This is one of those insanely niche things I've always wanted to do if I had the proper way of going about it. Now that this SHB Topps series is doing well for me, I might as well go for it.
Mike Hessman is a name that many MLB fans may not have heard of. Maybe if you're a Braves fan who knew a lot about prospecting in the 2000s, or just an all-around stats expert. But if you're a Toledo Mud Hens fan...oh boy, you know Mike Hessman. You probably love Mike Hessman. Mike Hessman is the closest thing we have to a real life Crash Davis, a guy who flourished in the minor leagues but could never get things going in the majors.
In 2015, Hessman retired with 433 home runs in the minor league level, which is an all-time mark for minor leaguers. Mike Hessman hit more home runs in the minor leagues than Andres Galarraga did in the major leagues. Think about that.
Hessman's story was rewarded by Topps a few times during their Pro Debut sets, but never in flagship. And so I figured I should rectify that.
Okay, so 2003, Hessman is called up to the Braves at 25, plays 16 games, hits .286. By this point, Hessman has already hit 136 home runs in the minors. He hits 2 in the majors 2003.
In 2004, he gets a slightly longer major league stint, backing up Adam LaRoche at 1st. In 29 games, Hessman bats .130 with another 2 home runs. Clearly, something's not working at the major league level yet. Meanwhile, he hits .287 with 19 home runs in Richmond.
In 2005, as he is 27 and has been with the Braves for the better part of a decade, he's granted free agency. So he signs the first of many minor league deals with the Detroit Tigers. At this point, Hessman sort of knows the drill, it seems. He gets a little play in Spring Training, kibitzes with Ivan Rodriguez and Dmitri Young, then spends the rest of the season in Toledo playing for one of the most well-attended minor league clubs in the union, and hitting more homers. He only hits .214 this season, but he notches 28 home runs.
2006 is similar, he doesn't get to the majors at all but keeps getting lots of playing time in Toledo. .165 average, 24 homers, which is a down year, but at least he gets to play.
2007 is probably the closest thing to a career year for Mike Hessman. First of all, he has his best year for Toledo, hitting .254 with 31 homers and 101 RBIs. Then the Tigers need assistance at 1st, they call him up for 17 games and he hits 4 more homers covering for Sean Casey. This is his first major league play since 2004, and he does what he can to make the most of it.
2008 is a similar year. Fantastic in Toledo, 34 home runs and 72 RBIs, which most 2008 Tigers would kill for, and a few games in the majors. This is one of Hessman's best MLB stints, as in 12 games he hits .296 with 5 home runs, making himself known as a decent backup first baseman.
However, in 2008, the first baseman is not someone easy to back-up like Sean Casey. 2008 is the beginning of the Miguel Cabrera era in Detroit, meaning Hessman is going to get less and less major league playing time.
In 2009, he's not going to get any, spending the entire season in Toledo despite once again having a decent time in Spring Training. This year for Hessman is slightly lower-key, with 23 home runs and 77 RBI for the Mud Hens.
After this, the Tigers don't bring Hessman back for 2010, and Hessman hops around for a few years.
The Mets are the first team to bite on Hessman, especially the season after losing their longtime first baseman, Carlos Delgado. So Hessman gets some playing time, though it's only 32 games. Hessman sadly only hits a measly .127, and only musters one final major league home run in his final MLB games. It's a sad way for him to go out, but thankfully, it's not the end of Hessman's baseball story.
After a mediocre season playing for the Orix Buffaloes in 2011, Hessman returns to minor league deals in America, playing yearlong stints in the AAA affiliates of the Astros and Reds, hitting 60 homers in those two seasons combined, before returning to the Toledo Mud Hens for his final two years, notching 34 home home runs in order to break the all-time minor league home run record in 2015. It's a huge moment for Hessman, for Toledo, and for the minors.
So Mike Hessman may not have been a high priority for Topps all those years, but he was a high priority for me when I made this. One of the things I ask myself when I consider subjects for this set is 'are they important in even the most specific story of baseball?' That's why I'll include a botched draft pick that hung on for several years, or a former small-team closer who kept relieving games into his 30s. And that's why Hessman is here. You can't talk about minor league baseball in this era without talking about Hessman, and you can't tell Hessman's story without talking about his major league games. Even though a lot of these were spring training pictures that didn't amount to MLB seasons, they still warrant cards in my eyes, because Hessman's story is that unique, and that important, to this era of baseball.