SCRANTON, Pa. -- What exactly does it mean to hit 400 minor league home runs?
The career of Mike Hessman, 36-year-old slugger for the Toledo Mud Hens, forces us to consider this for the first time. He hit his 400th home run in the minor leagues back on May 20 against Scott Diamond, and added three more for good measure since.
"I've never followed the numbers, I've never paid attention to it," Hessman told me when we chatted about his career on Tuesday afternoon. Appropriately, we were on a baseball field, the place Hessman seems created to inhabit, leaning against the backstop at PNC Field. "I've enjoyed the time this year-the moments that come after it. I'm trying not to think about it too much, but I'm enjoying the process of going out there, and seeing what happens ... I don't play the game to hit a certain number of home runs, or to break a certain record. I go out there because I love it."
And really, no one has done this. Officially, seven other men have hit 400 or more home runs in the minor leagues. But four did so in the Mexican League, and three others did so in the pre-World War II minors. Both environments were very different places from the highly structured and regulated current minor league system.
Hessman's manager, Larry Parrish, is no stranger to long careers filled with home runs, thanks to his 15 major league seasons and 256 long balls. Many observers would discount Hessman's numbers, given that Parrish hit his home runs against the best baseball had to offer, while Hessman did so mostly against Triple-A pitching.
But the equation is more complicated than that.
"For me, it was a little easier than for Mike," Parrish told me behind home plate at PNC Field Tuesday afternoon, as his Mud Hens took batting practice. "I did it at the major league level. And he's done it, instead of charter flights, he's gotten on buses like he will tonight, back to Toledo." (That's an eight-hour bus ride.) "I don't care where you do it. That's a lot of homers ... And he's been doing it for a long time. The little kid in him is still alive."
I asked Parrish if he'd have done the same thing Hessman is doing now, if given the chance.
"You never know the answer to that unless you're in his shoes," Parrish said. "But it says a lot about the tenacity of the person."
This is about more than simple will, though: Plenty of people would play baseball forever, if given the opportunity.
"There's a lot of guys that would've played that long, if they could've," as Parrish put it.
Hessman's record also required continued productivity, teams wanting to sign him, and the chance to get into lineups regularly on teams built to develop young talent, not foster the careers of veterans.
But after returning from a year playing in Japan in 2011, he earned nearly 500 plate appearances with Oklahoma City in 2012, Louisville in 2013, and has 221 thus far as a regular third baseman for Toledo in 2014. There's a simple explanation: The very existence of Mike Hessman serves as a teaching tool for managers like Parrish.
"To have a guy like him, that's been through it, he knows the difference between pain and injury," Parrish said of Hessman. "The preparation before the game, getting ready to play, that's very valuable when you've got young guys sitting around, looking at him as he goes through it."
On Tuesday, those young guys got a different look at Hessman: He was the batting practice pitcher. A home plate collision had sidelined him for a few days. But as Hessman explained it to me, he used BP as a chance to give the coaches some time off, and keep his arm in shape for when he returns to the lineup. Anything to get on the field.
Maybe 18 years anywhere will do this to you, but Mike Hessman looks as comfortable on a baseball field as anyone I've seen. He moves like he talks, calm cadences in tandem with his easy motion delivering the baseball, or calmly reclining on the backstop behind home plate while we chatted.
There's some gray in his facial hair now. He's years older than his Mud Hens teammates, and he looks the part. But he doesn't wear the nearly two decades as if he's old -- rather, it's as if you can see the experience, the more than 1900 minor league games and incalculable hours on buses, on his face.
He laughed when I asked him if he had any fallback career, if not for baseball.
"No, no, honestly no," Hessman said. "That's all I've known since high school. I kind of roll it off, like what else would I do? And I always come back to the same thing: the game. I love the camaraderie, I love coming out here in BP, and taking ground balls all day long, and hitting, and messing with the guys in the clubhouse, and having a good time out on the field."
There's this cliché, that a love for this game begins young, passed down from parent to child. Or as Parrish put it: "It's the little boy in you, that never leaves. You grew up, playing catch with dad, when you were, you know, four, five years old. And that love you have for the game never leaves. And I guess when it does, it's time to hang it up." I asked Parrish, 60, if he still has that feeling. "Yep, every day!"
That's precisely how the game took root for Hessman, too, growing up in Fountain Valley, Calif.
"I love playing this game since I was a little kid," Hessman said. "Coach-pitch, coach was my dad. So playing Little League, I always enjoyed it. I played other sports, but baseball was always my true passion."
But Hessman is no baseball-playing automaton. He and his wife, Sabrina, have a four-year-old daughter of their own, Madalyn. He relishes the offseason time he gets with both of them, just outside Myrtle Beach, S.C., and acknowledges the presence of his daughter has mitigated the frustrations of the baseball field.
"She's awesome," Hessman said. "And I love having her, when she can come into town, and run the bases, and watch the fireworks. It's just -- there's nothing like it ... Especially after becoming a father, there's days in this game where it just wears on you. You go 0-for-10, 0-for-12, you go 0-for-4 and have a couple strikeouts. You come out of the clubhouse, and that little girl's smiling at you, man, you can't have a care in the world except hanging out with her, and taking care of her. I'm definitely serious with the game, but I also know that there's more to it all than just this game."
Sabrina and Madalyn have joined Hessman roughly half the time of each minor league season since they all returned from Japan. Still, that doesn't make the separation any easier, as was the case in 2013, when Hessman spent spring training with the Cincinnati Reds in Arizona.
"They usually come to Florida, because they can travel there pretty easily," Hessman said. "And that was the hardest part. Because she knew Daddy was leaving, you know, breaks your heart leaving them there, seeing them. There's some good and bad to [the baseball schedule]."
