Mike Hessman: The King's 1st
- Name: Mike Hessman
- Age: 37
- Organization: Toledo Mud Hens, Detroit Tigers, Atlanta Braves
Author: Patrick Kinas, DNAOfSports.com creator.
(Photo courtesy: Katie Rausch/The Toledo Blade.)
It was the record that could never be broken. He swatted 432 minor league home runs over a 20-year span, enough to have him anointed as the “Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues.” His name had become synonymous with minor league baseball eight decades ago. Time passed. The game of baseball went on. And by the time Buzz Arlett passed away in 1964, his name had faded into obscurity.
Until Mike Hessman made his name come alive one last time.
On August 3, 2015, Mike Hessman stepped into the batter’s box for his 8,482nd minor league at-bat.
A 20-year career that had started fresh out of California’s Mater Dei High School in 1996, was now just one year away from being able to drink. From that first year until this moment, Hessman had swatted a home run about every 20 at-bats for two decades. As he approached the unapproachable record, Hessman’s name became conjoined with Arlett’s.
Suddenly, a name that only relatives recalled was trending.
Hessman was now sitting on the same 432 minor league home runs.
Then it happened.
On an 81-degree night, 5,363 fans at Fifth Third Field in Toledo, Ohio were thrust into history.
Hessman drilled a 2-0 pitch from ex-major leaguer Dustin McGowan for a lead-changing grand slam in te seventh inning to give the Toledo Mud Hens an 8-6 lead over the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs (a game the Mud Hens would lose in 10 innings).
There would be no more home run king collaboration.
The record was his.
But while the story everyone was recounting was #433, the story began with #1.
The Unassuming First
In a career where Hessman now has more home runs than anyone else who has ever played, no one would have dared dream that Arlett’s 432 would be in jeopardy when Hessman’s career started.
During Hessman’s rookie season of 1996, the newly-minted Home Run King hit exactly one home run.
Fifty three games. One hundred and ninety at bats.
It was hardly the beginning of an assault on the record books.
He would, however, smack 135 over the next six years, including five years of 20+ bombs, to get him back on pace.
“I definitely remember the field where we played,” Hessman recalled.
That stadium, West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium, which hosted the 1982 and 1992 Florida State League All-Star Games, was shuttered in 1997.
“We (the Braves) shared a facility with the Expos. From where we were, we had to come out of the clubhouse and go right and back around the main stadium to a back field is where we played.”
Just digging up the box score containing Hessman’s first home run rustled up some memories. Some.
The date was August 15, 1996. Hessman woke up that morning with zero professional home runs.
Enter Jeremy Salyers.
Salyers, like Hessman, was making his professional debut in the Gulf Coast League in 1996. He was a right-handed pitcher, raised in Pound, Virginia, an 11th round pick by the Expos from Walters State Community College. Ironically, Salyers was drafted out of high school by the Braves, but did not sign. Instead of pitching in the same organization as Hessman, he now is forever connected to the King.
“I vaguely remember giving up a HR to left-center to a Braves hitter on a back field in about 95 degree weather,” Salyers said.
That could’ve been the one. However, much more important life memories occupy that gray matter for both Hessman and Salyers.
That day, Hessman was 2-5 with a double, three runs scored, seven RBI and his first homer. And then Hessman got plunked.
“Someone told me it might have been a grand slam, but I honestly can’t remember," Hessman said. "I know my first hit was a double off of the wall. I see the 7 RBI, so I think it had to be a grand slam. A friend had mentioned that, and I thought well, I don’t even know if I really remember that! It’s been a long time!”
Hessman’s memory wasn’t the only one a bit foggy.
The pitcher off whom Hessman connected for the first of his record-setting 433 home runs didn’t ring much of a bell either.
“I don’t really remember him, or a lot of the pitchers that I faced. I’m more of a visual guy,” Hessman said. “I can see them warming up or throwing and everything kind of clicks in as far as yeah, I’ve seen this guy before, but names were never my strong suit!”
