At 37, Hessman still a hit on Opening Day in Toledo

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Toledo — Mike Hessman's face isn't fresh. The scruff is noticeably gray. He's much more Billy Chapel and Jake Taylor than Rick Vaughn and Henry Rowengartner. He proudly carries the nickname "Crash Davis."

This is, after all, his 19th season of professional ball in the States.

Which means Thursday was his 19th Opening Day, give or take — all but one of them coming in the minor leagues. He made the Braves' Opening Day roster in 2004.

Given all his different stops over the years, Hessman couldn't answer the question: How many cities have you played in on Opening Day?

"Awww," he said, with a smile, "I have no idea."

Not even a guess?

"I couldn't."

Fair enough. It doesn't matter much, anyhow.

What matters is that he was there Thursday, at Fifth Third Field in Toledo, for the first home game — games, actually, it was a doubleheader — of the season.

It was a festive atmosphere in Toledo, home of the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate. Parking wasn't cheap, or even available. Beer lines were long (though bathroom lines were short; figure that out). The game was a sellout — of more than 12,000. And adding to the vibe was that fact there were two baseball games, and then shortly thereafter, the Toledo Walleyes' opening game of the East Coast Hockey League playoffs. Another 5,000 or 6,000 were expected to attend that.

"Toledo, when baseball season kicks off here, they love coming out and cheering us on," said Hessman, who's moved around a whole lot, but is in his seventh season with the Mud Hens (2005-09, 2014-15).

"They have a lot of festivities for the guys and people downtown. It's been a good place to come play."

And there was a good finish Thursday, with the Mud Hens rallying for two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to walk-off winners in the nightcap.

Starting that rally was, who else, Hessman, who led off against former Twins reliever Jeff Manship with a rocket home run to left field to tie the game at 2. Several good at-bats later, including a wicked bunt by Wade Gaynor and a nice walk by Bryan Holaday, Dixon Machado won it with a two-out single up the middle.

For Hessman, that was his 418th home run in the minor leagues, leaving him just 14 shy of tying the all-time record, set by Buzz Arlett from 1918-37. There are five ahead of Arlett, but all of them racked up their homers in the Mexican League, which isn't being counted as Hessman pursues history.

Hessman, 37, doesn't think much about the record, because when you near that record in the minors, it's a harsh reminder of all the years you didn't get called up to the majors. Hessman almost didn't come back this year, as he considered an offer from the Tigers to get into coaching.

"I was on the fence a little bit," he said. "I felt I could still compete."

But he felt like he he still could play, and he showed that Thursday.

Swings that like, against Manship, are the reason he keeps playing.

"Obviously," Hessman said.

On a day when there were only 13 hits, between both teams, for the two games, Hessman had four of them — two in each game.

Heck, he even stole a base in the nightcap. Manager Larry Parrish, after his coaches had timed Columbus pitcher Kyle Crockett's move to the plate, gave him the green light. Predictably, Crockett forget about him, and the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder stole the base easily.

It actually was the 43rd stolen base of his minor-league career, and he's only been caught three times.

Not that Toledo fans pay to see Hessman steal bases — and don't kid yourself, the fans do pay to see him. A familiar face for many years, he got rousing ovations Thursday, his latest Opening Day in a long line of them.

"The relationship with the Tigers is awesome," said Hessman, who has no disillusions about his status — he knows he's extremely unlikely ever to take a swing in the major leagues again. "And when they said they'd love to have me back as a player, it was a no-brainer."​