Posted by: mdegeorge | August 5, 2010

Not your average Big Leaguer: One (Hess)man’s journey

At first glance, there seems to be little differentiating Mets’ utilityman Mike Hessman from vast majority of journeymen populating reserve contingents around the Majors.

Sure, his gangly 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame is a rarity for his preferred position, third base. But as a below-average fielder and part-time power hitter, he’s a commodity that can be found lurking in the tunnels of clubhouses with helmet on, bat in hand during the late innings of MLB contests the nation over.

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Chances are though that few of his peers have cut as meandering a pathway to the big show as has Hessman. At age 32 in his 15th season of professional ball, fellow members of his 1996 draft class like Mark Kotsay, Jimmy Rollins, Mark DeRosa, and Brad Penny are lining up their final premium professional contracts and looking for ways to extend their careers to the other side of that mystical age 35 mountain.

Hessman, however, is merely trying to enjoy his latest—and perhaps last—cup of coffee in the bigs, hoping the latest installment lacks the brevity his previous four cameos possessed while feverishly trying to ward off as many comparisons to Crash Davis, the iconic protagonist of Bull Durham, as he can.

In those 15 years of pro ball, only 83 games and 200 plate appearances have come in the Majors, including 15 PAs over six games with the Metropolitans this season.The balance of his career has been spent at every level minor league baseball has to offer, comprised of over 1600 games and almost 6,000 at bats, placing him near the active lead in many offensive categories. A career .231 hitter in the minors, he’s accumulated 329 home runs, 1355 hits, and 952 RBI.

But the ultimate prize, a regular gig in the big leagues, so often eluded him. He was made to wait through eight professional seasons of torturously gradual ascension through the ranks of the Atlanta Braves’ organization before the team that drafted him finally granted him a locker with the big league club in late August of 2003. In the meantime, he had become something of a borderline connoisseur of minor metro areas south of the Mason-Dixon Line, touring such exotic locales as West Palm Beach, Florida, Macon, George, Danville, Virginia, and Greenville, South Carolina,

He managed 19 games that season and impressed enough the following spring to make the Bravos’ roster out of Spring Training in 2004. But by July 1, a .130 average and .216 slugging percentage didn’t fit the bill, even for a spare bat of the bench.

He was released by the Braves in December of 2004 as a nine-year project whose production failed to live up to the effort expounded by the team that picked him out of Mater Dei High School. Hessman soon caught on with the Detroit Tigers and was sent to their Triple-A affiliate in Toledo.

It turned out to be a pivotal season in several streaks Hessman probably would rather not be associated with. It was his fourth of an ongoing run of nine years in which at least half of his games were played in the International League. It was his first of five straight campaigns calling Toledo home, a marriage that turned him into a virtual cult hero in the town and garnered him the nickname of “The King”. And it was the first of three seasons in which he essentially lived year-to-year, being released and re-signed by the Tigers each winter.

His stint was a Mudhen was dotted with two appearances in the Motor City for the Tigers in 2007 and 2008. He enjoyed success in both, smashing nine homers and 19 RBI in 29 total games, though none of them came prior to the third week of July.

One respite from the Midwest heat of Toledo was a trip to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics where Hessman and his Triple-A All-Stars took home a bronze medal.

Hessman was cut loose after the 2009 season, trading Detroit for Queens where he’s found a place in the post-Carlos Delgado first baseman carousel. He’s far from surpassing Ike Davis as the incumbent for that position and may turn out to be surplus to requirements if and when Daniel Murphy returns from injury next season. But the native of Fountain Valley, California has done enough to prove management that Mike Jacobs had no future in the organization.

The cycle of existing as a “Quadruple-A” player, an itinerant utility player in a career purgatory just short of the Majors, may not be over just yet. Nor the inspiration for cults of reverence to a legendary figure sought to be saved from the anonymity of posterity. The storybook ending such a saga deserves hasn’t yet arrived, but Hessman is as close as he’s ever been to it.

If it’s merely a matter of waiting, well, it’s pretty evident that Hessman’s got that mastered.

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