Mike Hessman of the Toledo Mud Hens set the career International League home run record Monday night, hitting his 15th of the season off of the Indianapolis Indians' Jake Brigham in the 3rd inning.
A sub-plot of the 1988 classic baseball movie Bull Durham is Crash Davis' pursuit of the career minor league home run record. Eight years later, Mike Hessman was drafted out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California by the Atlanta Braves. At only 18 years old, he played his first professional season for the Gulf Coast League Braves and hit one home run.
Mike Hessman climbed steadily through the minors, arriving in the International League in 2002. He hit 26 home runs as a 24-year-old third baseman, enough to be a prospect. But the Braves had Chipper Jones at the hot corner, so Mike would have to wait.
In the movie, Crash Davis says that he was in the show for 21 days. Hessman finally made his debut on August 22, 2003. He finished the season in Atlanta playing 19 games scattered among the outfield, first base, and third base positions. He was up for more than 21 days, but not by much. He hit his first two home runs in the major leagues, including his first hit. Naturally it was a pinch-hit home run.
In 2004, Hessman started the season in the major leagues. He exceed the three week milestone again, but two more home runs were not enough to offset a .130 batting average. He was soon back in Triple-A. The Tigers signed him for the 2005 season, where the opportunity to play third base was much more likely to arise. He hit 28 home runs in Toledo, but a .214 prevented a call-up. In 2006, he hit another 24 home runs but struggled to a .165 batting average. He slugged 31 home runs in 2007 and raised his batting average all the way to .254, which earned 17 games in Detroit.
In 2008 Mike played for the United States team in the Summer Olympics, and was back in Detroit when the roster expanded in September. Five home runs, a double, and two singles in only 31 plate appearances led to an eye-popping OPS of 1.276 and OPS+ of 224. But he spent all of 2009 back in Toledo, and then moved on to the Mets' organization. Hessman even tried Japan for the 2011 season, hitting six home runs in 48 games, but returned to Triple-A in 2012.
Hessman now has 259 home runs in the International League, breaking the record of 258 set by Oliver Carnegie. Carnegie played for Buffalo and had a late start at age 32 in 1931, but played until he was 46. Hessman now has 294 home runs in all Triple-A leagues, having spent 2012 in the Pacific Coast League and cranking out 35 home runs in Oklahoma City's record heat. He has 404 home runs across all levels of the minor leagues. The career minor league record is 484 held by Hector Espino, but almost of his were hit in the unaffiliated Mexican League. If you exclude the Mexican League, the minor league home run record is 432 by Buzz Arlett. Hessman is only 36 years old, and could be only one more season away from that record.
One of Crash Davis' quotes is "Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls. It's more democratic." Mike Hessman would love pitchers to pitch to contact. His career minor league strikeout rate is 28%. In his 250 career major league plate appearances, he has a strikeout rate of 32% and .188 batting average. The 14 home runs are not enough to justify a spot on a roster. There are only two major league players this year with a rate over 32%. Adam Dunn at 31%, a similar player to Mike Hessman, is not one of them.
Hessman is tall (6' 5") and athletic, not just powerful. He once played every position in a game for Toledo. He has played 16 games at shortstop, and pitched in four games. He is a very good baseball player, just not quite good enough for the major leagues.
There was a real Crash Davis. He played for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1940 to 1942, and then seven seasons in the minors following World War II. Davis befriended Ron Shelton, the director of Bull Durham. Shelton gave Crash Davis a bit part in Shelton's movie "Cobb", playing Cobb's teammate Sam Crawford. Thus the first Crash Davis ended his career as a Tiger. The second Crash Davis, Kevin Costner, played Tiger pitcher Billy Chapel in his last baseball movie. The third Crash Davis, Mike Hessman, will hopefully end his in the Tigers' system breaking the career minor league home run record.