Real Crash Davis in town

One of the greatest legends in minor league baseball history is in town this week, and for the record, he puts Crash Davis to shame.

Erie hitting coach Mike Hessman holds the career home run record in the minor leagues, belting an astonishing 433 during a career that spanned from 1996 to 2015.

It’s hard to come up with superlatives to discuss hitting that many home runs in minor league baseball, because the odds against it are probably like one in a trillion. But year after year, for 19 seasons, Hessman never could get the big break that would keep him in the majors for an extended period, so he remained in the minors for a remarkable 2,094 games and just kept hitting home run after home run.

Hessman might not be a household name for many baseball fans, but he certainly has a special place that’s all his own in the history of the game.

“It is pretty awesome,” Hessman said this week with Erie in town to play the Curve. “I do have a place in (baseball history); my name will be up there for some things. But I never played the game for any of those type of accolades or accomplishments. I just wanted to go out there and play hard every day.”

In the classic movie “Bull Durham,” the character Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner, is said to have broken the minor league home run record when he hit his 247th long ball. That number, it turned out, was way, way off the actual record that stood until 2015.

A fellow by the name of Buzz Arlett, who played professionally from 1918-1937, finished his career with 432 home runs in the minor leagues. In all that time, he only got one shot in the big leagues, with Philadelphia in 1931, and had a banner year offensively, hitting .313 with 18 homers and 72 RBIs in 121 games.

Arlett apparently was such a terrible defensive player, however, that he never was given another opportunity in the major leagues. But in the minors he was a superstar, finishing with 432 homers, a .341 batting average and 1,786 RBIs in 2,392 games.

Arlett’s home run record stood for 78 years, until Hessman came along and broke it on Aug. 3, 2015. A 6-foot-5, 215-pound third baseman, Hessman set the record by drilling a grand slam for the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, where he spent a large portion of his career. The team and crowd that night at Toledo’s Fifth Third Field celebrated his historic achievement after he crossed home plate.

“I’m proud of it,” Hessman said of his record. “You look back on it, and you wish a few more of those would have been in the major leagues. But no regrets with my career and how I went about my business. I absolutely love the game, love playing the game and having an opportunity to play for that long and be around some good people throughout the years.”

Hessman’s career was very unusual. Despite all of his minor league power numbers, he only played in 109 major league games. He hit 14 homers with 33 RBIs, but also batted .188 and struck out 79 times in 223 at-bats.

The strikeouts were a big issue during his career, as Hessman fanned 2,374 times in 7,540 minor league at-bats (31.5 percent of the time). He also batted .233 with 1,207 RBIs in the minors, and despite all of his power production, he was always caught in a numbers game that kept him off big league rosters.

The irony of his situation, though, is easy to spot. If Hessman would have spent more time in the big leagues, he wouldn’t hold the minor league home run record. So in essence, he didn’t get to enjoy the big leagues more, but because of that, he was able to find his own special place in the game’s history.

Hessman is perfectly fine with being the greatest home run hitter ever in the minors, because he showed up to a ballpark every day for two decades and was able to play the game he loved.

“I’m just happy and honored that I played the game that long and was able to put up some numbers,” he said. “It’s just the way it panned out that I ended up getting the record.”

Personally, Hessman’s story has long been amazing to me. My first full season covering the minor leagues was in 1998 with the high-A Danville 97s, a Braves affiliate in Virginia. Hessman was a 20-year-old slugger on that team, and he finished the season with 20 homers and 63 RBIs while batting .200.

The team itself was awful, finishing 54-86, despite some very promising pitching prospects that included future big leaguers Jason Marquis and Rob Bell. Marquis went 2-12 on that team as a 19-year-old.

I learned so much about the minor leagues that year, and that season served as a springboard to me getting a job with the Mirror in 1999 covering the Curve. Because Hessman was the best power hitter on that Danville team, I found myself paying close attention to him in the following years, all the way up through him breaking the minor league record in 2015.

Then, in 2004, Brad Eldred joined the Curve. And if I were to try and pick out two minor league hitters over the past 20 years who had very similar careers, it would be Eldred and Hessman.

I have written volumes about how Eldred was the greatest slugger in Double-A history, with 30 homers in 60 games for Altoona, plus the incredible 50 RBIs in one month in 2004. But Eldred had holes in his offensive game that prevented him from major league success, and the same could be said for Hessman.

As fate would have it, Eldred and Hessman wound up playing against one another many times in Triple-A over the years.

“We played against each other quite a bit,” Hessman said. “He was a big, strong hitter, no doubt about it.”

Who could hit the ball farther?

“Oh man, I don’t know,” Hessman said with a smile. “Probably him. I’ll give it to him.”

Curve manager Michael Ryan crossed paths with Hessman many times in the minors.

“I played against him a lot,” Ryan said. “Home run champion, king. I’ve seen some balls just go over, and I’ve seen some balls that could have went over two fields, and they all counted the same. But he was such a power threat.”

Ryan also played with Eldred at Triple-A Indianapolis in 2006, so he, too, was asked who could hit the ball farther.

“Depended on what day you saw them,” Ryan said. “Whoever would hit it the furthest, it might be within two feet of each other.”

As for comparing Eldred and Hessman as overall hitters, Ryan said, “Size. Different type swing. But just big, physical strong guys.”

One big difference in their careers is that Eldred went to Japan in 2012 and has been there ever since, hitting tons of home runs while making a lot of money — more than $1 million per season in recent years. He led the Japanese major leagues in homers with 37 in 2014, and last year Eldred hit his 400th professional home run.

Hessman went to Japan in 2011, but that situation didn’t work out well for him, and he returned to the minor leagues.

“There was a couple opportunities prior to than the year I went over there, but some things just didn’t pan out,” he said. “But I did have an opportunity to go over there, I played one season over there, battled some injuries. It was one of those things that I wasn’t necessarily getting the amount of playing time that I would like to have over there, so it was a tough situation.”

If Eldred and Hessman both would have played in the minor leagues all these years, there probably would be a pretty close battle for the all-time home run record. Eldred hit 251 of his 406 in the minors, plus 131 in Japan since 2012, while Hessman’s record is 433, and he hit 454 at all levels of pro ball.

But as it stands, the minor league record belongs to Hessman, and he probably will hold it forever because it’s just inconceivable to think that anyone in the future would last in the minors long enough to top 433 homers.

“What an accomplishment,” Ryan said.

Indeed. It’s a remarkable accomplishment that makes Mike Hessman a baseball legend, even if it is only in the minor leagues.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

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