Durham Bulls Athletic Park must have been a welcome sight for Mike Hessman.
Hessman, a third baseman for the Toledo Mud Hens, is the active leader in minor league home runs with 426, and he’s closing in on the all-time American record of 432. But June hasn’t been kind to the International League’s all-time home run king. His batting average has fallen and he’d hit just one homer.
A few at-bats Tuesday night in Durham might have solved Hessman’s recent woes. Hessman hit his 14th homer -- in just 28 games -- at DBAP since 2005. That’s more than he’s hit in any other away ballpark, including those of Toledo’s division rivals.
“I don’t really know what it is about this ballpark,” Hessman said after the Bulls’ 5-4 victory in extra innings, “but it’s a good place to hit. You can score some runs in this ballpark.”
Hessman, who has spent 13 of his 20 professional years playing Triple-A ball and occasionally hears the comparisons to Crash Davis, couldn’t explain before the game why he’s had so much success in Durham.
“The ball can fly outta here,” Hessman said a few hours before blasting a towering two-run shot to left in the sixth inning, his ninth homer this season. “It’s just one of those things that I don’t really have an answer for, but I’ve always enjoyed coming here to play.”
Hessman, 37, hit five home runs at DBAP in 2007. He hit two here last season. He couldn’t recall every one but pointed to a couple that stood out.
Last season, Hessman smacked one off an office building that sits on the concourse above left field. A few years earlier, he launched one onto the third-floor balcony of the same building, above Tobacco Road.
Hessman and the Bulls’ hitting coach got to the ballpark early the next day with a range finder to measure the distance. Hessman couldn’t remember how far it traveled.
“That was definitely one that stood out,” Hessman said. “We had a good time with it.”
Hessman still has a little bit of work to do at DBAP. All 14 of his homers have missed the famous bull that’s perched near the line above the left field wall. He said he came closest when the U.S. national team played Canada in an exhibition game in 2008.
The wall in left makes hitting home runs more difficult than at parks such as the Charlotte Knights’ new uptown ballpark, but Hessman still counts DBAP as one of the more hitter-friendly ballparks.
“You go into a yard like a Charlotte, which is super small and hitter friendly, I think guys go in there and they try to do too much,” he said. “And that might be the case here as well because it’s a good hitter’s yard. You’ve got that wall there – people’s eyes light up.
“I obviously think it’s gotta be up there. ... All in all, this is a really good yard to play in and to hit in.”
He showed again why Tuesday night.
Where he ranks
The all-time home run leaders in minor league baseball, according to the Society for American Baseball Research:
Note: Espino, Barrera, Mora and Ortiz hit most of their home runs in the Mexican League, which is not affiliated with Major League Baseball’s farm systems. Hessman is seven shy of holding the American record.
Crash and Mike
Crash Davis. Mike Hessman. By now, the two are inseparable. Hessman has fun with it, but there are differences. A few facts:
▪ The real Crash Davis was an infielder who played high school ball in Gastonia, went to Duke and spent the 1948 season with the Durham Bulls. He hit 10 home runs that season, 51 in his career. He reached The Show, playing 148 games and hitting 2 home runs.
▪ The fictional Crash Davis was a longtime catcher/philosopher for the Bulls. He spent 21 days in The Show – “the greatest 21 days of my life,” he said. He hung ’em up after after mashing his minor league record 247th dinger.
▪ Mike Hessman hit one home run in his first 53 games as a pro. He then hit 20 or more in five of his next six minor league seasons, reaching Triple A Richmond in 2002. He was 24 and seemingly on his way, except the Braves had Chipper Jones and no designated-hitter spot for Hessman’s power bat. Hessman made his MLB debut in 2003 – his first career hit was a home run – but soon returned to the minors. He has played in 109 career MLB games and hit 14 home runs. He last appeared in The Show in 2010. Hessman has said he’s nearing the end of his career. He’s seven home runs shy of setting the career American minor league record.
DBAP a blast
Toledo’s Mike Hessman has hit 426 career homers, most among active minor leaguers. He holds the International League record with 281, and Durham Bulls Athletic Park has been one of his favorite launching pads. Here is Hessman's home run totals vs. IL teams as a visiting player, beginning with 2005:
Durham Bulls: 14
Columbus Clippers: 13
Indianapolis Indians: 13
Syracuse Chiefs: 12
Louisville Bats: 11
Charlotte Knights: 8
Ottawa Lynx*: 5
Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders: 5
Buffalo Bisons: 4
Norfolk Tides: 4
Rochester Red Wings: 4
Gwinnett Braves: 3
Pawtucket Red Sox: 3
Richmond Braves*: 3
Toledo Mud Hens: 3
Lehigh Valley IronPigs: 1
* - Richmond and Ottawa no longer are in the International League.