Mud Hens' Mike Hessman makes a throw to first.
In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sundays in The Blade's sports section. Blade sports writer Maureen Fulton talked with Mike Hessman, a three-year member of the Mud Hens who leads the International League in home runs.
A year ago, Mike Hessman was looking for answers.
The tall third baseman from Fountain Valley, Calif., still had his power at the plate, but that was it. Midway through the season, his batting average with the Mud Hens was guaranteed to stay below .200. He was among the league leaders in strikeouts, and thought constantly about whether he could fix his swing.
He believed that he could.
In 2007, Hessman has been the driving force for the Mud Hens on their way to a third straight playoff appearance. His average has climbed, and so has his clutch hitting. That started in the 2006 playoffs and hasn't quit this year even with a 2 1/2-week stay in Detroit.
Hessman, 29, has played 11 years in the minor leagues, starting when he was drafted in 1996 by the Atlanta Braves in the 15th round. He spent parts of two seasons with the Braves' big league clubs in 2003 and 2004, and then signed with Toledo in 2005 as a minor-league free agent.
Hessman is all smiles after hitting a home run. Hessman leads the International League with 31 home runs.
In his first season with the Hens, he hit 28 home runs and drove in 74 runs. He has already surpassed both those totals this season, hitting 31 homers and driving in 97 runs through Thursday. And he's batting .257 compared to .165 in 2006.
Hessman's struggles last year were compounded in June, when his father, Fred, was involved in an ATV crash in Mexico that paralyzed him from the waist down.
Hessman left the team to be with him in California for several days. He left knowing his father was improving, which allowed him to relax.
It eventually led to him turning things around at the plate.
In the 2006 playoffs, Hessman hit .306 with five home runs and nine RBIs. In Game 1 of the Governors' Cup Finals against Rochester, he knocked two out of the park. The aptitude for clutch hits has continued this season.
Hessman and his wife, Sabrina, live in Loris, S.C., in the off-season.
"I'VE ALWAYS played a lot of positions. I just kind of bounced around the field. I played third, and then if I played third, I could play first. They tried to play me in the outfield a little bit too. I took a lot of work in batting practice, taking fly balls, ground balls. Getting reads off the bat, things like that helped me out.
"WHEN I FIRST got signed, I went down there and told them I was a third baseman. It stuck ever since. When I played first base in Detroit, that was the first time I had been there since spring training. They asked me if I had played any first and I said, no, every game at third. I think it helps me out playing a couple positions. I don't care where I play as long as I get in the lineup.
"WE PLAYED GOLF a couple times last year and that helped me with my slump. I talked to [Hens manager Larry Parrish] a little bit, about having me swing down more on the ball like a golf ball. That's the approach I've been taking, trying to swing down on the ball and get a backswing. Bull (hitting coach Leon Durham) doesn't know much about golf but he'll sit there and remind me, tell me, swing the 5-iron, swing down. That gets me back on track, helps me out.
"IT MADE ME stronger mentally, obviously, to deal with something like that slump last year. Deep down, in the back of my mind I knew there was never any doubt. I knew I could still perform. When we figured it out toward the end of the year in the playoffs, that was huge going into the off-season because then I knew exactly what I wanted to stick with and what I wanted to work with. I started seeing the results this year.
"MY DAD IS doing well with rehab. He's going to something called Project Walk in Carlsbad, Calif., in September. It's a new type of therapy for (spinal cord injuries). His brother is going to take him down there for a week. We're trying to make a trip in the off-season. A fishing trip in December, and my dad's looking forward to try to get back down to Mexico. Hopefully we can get down there this off-season; that's our goal.
"I DON'T THINK I say too much to be a leader; I just try to lead by action. By playing the game hard, working hard every day, doing the little things. If I see something when we're out taking ground balls I'll say something. Every position's a little different, so if I'm taking ground balls at shortstop I'll ask questions.
"IT WAS A good experience in Detroit. It was good to help them out for a little bit, hopefully I'll try to keep working hard to get back up there. You can kind of see how everything's going to play out up there. So when it was time for Marcus Thames to come up, I understood. Obviously that's where you want to be. It motivates you to work hard and try to get back up there.
"IT'S AWESOME to see Jason Karnuth back. It's a terrible thing what happened to him, and to see him get healthy and come back and start throwing the ball well again, it's fun to have him out here. He's been a great teammate the past 2 1/2 years. He's a great person and a great guy in the clubhouse.
"WE'VE GOT some different faces in here, but everyone still gets along really well. The clubhouse is good, great atmosphere here. It has been awesome. If we finish up well, I can't wait to get in the playoffs and see what we can do."