Mike Hessman: A true baseball life
Usually, the retirement of a 37-year-old journeyman who spent the vast majority of his 20-year career in the minor leagues is not a cause for reflection by most fans of Major League Baseball. A cause of wonderment, perhaps, at the drive of a player who would, year after year, continue to play past the point at which a full-time major league dream seemed out of reach. That assumes, however, that the player wasn’t incredibly accomplished, and just this past season set the minor-league record for home runs. All of it assumes the player isn’t Mike Hessman, the modern-day embodiment of Crash Davis.
Hessman’s is a true baseball life – not that of a storied major-league slugger, or a fire-balling ace who won 300 games – but a player who epitomizes the never-say-die attitude at the heart of many a great sports story. That perseverance deserves recognition, and today, we’re going to highlight Hessman’s career through a few key facts and graphics to try to capture just how special and zany it was.
First, the easy one: the home runs. Hessman hit a lot of them. Out of a total of 454 professional dingers, he hit 433 in the minors, 14 in the majors, six in Japan, and one while playing in Venezuela. Take a look at his career home runs by level:
It took Hessman almost six years to make it to Triple-A after being drafted by Atlanta out of high school, but when he arrived, he stuck around. While he would compile 109 games in the major leagues with the Braves, Tigers, and Mets, his most permanent team was the Toledo Mud Hens, the Triple-A affiliate for the Detroit Tigers. He spent five years bashing a combined 140 homers for them between 2005 and 2009; in 2015, he reunited with them to add on another 16, including his record-breaking 433rd, a fitting go-ahead grand slam to left:
His career was filled with more than just home runs, however. In the last home game of his first stint in Toledo in 2009, he played all nine positions on the diamond, eventually ending up on the mound to give up two runs in the ninth inning. MiLB.com’s article sums it up best:
“Hessman went 1-for-5 with a single and four strikeouts, was thrown out stealing, suffered his first blown save, took the loss and played all nine positions in the Mud Hens’ 12-11 loss to the Columbus Clippers.”
What might be more impressive than those single-game achievements is the sheer number of teams he has played for. Including call-ups and send-downs to and from big-league clubs, Hessman either started a new season or moved between teams in-season 29 different times. To get an idea of what that looks like, I’ve visualized his route from when he was drafted at age 18 to his final game in Toledo, Ohio, almost 20 years later. This is an interactive map, so use the control buttons at the bottom to move through the years, and feel free to mouse over each dot to see how many home runs Hessman hit during each stop (this excludes his one season in Japan in 2011 due to map scale):
This gives us an idea of just how winding his route has been through professional baseball. What makes this route even crazier is knowing that all but one league in the minors — the Pacific Coast League — use buses as their primary mode of transport. Hessman played only one season in the PCL (2012), so he was mainly traveling on buses for the other 18 seasons he spent in the minor leagues. That got me wondering: approximately how many miles did he travel on a bus during his career? That might give us a better idea of what life is like for an (almost) career minor-leaguer.
First, let’s calculate what the average road trip length was for the leagues that Hessman played in. Comprehensive game logs aren’t always available for the minor leagues prior to around 2006, but I used a log from 2009 to calculate the average time the Toledo Mud Hens spent on the road. That year, they logged approximately 7,500 miles in the bus during their regular season, taking into account the league requirement of taking any trips longer than 500 miles by air. So, if we take away the seasons Hessman spent in Japan, Mexico, Venezuela, and the PCL, extrapolate the 7,500 miles traveled to the number of games he played during the seasons in question, we arrive at the total number: 112,900 miles traveled. On a bus.
At 60 miles per hour, that’s about 1,881 hours, or 78.4 days spent traveling. This is obviously not a perfect tally — this figure assumes the other leagues Hessman played in had road trips of similar length — but it’s a good way of making a point: this is what goes into being a minor league baseball player. The bad food; the motels; the lack of off days (PCL teams have only five off days besides the All-Star break in a 144-game season). Playing minor league baseball is a physical slog, and for Triple-A regulars, the omnipresent dream of major-league chartered flights and the cruel reality of regular 500-mile minor-league bus rides must combine to form a type of madness. Hessman himself admitted this past season to the emotional toll the grind was taking on him.
All of this should only reinforce our regard for the now-retired minor-league home run king. In a world of endorsements, massive contracts, and private jets, he played wherever the bus would take him, always looking for one more shot at a taste of the big leagues. But even though Mike Hessman eventually made it under the bright lights in Atlanta, Detroit, and New York, maybe making it wasn’t everything; maybe he was one of those crazy few who just loves playing baseball, no matter the bus rides and the bad food. Maybe it was always about the smell of the grass, or the feeling of infield dirt in your fingers, or the sound of the ball off the bat, traveling far into the night, from Port Saint Lucie to Maracay to Toledo.