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In praise of Mike Hessman, the dinger-blasting hero who just broke the minor league HR record

Tigers farmhand Mike Hessman just broke the 80-year-old minor league home run record. And he'll keep blasting dingers as long as his body allows him, and for that we salute him.

Mike Hessman of the Toledo Mud Hens hit his 433rd minor league home run, a thunderous grand slam, breaking the minor league record for the most home runs:

Hessman, 37, is playing his 19th minor league season. He got up to Triple-A in 2002 at the age of 24 and just ... stayed there. He's never been sent back down to Double-A, and he's only had a few trips to the big leagues, none since the Mets called him up in 2010. He's just been hanging out in the minors, blasting out bombs alongside players a decade or more younger than him.

Every freakin' article ever written about Mike Hessman, including this one, mentions Crash Davis, the lovable old catcher in Bull Durham, at least once. It typically happens in the headline, or the lede.

It's a shame. The fact that Davis is famously depicted setting the minor league home run record in that movie makes everybody think "setting the minor league home run record" is a thing that happens. "Oh yeah," you say, "I remember hearing about somebody doing that somewhere."

You haven't. Nobody has broken the minor league home run record since before your parents were born.

In the movie, Davis is credited with breaking the record at 246 homers, a number that apparently sounded big enough to be a minor league home run record. Hessman has now hit 433.

He is the first person to hit more than 400 minor league home runs born after the start of World War I. The man whose record he broke, Buzz Arlett, retired in 1937 and died in 1964. (Hector Espino hit 484 in the Mexican League, although this is formally connected with Minor League Baseball, it isn't analogous to the farm system set-up of the American minor leagues.)

Back then, the gap between the big leagues and minor leagues was mere thousands of dollars instead of millions; MLB farm systems weren't as heavily formalized. It wasn't as unreasonable to play 20 seasons in the minor leagues. To some, it might have been somewhat glamorous.

For Hessman, it has not been particularly glamorous. We don't know what Hessman's salary is -- he's on a "minor league deal" -- just that it probably isn't a lot. The standard salary for a Triple-A player starts at $2,150 per month in season and increases year-by-year; nobody on the Internet has explained what happens if a player continues playing in Triple-A for two decades.

Hessman is 10.2 years older than his average teammates, per Baseball-Reference. The only thing connecting him to his teammates is baseball. He actually said this:

"I don't know a lot of the stuff they have going on in there," he said. "I don't even know what they call that techno stuff now. I have no clue."

Hessman has put up with the long bus rides and low pay. The only pictures of Hessman in our photo tool are from a May game where he broke the record for most International League home runs. Because he is a minor league baseball player, and minor league baseball players have to wear gimmicky things to sell tickets, here he is, a 37-year-old man dressed up in a Ghostbusters costume.

Photo credit: Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports

So why does he keep on? Why does Mike Hessman keep doing this?

Because Mike Hessman is really, really, really, really good at mashing taters. He mashes the hell out of some taters, and he loves it, because it is what he is great at.

Hessman's lack of major league opportunities is not a mistake. It's not that he's been passed over. Hessman is not very good at the vast majority of things baseball players are expected to do.

His career minor league average is just .232. In his one season in Japan, he hit .192. In his cups-of-coffee in the majors, it was even worse, .188.

Hessman's biggest problem is that he strikes out pretty much constantly. He has 2,347 minor league strikeouts. That'd be fourth in MLB history. He has struck out in 27 percent of his minor league at-bats. When he makes contact, he doesn't always make great contact. When The Hardball Times begged teams to sign him a few years ago, they noted that 23 percent of his flyballs were infield pop-ups, a bad percentage.

He wallops that stupid freakin' ball so freakin' hard that it gets the hell out of that park and swears never to come back.

But every once in a while, he absolutely crushes the ball. He wallops that stupid freakin' ball so freakin' hard that it gets the hell out of that park and swears never to come back.

Hessman has hit 20 homers with an average of .250 or worse 10 times, and he will probably do it again this year. He hit 35 dingers with a .231 average for Oklahoma City in 2012. He hit 24 with an abysmal .165 average in 2006 with Toledo.

Even in the majors, where he didn't make much of a mark, he swatted moonshots on the regular, managing 14 homers in 223 at-bats. Small sample size, sure, but that ratio -- a homer every 15.92 at-bats -- would be amongst the top 30 all time. Hessman actually hit a dinger for his first major league hit, a pinch hitting opportunity in his second game. (The fan only agreed to give the ball back if he got a autographed bat from Marcus Giles, which is just rude, TBH.)

At this point, Hessman doesn't dream of a long MLB career. He told the Los Angeles Times he doesn't think he'll get called up again, and considering he hasn't been in the show in five years, that seems likely to be the case. But ... this is all he knows how to do:

"Baseball is the only thing I've ever done and I'm going to stick with it as long as I can," Hessman added. "I know it doesn't last forever. I've had former teammates call me after they quit, a year after they are in a 9-to-5 job, and they say they shouldn't have left. There are times you get frustrated and think you've had enough, but this is a pretty good gig."

Mike Hessman is great at one thing: Blasting dingers. Sadly, his various faults have prevented him from a long-term job in the world's preeminent dinger-blasting society, and kept him from the huge financial windfalls that come with top-flight dinger-blasting.

This has not stopped Hessman from doing what he loves, what he's great at, what makes him happy: smacking the living bejeezus out of that stupid little ball and watching it fly over that dang fence. We hope he never stops.


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