SOMETIMES YOU WIN, sometimes you lose and sometimes you break a record with an egg on your jersey. Mike Hessman didn't plan on becoming the minor league home run king, and he sure didn't plan on the egg. But his Triple A Toledo Mud Hens were hosting the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, and the four games were billed as the Bacon and Eggs Series, because of the hen and the pig, you see, and so Hessman's uniform had an egg on the back and a spatula on the front when he went deep for the 433rd time, on Aug. 3. Now that he has the national stage for a moment, he might as well tell the world, "I've been Santa Claus."
That was part of another minor league promotion. Hessman has also worn a Star Wars--themed uniform and a Harley Davidson--themed one with a flame on it, which he says "was a pretty sweet jersey, but it didn't go well with the pinstripes." That's the problem with gimmick uniforms in the minors: Teams don't spring for matching pants. Players end up looking like they decided to go to a Halloween party at the last minute.
Minor league life often seems like a bad sitcom plot. Hessman, a corner infielder who has played 2,078 games in the bushes, remembers the episode when his team's bus broke down three times on one road trip, and the time when the air-conditioning went out on the bus and it got so hot, players stripped down to their boxers. When it comes to natural disasters, he and his wife, Sabrina, have hit for the cycle: They've experienced earthquakes in Japan, tornadoes in Oklahoma City, a giant snowstorm in Toledo and hurricanes back home in South Carolina. Sabrina once spent the night at the stadium in Oklahoma City because the tornado sirens never stopped.
But there is also the daily drama of guys trying to reach the majors. Hessman, who was drafted by the Braves in 1996 out of Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., made it just long enough to know what he is missing. He played 109 big league games for three franchises between 2003 and '10. One time Sabrina was driving to Turner Field in Atlanta when she heard on the radio that the Braves were sending Mike down. She met him in the parking lot and cried.
The man she calls Hess is 37 now. His big league future ended a few years ago. Yet he still plays, in goofy uniforms for working-class pay, and he says setting the record has nothing to do with it. He just loves baseball.
A lot of people have asked him about the movie Bull Durham lately because the hero, Crash Davis, broke the minor league home run record. But Davis called the achievement "dubious"—it meant he was a career minor leaguer. Hessman sees it differently. Baseball sent him to China, with the 2008 Olympic team; to Japan for the '11 season; to Latin America for winter ball; and to ballparks all over the U.S. on thousands of summer nights.
When Hessman hits a home run, he usually knows the moment it happens. He has that much raw power. But of course he usually doesn't hit a homer. He struck out 2,347 times in the minors before hitting his record-breaking shot. "There were nights he would call me because it was just a struggle," Sabrina says. "Into probably his 11th, 12th, 13th season, I was just thinking to myself, How long can we do this?"
She learned that, for her husband, the struggles are part of a greater joy. Sure, he still believes that in his prime, "I could hit 20-plus a year for a [major league] team and drive in 80 runs," but he never got that chance. And, yes, it was painful to leave for spring training four days after Sabrina gave birth to their daughter, Madalyn, in 2010. But he is proud of his career and proud that he has always hustled because "that's one thing you can control in the game." Almost two decades in the minors, and he still honors the uniform, even if it has breakfast on it.
"I think it's wonderful," Sabrina says. "He's 37 years old, still going out there, playing what he loves to play. People always say, 'When is he just gonna stop?' And I'm like, 'Why would he?'"
Mike Hessman didn't set out to be the minor league home run king. But the crown is a memorial to a long career that has had nothing to do with chasing records.
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CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED