Every callup a fresh chance for Hessman
Now with Mets, Minors homers leader in 15th pro season
NEW YORK -- It's a distinction he never wanted, a dose of fame he never tried to claim. Mike Hessman is the active leader in Minor League home runs, a testament to his skill, persistence and dedication in one respect. In another, it's a constant reminder of his inability to break through and stick at the game's highest level.
Hessman, playing through his 15th professional season and his third organization, can appreciate the simple things more than most. The corner infielder has hit 329 home runs in the Minor Leagues -- 219 of them in the Triple-A International League -- and he still treats every trip to the big leagues like a breakthrough.
Take this season, for instance. Hessman was leading the International League in home runs (18) and RBIs (57) when he went down with a stress fracture in his right hand. The veteran spent more than a month on the disabled list, and after returning, he played a week with Triple-A Buffalo before getting promoted to the Mets.
"It was definitely unexpected," said Hessman, who doubled high off the left-field wall against the Cardinals, driving in two runs, Wednesday for his first big league hit of the season. "I got hurt and I was out for about five or six weeks, so I was just starting to get back into it. And then when I got the call, I was excited, and I feel ready to step in there and help the team win a couple ballgames."
For Hessman, that feeling comes naturally. The 32-year-old began his career in Atlanta's organization, and he steadily rose through the system over the first five years of his professional career. Hessman hit just .198 in 2000 in his first taste of Double-A Greenville, and he returned the next season to hit .230 with 26 home runs.
Hessman finally broke through the next season at Triple-A Richmond, and he hit well enough over the next two seasons to merit two brief callups to the parent club. Hessman got 26 at-bats with the Braves in 2003 and 69 more in 2004, and the latter total still represents his most extensive experience at the Major League level.
Hessman was eligible for Minor League free agency after the '04 season, and he moved to Detroit's organization in order to better position himself. And while his career kicked into overdrive -- winning Triple-A championships with Toledo in 2005 and '06 and the International League MVP Award in '07 -- he never really took the next step.
Hessman -- who hit at least 23 home runs in five straight seasons for Toledo -- got brief callups to the Major Leagues in both 2007 and 2008, batting .256 with nine home runs in 78 at-bats. The Tigers never had room for him to stick as a bench player in those years, but he never let his frustration get in the way of his ambition.
"I just knew that I could still play the game and still help teams win ballgames, and that's what kept me going," said Hessman, a 15th-round draftee back in 1996. "Obviously, I've been doing baseball my whole life, so it's something I still enjoy and have fun at. Once I stop having fun, then I'll look at something else.
"There are always ups and downs in the game, but nothing that's made me contemplate anything else. That's for sure."
Hessman made a big leap last winter, leaving the Tigers for a chance to establish himself in a new organization. And while it was strange at first, Hessman said it's been rewarding to link up with the Mets.
"There was a big comfort level to being with the Tigers," he said. "I had been over there for five years, and what a great organization. I met some really great people in the front office and with the guys down at Triple-A in Larry Parrish and Leon Durham. We had a really good time when we were there. I actually just left Toledo, and it was my first time going back there before I got called up. It was real strange going in there [as a visitor]. It kind of felt like home."
Hessman made his first start with New York on Wednesday, and the Mets seem poised to feed him some playing time at first base against lefties. The Minor League veteran even got off a good quip in the hours before the game, when he was asked if he'd change anything. "Same game," he said. "Just some more people watching."
"From what I understand, he's average defensively," added manager Jerry Manuel. "Most of his career has been at third base, and a couple springs ago, we saw a pretty good third baseman when he was with the Tigers. He made some nice plays against us over there. But from what I understand and what the reports are, he's adequate."
Hessman, who went into Wednesday's game as a career .207 hitter in 169 big league at-bats, saw the difference in the crowd virtually immediately. The slugger lined a ball off the left-field wall -- a shot that came around a foot or two from traveling over the fence for a grand slam -- and received a hearty ovation from the crowd at Citi Field.
Hessman expects his wife and daughter to meet up with the team next week in Atlanta, and after that, he hopes to have them around for the rest of the season. Then again, he knows how fleeting his callup may be.
"I'm very appreciative of it, and I know how hard the road can be to get here," said Hessman of his promotion. "Obviously, the guys that get here quick are the superstars of the game and they stay here for a while. For the guys that have been around a while, grinding it out, it's always special when you get that call again."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.