So Hessman has some different numbers than 400 in mind. Like five, Madalyn's age next year, and her schedule gets less flexible. Eventually, there is another job, one that would allow Hessman some stability and daily access to a baseball field.
"I look at him this way: he's not done," Parrish said, smiling. "Because his next career's going to have him doing the same thing, only at the front of the bus."
Parrish has taken seriously the need to mentor Hessman, the way Hessman is passing on his daily regimen to younger Mud Hens teammates. But while Hessman does this mainly by example, Parrish has begun to involve Hessman in his in-game decisions.
"I'm talking to him, now constantly, during the game: what do you think right here? What would you have done right here?", Parrish said. "And after I've made the move: I'd say -- what would you have done there?
"And he's asked me: how do you know when to take out a pitcher? And, you know, you don't," Parrish said, laughing. "One game in particular, we were in Lehigh Valley, talking. I said, we have plenty of bullpen tonight. I'm going to ask you about my decision about when to take the pitcher out. And we had a lead, we'd scored a bunch early, but they kept coming back, tacking on, getting closer. So it's a feel. I asked Mike, did you feel like if that pitcher would've stayed out there for another inning and two-thirds, we were gonna have the lead? And he went, no. I said well, then you make the move. That's what I mean, feel."
All those discussions with Parrish have changed the way Hessman looks at baseball dramatically.
"I look at the game through extremely different eyes now," Hessman said. "I pick out little things that happen early on in games, that maybe add up, that maybe you don't quite realize, later in the game. Big plays early, when to pitch to a guy, bring the infield in, different things, the game within the game. I've been around some tremendous people in the game, see how they go about their business. I was extremely fortunate last year to spend some time with Jim Riggleman. Obviously, my whole career in Toledo has been here with Larry Parrish. He's top notch, too ... it's great to see someone with that much experience in the game give me a little different take on the game."
But Hessman isn't ready to stop playing, and really, why would he? His season line for Toledo this year is .269/.357/.543, with 14 home runs. His walks are up, his strikeouts are down.
"He doesn't seem like he slowed down this year," Parrish said. "It's 2014, and he's the same player that I had here, basically, in 2005, 6, 7, he's almost the same hitter. If anything, he might be a little bit better, because he does use the middle of the field more. Maybe not quite as quick as he was, defensively. But plenty good enough."
Hessman and his family did live through a scare earlier this season, however. During his spring training physical, doctors noted several spots, one on his head, another on his nose, that they urged him to get checked out.
"Of course, to try to get to something in spring training, and you're so busy, it just never happened."
Eventually, doctors in Toledo told him the spot on his nose should be removed, in case it was cancerous. Thankfully, it wasn't, but the experience served notice to Hessman that circumstances can change so quickly.
"I try not to stress to much about things," Hessman said. "But it does make you think. I have a family at home, and to have a medical issue, it always makes you step back and you realize -- baseball players, athletes, you think you're invincible. You're out there, running around on the field every day in the sun, doing things where you're real active. And all of the sudden, they're telling you, there's something wrong. And you're like, what do you mean?"
While Hessman's avoided those big pitfalls, both he and Sabrina are aware of all the smaller injuries he's managed, is managing, from the accumulated overnights on highways and games logged. Hessman may be a name in the box score to most people, logging 403 home runs, but Mike and Sabrina are still figuring out how to raise Madalyn "the way we want to raise her", as Hessman put it, while accommodating his immensely pleasurable, yet deeply complicated calling.
"She kind of knows that's where I want to head with it, as far as coaching," Hessman said of how the conversations go every winter with Sabrina, trying to figure out how to make it all work. "There are times where she's looking forward to that as well, because she knows what a grind it is. She knows what I go through as far as trying to stay healthy, being able to get out there, the wear and tear it takes on you. So there's times where she'll say, I'm kind of ready for that next chapter, to see where it takes us.
"It takes a special woman to be a baseball wife. You know, with the travel, all the time we're gone, being able to take care of the home while I'm gone, it takes a real special woman to do that."
The sacrifice is usually made with a major league dream in mind. That's not how it went for Mike Hessman, other than 250 plate appearances spread over five years and three different teams. Getting one more shot at the big leagues is driving him, even now, as unlikely as it may seem, given his age and the imperatives of a farm system.
But if this isn't exactly the career, the life Mike Hessman had in mind when he signed with the Atlanta Braves half his lifetime ago, he doesn't sound like he's particularly upset about how it all played out.
"It's kind of what keeps you playing," Hessman said of another major league shot. "It's getting back to the highest level there is. But either way, I'm okay with my career. I understand how the game works, and how they have to push guys through the system. I understand that. But if someone were to get hurt, and I was playing well, I would definitely hope to have an opportunity to get back up there."
And if not, when he's finished playing, he doesn't plan to spend any time away from the game he's loved since he was his daughter's age.
"Yeah, I think it would be hard," Hessman said. "I've heard stories from guys who have played, got out of the game, and then they want back in, and it's extremely hard to get back in. So I think I would be fine, just fine, staying in the game as long as I could. Coaching, managing, whatever opportunities presented themselves, I would think I'd need to take it right away."
I asked Hessman whether, when he signed with the Braves back in 1996, if he'd pictured a career like the one he's had.
"Maybe a little bit," Hessman said. "Obviously, in life, things don't always pan out exactly the way you want it to. So, to be able to stay positive, to stay strong through the tough times, it's tough in this game. It wears on you, you know? To be able to come out here and play for five, six months of the year, no days off. Your family's at home, you can't take two, three days off to go see your family. It's definitely not as glamorous as a lot of people think it is. But again, we're extremely fortunate and blessed to be able to do what we love for a living. And again, during the offseason, you can go and have some good quality time with your family, and do the other things you love to do."