There are certain moments in baseball history that remain etched in our minds. We can quickly recall where we were when it occurred and its historical significance. Events such as Mark McGwire’s 62nd home run, Carlton Fisk’s World Series walk-off and Derek Jeter’s 3,000th career hit quickly spring to mind and remind us of the lasting bond between hallowed records and their place within the vast annals of baseball. After nearly 19 seasons in professional baseball, Toledo Mudhens first baseman Mike Hessman eclipsed the minor league baseball home run record with the 433rd of his illustrious career on a grand slam against the Lehigh Valley Ironpigs on Monday night, surpassing Buzz Arlett and cementing an eternal chapter in the record books of the game.
The career minor leaguer is an infamous stigma, which can incessantly deem a player as inferior or inherently lacking, when compared to those who reached the Major Leagues. Their love of the game fuels the passion inside of them and a confluence of endless bus rides, barely edible meals, and low wages hope to keep their dreams alive, hoping someday that big break will arrive. While some players might have the opportunity to get a couple of innings or at bats in the majors, many spend their entire careers without getting there and hoping what might have been. Chase Lambin, a 34th round draft pick of the New York Mets in 2002 collected 1,400 at bats with five different organizations, reaching as high as Triple-A but falling short of the show. Pat Osborn, the Cleveland Indians 2nd round pick in the same draft spent seven seasons in the farm awaiting a call up that never came before turning his attention to managing.
Unlike some of the preceded stories, Hessman logged five major league seasons with the Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers, and the New York Mets, after being drafted by the Bravos in the 15th round of the 1996 amateur draft. Despite his major league pedigree, Hessman lasted just 223 at bats in the show, never exceeding more than 71 plate appearances in any given season. Hessman’s absence of staying power in the premier level of competition, classifies him with the dreaded, “Quad A” label of being too proficient for Triple-A, but lacking in the big leagues. These factors thrust Hessman towards one of the most storied careers in the history of minor league baseball. During his 19 seasons of play, Hessman collected nearly 1,200 runs batted in, while reaching the 30 home run plateau on three separate occasions. Hessman previous set the International League home run record in 2014, surpassing Ollie Carnegie.
During his lengthy tenure in professional baseball, Mike Hessman emerged as a household name on the sandlots of various towns, drawing frequent comparisons to fictional baseball luminaries Roy Hobbs and Crash Davis. His unique blend of longevity and power drew him to mythical heights and legendary proportions. His pursuit of the impossible dream also led to him playing nine positions in a single game, making every possible effort to remain in the starting lineup. In a business where one bad week can lead to a permanent spot on the bench or face the prospect of eventual demotion, Hessman impressively logged enough time to reach seemingly unbreakable records in the minors and play alongside Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz during his brief tenure in the major leagues. Completing his age 37 season, Hessman is beginning to look ahead towards his next baseball endeavor, possibly managing on the same fields he caused his most damage as a player. Surpassing the minor league home run record is a stepping stone in a career filled with memorable feats and persistent effort.
Comprised of six unique levels, professional baseball is filled with a vast array of stories and moments, which captivate both fans and players alike. From the failed first round draft pick hoping for a second chance at stardom to a career minor leaguer, each player comes from a distinctive background with their own array of challenges and difficulties. Most of them wish they can share in the spoils of major league life, but will never have the prospect of realizing the untenable pursuit. Often times they live vicariously through a player who spent time through those massive clubhouse doors, turning to them for guidance, leadership, and advice. The collective personalities within a minor league clubhouse share the camaraderie and objective of wanting something more out of their profession. They desperately seek a chance to prove themselves against some of the finest players in the sport and eventually join the exclusive fraternity. Mike Hessman chooses an opposite approach, utilizing an opportunity to reach the peak of minor league baseball and becoming immortalized as of the greats to ever play the game at that level, not dawning on what might have been, but reflecting each day on how far he came, while looking forward to his next at bat.