Mud Hens third baseman Mike Hessman takes a swing in the fourth inning against Louisville. Hessman owns the team all-time record with 140 home runs and has 389 in the minor leagues.
Call him the most interesting man in the minor leagues, the king of the farm, or — heaven knows how many times he’s heard this — Crash Davis.
Just don’t call Mike Hessman unlucky.
"I love this game," he said Friday before returning to the Mud Hens’ lineup for the first time in five years. "Just the camaraderie, hanging out in the clubhouse, going out on the field, whacking the ball around, what a great game. I'm just fortunate to be able to keep playing."
In a career filled with long balls and longer bus trips, the 36-year-old past and present Toledo slugger has about seen it all.
The man with the graying goatee will see your story and raise it. Hessman’s winding journey has spanned from the Glass City (Mud Hens) to Osaka City (Orix Buffaloes), from big league cups of coffee to the Olympics. He has hit more home runs than any other active minor leaguer, played alongside Astros manager Bo Porter — in Double-A — and both managed a Mud Hens game and played every position in one.
Yet for Hessman, opening day never gets old — even as an aching body he immerses daily in the hot tub does.
There he was at Fifth Third Field more than four hours before Friday’s first pitch, ready to begin his 19th season in professional baseball. Playing third base and batting cleanup, he went 1 for 3 with a double and was hit by a pitch in the Hens’ 3-1 loss to the Louisville Bats.
Hessman became a fan favorite during his first run in Toledo, belting a club-record 140 home runs from 2005 to 2009 — a stretch that began with back-to-back Governors’ Cup titles. He returns with 389 minor league homers and approaching more history, his 244 long balls in the International League just 14 short of Ollie Carnegie’s all-time mark set for Buffalo in 1945.
No one sets out to break minor league records, and Hessman is no different. His lopsided strikeout rate has limited him to 109 career games in the majors, most recently with the New York Mets in 2010. But Hessman still lives for the grind, grateful for the opportunities that come rather than agonize over those that don’t.
He called reuniting with Hens manager Larry Parrish in Toledo a "no-brainer."
"Once the [Hens] had a position available, I figured [Parrish] was coming back this way," Hessman said. "I talked to him about his plans and told him to keep me in mind."
The Tigers were on board. Hessman was a clubhouse leader, batted .240 with 25 homers for Louisville last season, and as Parrish said, "his hands are still fine, and you can catch his throws to first sitting in a rocking chair.”
"He was one of the first guys we talked about [bringing here],” Parrish said.
In Parrish, who said Hessman is "like my kid," Toledo’s home run leader also reunited with his slump-busting golfing buddy. Parrish believes the golf swing helps the baseball swing — a theory that Hessman will again put to the test at Legacy Golf Club just across the Michigan border.
"Absolutely. I'm a firm believer in that," he said with a smile. "I know some guys hate it. They say it messes it up but if you take the golf swing and just raise it up the chest level, it turns into a baseball swing. There have been times when I've been struggling and LP would call me in and we'd have a talk. He'd say, ‘Hess, you need to play a round of golf.’ And I’m thinking, ‘All right, let's go.’ We play, and sure enough, I get back on track."
It is just one of the tricks Hessman has picked up along the way.
He now studies the game with an acute eye, hoping to someday turn his one-game stint running the Hens in 2009 into a full-time gig someday. Hessman spent last year picking the mind of Louisville manager Jim Riggleman, who predicted his former understudy "will make a very good major league manager or coach."
But enough about the future.
"As long as I can still compete at this level and help the team, I’ll play," Hessman said. "I don't want to go out there and be the guy that's hanging around and fighting it. But I feel great. I'm not at the retiring age yet."