more than Jason Bourgeois), hits (about 150 more than Bourgeois), Doubles (87 more than Brooks Conrad), home runs (183 more than Dan Johnson), RBI (nearly 300 more than Johnson) and total bases (almost 1100 more than Johnson). And with 16 home runs, he is certainly on pace for his 14th 20 home run season. Will he get a chance to hit a few more major league dingers? Will he continue beyond this season? Will he look for 300 International League home runs?
It is impossible to look at Hessman and think about what could have been. He had five shots at the majors, five seasons where he played in some MLB games… but he only totaled 109 games. In a different organization, perhaps he gets a real shot after his International League MVP campaign of 2007. On the other hand, if he had, we wouldn’t get to look back and marvel at his career, one that harkens back to when the minor leagues were independent, when Buzz Arlett played his first thirteen seasons for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League when the Major Leagues did not extend to the west coast and the PCL played 200+ games a season. When Major League quality players didn’t always play in the titular major leagues, and where players could dominate in leagues below their true talent level. Where gate attractions were necessary for survival, where affiliations didn’t exist as they do now. Where players were important for what they could do for the team they played on, not just for their potential for the future.