Salyers retired in 2001, spending nearly half of his professional career at Double-A Harrisburg, and had been a high school coach for the past 12 years. He teaches marketing in high school now wvhile Hessman continues to teach lessons to Triple-A pitchers.
“I was aware of Hessman's chase for the record,” Salyers said. “I saw several headlines referencing Crash Davis. I do not specifically remember Hessman from 1996, but do remember giving up a handful of homeruns early in my career.”
“The thing that stood out about those HRs was that I wasn't used to giving up HRs. Like most U.S. pitchers in rookie ball, I'd come from college/HS where I didn't get hit very much and threw really hard. I remember Atlanta's 1st round pick that year A.J. Zapp and facing him with success. We played the GCL Braves so often since we shared the same complex.”
“Giving up Hessman's 1st career HR is certainly a dubious honor,” Salyers said. “I'm glad that I'm connected in a very small way.”
The Millenium’s Crash Davis
For better or worse, Hessman has been labeled the real-life Crash Davis.
Some might be prickled at that moniker. Not Hessman.
“I don’t see it as an insult at all. I take it as me being extremely blessed to be able to still play the game for that long, doing something that I love coming out on that field playing and to be able to persevere and have some success for an extended period of time. It just holds a special place.”
“After the draft, about a week and a half later, I had fishing trip already lined up with my high school buddies. That was our senior trip,” Hessman said. “They (Braves) were nice enough to give me that week. I’ll never forget it."
“They said ‘Everything is fine, just be ready to sweat when you get here.’”
“So I went from Orange County (CA) to West Palm Beach (FL) where our facility was. At that time, we shared it with the Expos and got my pro career started down there.”
“I was excited, nervous, shocked. I honestly didn’t follow baseball a lot growing up. I went to Angels games or Dodger games growing up, but honestly didn’t expect that amount of people and the amount of foreign players we had there as well. I wasn’t expecting that. It was definitely different. Lots of Spanish being spoken, and I was like, whoa, where are we at? But got used to it, made some really good friends.”
Fatigue Of The Chase?
“I don’t get tired of it. I don’t really get a lot of comparisons as far as like teammates or the other clubs we’re playing. It comes more from the media asking questions about it. But it’s cool, there’s great history especially in the city of Durham. It’s a great movie, a great story and I’m happy to be involved somehow.”
The Mater Dei high school program is regarded as one of the best all-around high school athletic programs in the country. On the baseball side alone, it’s produced seven major leaguers including Matt Treanor, Bobby Meacham and Danny Espinosa. Beyond baseball, Matt Leinart, Matt Barkley, DJ Strawberry and Colt Brennan just to name a few others.
“It’s an awesome school, academically and with their sports programs. Football is unbelievable. Basketball is unbelievable. Baseball is great. They just do a really good job of giving you an opportunity and some really solid coaching and get you started off on the right track.”
While Hessman will forever be etched as the Home Run King of minor league baseball, some of his non-minor league moments are some of his fondest.
“Meeting some great people and managers, going to Japan and representing our country in the Olympics and your first call-up, first hit. Those and winning a couple of championships and getting a ring, that means a great deal.”
“There are a handful of teammates that have a special place too.”
But the first call-up in 2003 is perhaps Hessman’s favorite.
“We were in Richmond. Pat Kelly was our manager. We were playing Columbus. Like I said before, I’m really bad with names, but the pitcher we were facing that night- I’d hit 4 or 5 HR against him that year. He called me in the office and said ‘Hess, I know you really like to hit this guy, so you can either stay here and hit tonight or meet the team in San Francisco.’ And I was like,what?? 'Yeah, you got your call.' You’re going to San Francisco.”
“One of those days you’ll never forget.”
It’s another one of those unforgettable days.
Just like August 3rd, 2015.
A day that will connect the names Alrett, Hessman and Salyers for generations to come.Tweet