Tigers' Hessman chases one more shot at major leagues

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mike Hessman was calling from his home in South Carolina.

So, why aren't you in Lakeland yet?

"I didn't get a big-league invite," he said, matter-of-factly. "I'm heading down there the first of March."

This will be Hessman's 18th spring training, many of which have been spent where he'll spend this year: In minor-league camp.

Hessman has only played 109 games in the major leagues, and none since 2010, compared to 1,981 in the minor leagues. And that significant split isn't likely to get any narrower in 2015, if ever.

But — and it is a big but — there is an outside chance Hessman could get one more cup of coffee in the major leagues. He plays mostly third base, but also has played a significant amount of first base.

And the Tigers aren't sure if Miguel Cabrera, recovering from foot surgery, is going to be able to play Opening Day on April 6. Truth is, he might be looking at a return closer to mid-April.

"If that opportunity came up, that'd be awesome," Hessman said Thursday. "Miggy's health is first and foremost, he's unbelievable to watch. I can only control what I can control, and that's putting together another solid year."

Hessman, 36, has become legendary in minor-league circles — because he's been such a minor-league lifer, earning him the nickname, "Real-life Crash Davis." All but one of his of his professional seasons, since the Braves drafted him in the 15th round of the 1996 draft, he has spent the heavy majority of his time in the minor leagues. And that's allowed him to rack up 417 home runs, 67 shy of the all-time record held by Hector Espino.

A couple more seasons and Hessman could stand alone on top, and while he's said that wasn't his motivation to keep playing -- he nearly retired this offseason, amid overtures about coaching in the Tigers' minor-league system — it is interesting, nonetheless.

The Tigers have made no bones about it. They brought Hessman back last offseason because he's popular in Toledo, where he's now played six seasons. In the minors, it's tough for fans to get attached to a favorite player, because before you know it, said player is gone — to the major leagues. Of course, that's never been much of a threat with Hessman, who's also spent time in the Braves, Mets, Astros and Reds systems.

And it might not be much of a threat now, either. But it's at least something to keep an eye on, as Cabrera starts working his way toward playing first base for the Tigers from Day 1.

"I'd be extremely grateful to have the opportunity," Hessman said. "I've always loved playing the game. Obviously, trying to get to the highest level is the goal. To be able to back there would be awesome."

In the minors, Hessman isn't slowing down. At Toledo in 2014, he had 28 homers and 64 RBIs in 116 games, all while dealing with a cancer scare. Tissue removed from his nose proved to be benign.

Meanwhile, the Tigers don't have many backup options at first base, and the Tigers will not rush Cabrera back. After seeing him limping down the stretch the last several seasons, they're much more interested in having him on the field in October.

Designated hitter Victor Martinez can play first, but he's coming off another knee surgery, and the Tigers likely will keep him off defense to avoid risking further injury. Alex Avila is another option, but he's the starting catcher, and the backup catcher, James McCann, doesn't have much any major-league experience. Using Avila at first and McCann at catcher to start the year would put a lot of pressure on the youngster, probably before Tigers officials would want to apply that pressure.

There are two minor-league candidates being talked about as short-term fill-ins, Jordan Lennerton and Aaron Westlake, but neither has played in the major leagues; Westlake hasn't even played above Double A.

So Hessman might actually be the guy, by default, given in 223 at-bats in five major-league seasons, he has hit 14 home runs. In 2007 with Detroit, he had four homers and 12 RBIs in 17 games for the Tigers. He's always a candidate to "run into one," as Jim Leyland used to say.

"I don't think about it," Hessman said of a potential — and still long-shot — call-up with the Tigers. "I think about getting yourself prepared and ready to play, and if the opportunity came up, I would be ready to step in and try to help the team out. Obviously, that's what we play the game for."

Making the Opening Day roster also would be a financial boon for the father of daughter Maddi, who just turned 5. Every player on the Opening Day roster gets a significant check from Major League Baseball's licensing fund.

It's not the scenario Hessman was thinking about in November, when he decided to hold off on hanging up the spikes.

Truth is, he found himself standing at the plate last fall, in the last game of Toledo's season, asking himself, "Is this going to my final at-bat?" And he wasn't ready for that. So he's continued working out this offseason, and even has been teaching the neighbor kids and high-schoolers about hitting in South Carolina.

The next week-and-a-half, he's getting things in order for another trip to Lakeland, Florida, where he'll spend a lot of time on the back fields at Tigertown.

But there might just be an opportunity to play on the big stage, one more time.