June 19, 2014 at 7:49 am

Love of game drives Tigers farmhand Hessman in home run record chase

Mike Hessman has hit 403 home runs in the minor leagues, 14 this season for Toledo. He also hit 14 in the majors, nine with the Tigers, and six in Japan. Five more for Toledo and he'll break the International League record. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Toledo — One of his home runs at Fifth Third Field was a Mike Hessman special: sky-high and long, beyond the left-field scoreboard, landing 400 or more feet away, somewhere near Monroe Street.

The other one was standard Hessman. A blast to left. Over the fence. In the seats.

When you have hit 403 in the minors, homers — even two in a game, as the Toledo Mud Hens first baseman struck that Memorial Day evening against the Durham Bulls — become part of a daily or weekly experience.

Hessman simply happens to have slugged more of these ultimate, fan-pleasing, hitter-gratifying four-base hits than any but one person in International League history, Ollie Carnegie, a venerable Great Lakes-region bush-leaguer during the 1930s and ’40s, whose record is sure to fall when Hessman socks only five more homers.

Hessman also happens to be 36. There are more age-friendly times for a minor-leaguer to be chasing his big-league dream.

Except …

He already has played in the big leagues. Five seasons, three clubs, including the Tigers, spanning 109 games and 14 homers, accompanied by a batting average of .188, which tells you why Hessman has played the remainder of his 1,969 professional baseball games in Japan (48 games) or that vast galaxy known as baseball’s farm system.

There is another factor to consider. Hessman’s abiding goal is not to return to Comerica Park or some other big-league arena fans naturally assume to be his Nirvana.

Not as a player. Not realistically. No, Hessman wants simply to continue in this game. As a coach, as a manager, whatever, his passion for baseball and for those who play it is the reason he continues to embrace this Triple A life of buses, ballparks, and meal-money budgets better suited to dinner at Golden Corral.

“I enjoy playing the game, I’ve always enjoyed playing the game,” Hessman said. “Is it hard at times? Absolutely. But to be able to play a game you love and enjoy — we’re so blessed to do what we do for a living. I try to not take any opportunity for granted. I know how quick it can be taken away from you.

“I’m still having fun,” said a 6-foot-5, 240-pound right-handed batter, who grew up in Fountain Valley, Calif. “I’m still able to compete at the level I want to compete at. I still want to continue playing. Obviously, with age, the hurts stay with you a little longer. But, at this point, I’m just hoping to stay in the game and pass on some of the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years.”

For the love of the game

Larry Parrish, the manager at Toledo, and a man who 15 years ago was managing the Tigers, has an eye for not only players, but for what makes certain men withstand minor-league baseball’s no-frills routine.

He can measure the man as well as his baseball intellect. He knows what Hessman has in mind — and in his soul. He has known for some time Hessman wants a post-playing career in baseball. He understood it as recently as a few days ago when Hessman asked Parrish after a Mud Hens victory to explain why the skipper pulled a starting pitcher, with a lead, after only 313 innings.

The Mud Hens were living on the edge with their starter that night and in Parrish’s inner view a one-run lead was unlikely to last. But the player needed Parrish to explain beyond the visceral feeling Parrish had acted upon, why he had gone to his bullpen in such unconventional fashion.

It turns out there were no other reasons. The pitcher was faltering. The bullpen was fresh. Each man appreciated the conversation — Parrish, because he enjoyed Hessman’s curiosity, and Hessman, because he saw that intuition can and must become part of a coach’s or manager’s skill set.

“You’re talking about a guy who loves the game,” said Parrish, offering his own evaluation on why a man with a wife and four-year-old daughter would endure 19 seasons in the minors.

“He’ll probably be a coach at some level. I think he would have patience with young guys. He’s always had an ability to get along with all kinds of personalities. He always commands respect because of the way he goes about his job.

“He’s gonna give you a day’s work for a day’s pay.”

The pay hasn’t been bad. Hessman gets the high-end going rate for minor leaguers, anywhere from $75,000-$90,000 for a five-month season, and he would be the first to say there have been golden moments along the way, apart from those slivers of five seasons he spent with the Braves, Tigers and Mets.

Heavy on that list was a 2008 trip to Beijing as a member of the United States Olympic Baseball Team. This came four years after he had made his lone Opening Day lineup, with the Braves, for whom he played 29 games in three different stints in the season’s first three months. Yes, you could call him a fill-in and not bruise Hessman’s slender ego.

There was 2010, when he blasted 31 home runs for Toledo and was named International League Player of the Year and the league’s Most Valuable Player.

And there are the quaint, but telling moments, such as 2009, the season when he hit his 300th minor-league home run, when he also played all nine positions in a Toledo game against Columbus.

And, of course, there was that 48-game adventure with the Orix Buffaloes in 2008 when Hessman decided a man who liked travel and cultures could certainly adapt to the regimen and ways of Japanese professional baseball.

“When I first got there, it was unbelievable,” Hessman said, in a voice that made those early days in Japan sound closer to unbearable. “I had no clue what was going on. I started picking up a few words. I could at least tell the cab drivers which direction to go.”

Possibly a future manager

Baseball, though, is why he opted for a Japanese experience most players can handle for perhaps a year. The cultural differences are simply too great. Hessman returned to the United States with relief and with appreciation for an Asian nation and its ethic.

“They have a respect for the game there,” he said. “There was no spitting seeds in the dugout. You come into the clubhouse and take your shoes off. You put slippers or shower shoes on.

“A lot of players bow to the field before they take the field. It’s kind of cool to see the game and how much they respected it. They worked extremely hard. The hours they put in and the practice time were absolutely insane.”

He otherwise was comfortable. Even with the food. This, remember, is a man who also has played winter baseball in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.

But transition, even conversion, has never been an issue for Hessman, who met his wife, Sabrina, during his minor-league season at Myrtle Beach, S.C., in 1999. That infielder who has played for three big-league teams?

He was formerly a pitcher. He was on his way to the University of Arizona on a pitcher’s scholarship when the Braves drafted him in 1996 and promptly told him what other big-league scouts had also said: We like you better as a hitter.

So he got busy. He had the skills to play either third base or first base. And he did, in fact, have a bat and power that have brought him to the big stage for cameos in five seasons.

Hessman understands why the stays were never longer. It was that .188 batting average. It was 79 strikeouts in 223 official at-bats. He simply missed, not by much, being a player whose career might have extended for as many years in the big leagues as it has in the minors.

The Tigers appreciate him. His skills. His patience. His baseball ardor, as well as his deeper thoughts about a life once Hessman has bade farewell to swinging a bat.

Al Avila, the Tigers assistant general manager who oversees Detroit’s farm system, has known Hessman for nearly two full decades. He says the Tigers treasure Hessman for reasons beyond his knack for hammering home runs. Avila uses words such as “true professional” and “positive influence” and that most laudable of all baseball tributes, “great teammate” when he details why Hessman and the Tigers have been a partnership for six of a man’s 19 professional seasons.

“He’s also loved by the fans,” Avila said, “especially in Toledo. They really wanted him back. He has expressed his desire to be a manager when his playing days are over, and I believe he will be a good one. He is a pleasure to have in the organization.”

The feeling is mutual. A man who turned 36 in March has this thing about baseball. He loves it. Everything, including a night at a Triple A park when he might mash another home run, helping his team, pleasing a few thousand customers in the seats, not to mention the player circling an infield, savoring a home run trot he has experienced more than 400 times.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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