July 16, 2013
Of course, there are far more dramatic examples of hope, the type that sustained Nelson Mandella for two-plus decades as he sat in a prison cell on Robben Island, paying the price for his commitment to end apartheid. But, what about the examples that come to us in far less dramatic ways?
Well, for me, hope was on display last week on a minor league field in downtown Toledo, where I drove to meet up with an old friend, Father Chuck Denny, to see the Mud Hens play the Louisville Bats. The now-retired Father Chuck, when it comes to men of the cloth, is about as fervent a sports fan as you’ll find, sporting not only a golf game that allows him to count every stroke and still score in the 80s but also places him in seats for Notre Dame football, Toledo City high school basketball and baseball parks as well.
Fifth Third Field is the home of the Mud Hens, the highest level of Minor League Baseball and an affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. And, while the ‘Hens are currently bottom feeders in the International League and the Cincinnati affiliate Bats just a .500 club, each and every player who took the field that night hopes that the phone will ring soon and he’ll be on his way to what Kevin Costner’s character Crash Davis in the wonderful baseball movie “Bull Durham” called “The Show.”
That’s where I saw hope displayed on a beautiful evening with a great friend, sitting in seats just four rows behind home plate in a park just a strong throw from the warning track from Toledo’s section of the 130-mile Maumee River.
We were close enough to see the faces of the players quite distinctly, faces filled with hope, faces so young they looked as if they belonged to my former students of St. Marys Memorial High School.
My pal, former Major League Baseball scout Jim Martz, once told me that out of every 100 players taken each year in the June Major League Baseball draft, five will ever play an entire year of Major League Baseball.
There was one player in particular who drew my attention, Louisville’s big first baseman, Mike Hessman, who wore one of baseball’s most revered mantles that night, that of cleanup hitter, the fourth man batting and the man expected to clean the bases of anyone dancing off a bag waiting to carry a run home. For the baseball uninitiated, the cleanup hitter is the biggest run producer, the biggest dog with the biggest bite.
I could tell at first glance that Hessman was considerably older than his diamond comrades, so much so that Father Chuck said he once, years ago, played for the Mud Hens and was a real crowd favorite. Thanks to the wonders of a smartphone, I Googled him and discovered that the right-hander digging into the box turned 35 in March. While young in many professions, such is not the case in professional sports.
In an easy 12-0 Bats win, Hessman, who came into the game with an impressive 21 homers but an unimpressive .240 batting average, smacked a long double, made a couple of loud outs and walked twice while continuing to chase the dream.
The next day, I Internet-searched to find out more about Hessman, a more compelling player to me once I knew his age than even Blazin’ Billy Hamilton, the Bats centerfielder who, despite his struggles at the plate evident by a game-time .242 batting average, is very highly touted.
Out of Fountain Valley, Calif., the 6-foot-5-inch Hessman was the 452nd pick of the Atlanta Braves in June 2003, the same year Blazin’ Billy entered first grade. In his first organization, he toiled for eight years, almost unheard of in this day and age of baseball. While most players would feel after that length of time, if they weren’t in The Show, they were destined to be one of the 95 of every 100 who wasn’t quite good enough, Hessman has persevered.
Now, in his 18th year of almost exclusively Minor League baseball, with just a handful of call ups to the Major Leagues, where he’s batted just 222 times for a .188 average, counting 14 of his 42 total hits as homeruns, Hessman plays on, the consummate example of hope on a diamond. His home fields have been in places such as Macon, Danville, Myrtle Beach, Greenville, Richmond, Toledo, Buffalo, Orix (Japan) and now Louisville. He’s been a Brave, a 97, a Pelican, a Mud Hen, a Tiger, a Bison, a Met, a Buffalo, a Redhawk and a Bat.
And, he also wears a proud but somewhat ignominious tag, the active Minor League home run leader with, as of July 10, 391 long ones. Later this summer, he will, almost without a doubt, become just the fifth player ever to hit 400 Minor League homeruns.
What makes him endure even after 18 long seasons of blistering hot days and muggy nights and bad bus rides, seasons that have reminded him that he’s been good but just not quite good enough? Well, it might be best summed up for the real-life Crash Davis, in a line from Timothy Robbins’ character Andy Dufresne in the move “Shawshank Redemption.”
When the incarcerated-for-life Dufresne tells his fellow inmate Red he hopes one day to escape, Red tells him that hope is a dangerous thing. And, it is Dufresne who responds, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
For Mike Hessman, my new favorite player who drew his first paycheck to play professional baseball three sitting presidents ago, hope remains the best of things, the thing that refuses to die.