On the farm, Mike Hessman is larger than life, a Bunyanesque slugger who does nothing in moderation.
No player has made more Triple-A All-Star games (four), minced more Toledo records, played more positions (nine), hit more International League home runs, or inspired more affection.
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After Hessman hit his IL-record 259th long ball Monday in Indianapolis, teammates drenched him with Gatorade and champagne. Then, on Wednesday, he returned home to a conqueror’s welcome.
A crowd of 6,618 at Fifth Third Field rose for an extended ovation before Hessman’s first at-bat in the Mud Hens’ 7-2 win over Columbus.
“He didn’t know what to do with that,” Hens manager Larry Parrish said with a laugh.
From there, the cheering rarely stopped. Starter Robbie Ray (5-3) limited the Clippers to one run on six hits over six innings, and Trevor Crowe and Jordan Lennerton belted solo homers as the Hens cruised to their third straight win.
“A very good game, and I was really happy with Ray,” Parrish said of the 22-year-old, who turned in his third straight quality start. “He used a lot of off-speed pitches well, he used his curveball more, and those are the things he needs to do to go to the next level and be successful.”
Yet this night was about Hessman, whose only regret in setting the home run record is that it did not happen in Toledo. In a roving 19-year professional career, no stop has felt more like home. Hessman became a favorite during his first run in the Glass City, hitting a club-record 140 home runs from 2005 to 2009 — a stretch that began with back-to-back Governors’ Cup titles.
“I'm glad it happened in a Toledo uniform,” said Hessman, 36, who returned to the Hens this season. “All the years that I've spent here, the championships that we've won here. I just wish I could have done it at home for the fans here.”
On second thought, he is just glad it happened at all.
For a month, the Hens kept a dozen bottles of champagne on ice in the clubhouse as Hessman stood on the precipice of history. He tied the IL career home run record with his 14th of the season on May 30, then endured an exasperating month. Hessman strained a middle finger, struggled through a bum elbow and wrist injured in a home-plate collision on June 6, and went through a 4-for-44 batting slump.
One teammate playfully cracked the champagne would go flat.
“I could start feeling the pressure to break it,” Hessman said. “The guys are cheering for you, and you always hear it when you warm up before the games from the fans.”
Finally, on Monday, the wait ended. In the third inning of the Hens’ 9-1 win, Hessman drove a 2-0 fastball from Clippers starter Jake Brigham deep over the left-center fence. Teammates, including the relievers who raced down from the bullpen, engulfed him before he reached the dugout.
Hessman also later met the man who caught the ball, retrieving the keepsake in exchange for a photo and an autographed bat and ball.
“It was more relief than anything,” he said. “You can kind of let the air out, like, OK, let's enjoy this now.”
And perhaps the relief is showing. Hessman has six hits in his last 15 at-bats and extended his hitting streak to four games with a first-inning single on Wednesday.
He enjoys the game as much as ever, his latest foray into history providing another opportunity to savor what he has accomplished rather than reflect on what he has not.
“Obviously, I would have liked to [stayed in the majors],” said Hessman, who has played 109 career games in the majors, most recently with the New York Mets in 2010. “In the minor leagues, you’re used to playing every day so you're getting four or five at-bats every night. The chances that I did get were more in a bench role, filling in every once in a while or getting pinch hits late in the game. It was a different mindset you had to get used to.
”Those guys that came off the bench that were great pinch-hitters and great bench guys, it takes a special skill to be able to do that. I have a ton of respect for those guys. But I can hang my hat and say that I got to the major leagues and say that I played at the highest level. I’m thankful for all of the organizations that gave me the opportunity.“
Hernan Perez and Tyler Collins each had two of the Hens’ nine hits. Jose Ortega allowed one run over two innings in relief of Ray while Evan Reed pitched a perfect ninth.