“The King” is returning to Toledo to take a final bow.
Mike Hessman, who owns the record for the most home runs by a player in the affiliated minor leagues, will be at Fifth Third Field on Thursday to be inducted into the International League Hall of Fame. And it is an honor that was well earned by the longtime Hens third baseman, who holds the home run records for both Toledo (184) and the IL (288).
Hessman played for the Mud Hens from 2005-09, helping Toledo claim Governors’ Cup titles in both 2005 and ’06. His best season in a Hens uniform came in 2007, when he led the IL with 31 home runs and 101 RBIs and was named league MVP. He also was a postseason IL All-Star in 2008 after hitting 34 home runs despite missing a large chunk of the season to play in the 2008 Olympics, helping the U.S. national team claim a bronze medal.
He also spent parts of five different season in the majors, playing for Atlanta in 2003-04, Detroit in 2007-08, and the New York Mets in 2010.
Hessman returned to Toledo in 2014 and set the record with his 433rd and final career minor-league home run — a grand slam against Lehigh Valley on Aug. 3, 2015 — then retired at season’s end. He then became a hitting coach in the Tigers minor-league organization, and currently Hessman is the hitting coach for the Double-A Erie SeaWolves.
The Blade: During your time in Toledo, you always said you would look back at your playing career once you were done playing. Did you ever do that?
Mike Hessman: “Not really. Maybe I did a little bit, but my focus now is on coaching. My goal is to give players information that will help them move forward and play in the big leagues.”
When you started coaching, what was the biggest adjustment you had to make?
“Honestly, I was afraid of messing people up. I didn’t want to give them bad information. I don’t want to be quick and throw a bunch of stuff on players early on; I’d rather see them develop. Then, if I know I’m seeing something, we can talk. But I don’t want to talk just to talk. If someone comes to me, we’ll talk and I’ll pass along what I’m seeing and what can be done to improve things. But I don’t want to give someone bad information.”
Has the way you approach coaching hitting changed much in the three seasons you have been a coach?
“A little bit, but not too much. I’ve become more comfortable bringing things up if I see something and a player wants to talk. I feel I have a pretty good eye for what’s going on with a player’s swing. So I’m more confident bringing things up.”
You also have coached players at different levels in Detroit’s organization. In what ways is serving as a hitting coach different in short-season ball compared to Low Single-A and compared to Double-A?
“At the lower levels a lot of times you’re starting from scratch. The players have played high school ball, and some have played college ball, but as for having an understanding of the swing and how it works, you’re often starting from scratch. And that is good, so you can teach basic concepts and mold a good swing without a lot of bad habits.
“The higher up you go, the more a guy’s swing is pretty much his swing. You can make a few tweaks here and there, but that’s basically it. At the higher levels you focus more on approach and how you attack every day, especially mentally.
“Basically, at the lower levels there is more mechanical work. At the higher levels, the work is more mental, preparing for the game within the game. You try to stick to your strengths while adjusting to how a pitcher is going to pitch to you. You focus on certain counts and certain situations in the game, rather than just stepping into the box and swinging the bat.”
In Erie this year you’ve been working with some highly regarded prospects. Is that exciting to you?
“That’s very exciting to me. The Tigers have made trades that have brought players such as Jake Rogers and Daz Cameron into the system. Jake has done a good job of working on his swing and his approach; he’s got some power, and he’s one of the best defensive catchers I’ve ever seen. He has a chance to play for a long time.
“We haven’t had Daz here for a long time, but just watching his approach can show you that he’s a professional. It’s been unbelievable watching him go about his business. He lays off a lot of tough pitches and has been good at staying in the zone right now.”
Are there particular guys you played under that you draw upon now as a coach?
“There are a lot of guys that I had a good time with, and I learned from how they went about their business. I watched and learned from their demeanor, the way they ran the clubhouse and worked with the players.
“[Current Atlanta manager] Brian Snitker was one of my favorites, and I’ve been excited to see him have success with the Braves. Obviously I learned from Larry Parrish when he managed in Toledo; he was able to keep things relaxed and helped guys go about their business.
“And I’ve had a lot of good hitting coaches along the way, too. The biggest lesson I learned from them was to tailor how you coach different hitters based on what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are. No two guys hit exactly the same way, and you try to work with them to help improve the way they hit.”
When Larry Parrish talked about you in Toledo, he always saw you as a future manager. Do you think about managing?
“I have because that question has come up quite a bit. When I talk to other coaches and managers and scouts, it has come up. But those discussions have never matured into an actual opportunity to manage. If the right fit came along, I would definitely entertain that. I really enjoy what I’m doing now, but I would be open-minded to it.”
What do you see in your future?
“I’d love to get back to the major leagues. To be back on a major-league field would be an unbelievable feeling. That would be the plan. But I’ve come across coaches where you can tell that is their only focus, and hopefully I don’t come off that way. I would love an opportunity to be up there, but I want to focus on the work I’m doing right here, right now.
“Obviously I didn’t spend as much time in the majors as I would have liked to as a player, but I would love an opportunity to get back up there in another way. But my day-to-day focus is on getting the players I’m working with ready for that night’s game while also working with them to improve and get ready to play at higher levels down the road.”
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