Mike Hessman never set out to become the king of minor league baseball sluggers. He laughs and points out he was actually a pitcher when the Atlanta Braves chose him out of high school in Santa Ana, California, in the 15th round of the 1996 draft. It was the Braves' idea to convert the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Hessman to third base, the start of his remarkable odyssey that covered 20 years and 2,272 games (including winter ball and a season in Japan) -- only 109 of them in the big leagues.
Still, that didn't stop the Baseball Hall of Fame from asking for Hessman's Toledo Mud Hens game jersey after he broke the U.S.-based minor league career record for home runs by blasting No. 433 on Aug. 3 -- a go-ahead grand slam against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs that his teammates celebrated later by dousing him with champagne. The record breaker turned out to be his final home run.
By the time the 37-year-old Hessman announced his retirement last month, his younger Mud Hens teammates had long ago taken to calling him "The Lege" -- short for Legend -- in addition to "The King." They said it sprang from their admiration for Hessman's baseball knowledge, his inspirational example and his victory over the grind.
Any way you look at it -- the numbers, miles traveled or memories made -- Hessman has had a wondrous baseball life. Here's a look at some of the ways.
#lotsoftaters: That's the hashtag that Chipper Jones, Hessman's former Braves teammate, tweeted to congratulate Hessman the night the he broke Buzz Arlett's 79-year-old MiLB record for career homers. All told, Hessman smoked 454 homers as a pro -- 433 in the minors, 14 in the majors, six in Japan (where they're called hon-rui da or hoomuran) and one cuadrangular in Venezuelan winter ball.
He hit 20 or more homers in a season 13 times and also owns the International League record for home runs.
Congrats to my old minor and major league teammate, Mike Hessman, for blasting his 433rd HR tonite for the Toledo MudHens! #lotsoftaters— Chipper Jones (@RealCJ10) August 4, 2015
"I'm not one of those guys who absolutely launch and put on a home run display in batting practice," Hessman said. "Come game time, the power just seemed to come out."
Have long ball, will travel: Johnny Cash didn't sing "I've Been Everywhere" about Hessman, but the song fits. Hessman played for 18 pro teams, some more than once, and was part of five major league organizations (Braves, Tigers, Mets, Astros, Reds). He had cups of coffee with the Braves, Tigers and Mets but didn't appear in more than 32 major league games in a season. He also played -- and homered -- for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
His 1999 season with Class A Myrtle Beach might be his most memorable, but not because of the 23 home runs he belted. That's where he met his wife, Sabrina.
He traveled around the field, too: Third base was Hessman's primary position, but he also saw time at first base and in the outfield. One favorite memory was the 2009 night when Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish asked, "Hey Hess, do you want to pull a Hoop?" -- meaning play all nine positions in their last home game of the season, same as Toledo's Kevin Hooper did a few years before. "I said, 'Sure, let's give it a whirl,'" Hessman recalled.
He started the game at catcher wearing borrowed equipment that looked too small. Next, he worked his way around every position in the infield and then the outfield. By the time he took the mound in the ninth in a save situation, the Toledo crowd was standing and cheering. He even got two quick outs. But a few walks and an infield throwing error later, the Columbus Clippers inched ahead 12-11. That brought Parrish out to the mound for a talk.
"LP said, 'Well, what do you think, Hess? I'll take you out, let them give you a standing ovation as you walk off.' And I said, 'Hell no. I want to finish this.' He said, 'Well, all right then. Get this next guy out.' And I said, 'All right then. Damn right I will.' And I did."
Yes, he knows who Crash Davis is: Even if Toledo didn't regularly play at Durham, North Carolina, the location of the classic 1988 baseball movie "Bull Durham," Hessman would've never escaped the constant comparisons to Davis, the fictional minor league home run champ played by Kevin Costner. Ron Shelton, the film's writer and director, was a minor leaguer himself for a while and could have been speaking about Hessman when he once said he wanted the film to depict a guy "who loved something more than it loved him."
After Hessman broke the homer record, the real Durham Bulls (the Rays' Triple-A affiliate) presented him with a framed game jersey with the name Davis on the back. "I don't mind," Hessman insisted. "I guess that's me. It's fun. It's cool. And I have the record. It's good to be known for something."
He created his own legend: Hessman's home runs were often Bunyanesque. In Buffalo, they still talk about how his blasts cleared the left-field net and landed on Interstate 190. His home run ball that broke Arlett's record crashed down on the street outside Toledo's stadium, startling a passerby who picked it up and then refused to give it back.
Parrish told a story as Hessman was closing in on history last season about how he sent a ball towering past the left-field foul pole some years earlier. The third-base umpire initially called the ball fair, but after some discussion the first-base umpire changed the call to foul -- which brought Parrish charging out of the dugout to argue, earning an ejection.
Parrish had barely gotten to the clubhouse to watch the game on TV when Hessman -- on the next pitch after play resumed -- blasted one that counted off the scoreboard in left. Hessman never denied muttering something as he trotted around first past the ump who'd reversed the call, but he didn't think it was audible until he reached home plate and the ump was waiting for him there -- and ejected him, too.
So what kept Hessman in the minors so long? Hessman played good defense and had all that power, but he finished with a career .233 average in the minors and struck out more than a quarter of the times he came to the plate. In the majors, he hit only .188 and struck out in more than 30 percent of his 250 plate appearances.
"There were definitely some times I probably could've been let go or released too," he said. "But you have a couple people in your corner. They still believe in you. They keep giving you a shot. And I think I respected the game, played the game the right way. I think that goes a long way too."
Hitting his peak: In 2007, he hit 31 home runs with a career-high 101 RBIs for Toledo and was named the International League MVP. In 2008, despite missing a month for the Olympics, Hessman blasted 34 home runs for Toledo and tacked on five more in 12 games during a September call-up with the Tigers.
Hessman, at age 30, was playing the best ball of his career and admits, "Yeah, I was hoping I might've gotten another shot at spring training the next year at making the [big league] team. It didn't happen."
But what about those times he was in The Show? When Hessman found out he was headed to the bigs for the first time in 2003 with the Braves, he called Sabrina at work to deliver the news.
"That was so overwhelming I started screaming and crying right in the middle of the store where I worked as a manager," she said, "then I told everyone the news and they were screaming too!"
"When you get that chance, it kinda sparks that fire, keeps that flame going," Hessman said. "When you get to that level, it's great. Because it's a whole different world up there. The game's better. Food's better. The balls are better. The travel's better. Stadiums are nicer. They have more fans. You name it, it's all just better, you know?"
What else kept him going? Love, mostly.
"I just always loved playing the game," Hessman said. "Spring training is always awesome because there's always a newness to it -- the smell when they just cut the grass, watching the sun rise over the ballpark every morning, the camaraderie with the guys, getting ready to take the field and have some fun. It's just a great game, you know?"
He praises Sabrina, who has been with him for 16 years, often bouncing with their daughter Maddy between their offseason home in South Carolina and wherever Mike played. He's happy the Tigers organization, knowing his wish to stay in baseball, hired him last week to be the hitting coach for their Class A affiliate in Norwich, Connecticut.
"I guess the game just gets in you," Hessman said. "It's all I've ever done."