Outfielder Mike Hessman was signed in February by Houston and sent to the Astros' Triple-A affiliate, the Oklahoma City RedHawks. The minors are nothing new for the 34-year-old Fountain Valley, Calif., native. He's spent parts of 16 seasons in the bushes, but Oklahoma City is his first Pacific Coast League stop. Hessman, a 1996 draft pick of the Atlanta Braves, has mostly played in International League cities Toledo, Richmond and Buffalo. He is expected to provide the RedHawks with some power — he has 350 career homers in the minors.
Question: You played in Japan last year for the Orix Buffaloes. What was that experience like?
Answer: “It was interesting. My family (wife and daughter) adjusted really well over there. They took really good care of us.”
How does professional baseball in Japan compare to the United States?
“The baseball is definitely different, how they run their programs.”
What was the biggest difference?
“Their work ethic. It's pretty intense over there. It blows what we do out of the water. We are on the field during spring training at 8 in the morning until 5 ‘o clock at night. It's go, go, go non-stop. Once the season starts they still have a big program of conditioning and running.”
What was the hardest thing to get used to?
“Baseball wise, just the traveling. We had to have five or six uniforms going different places at one time. Here, we are used to setting up shop in the clubhouse and having everything organized. There, you are living out of two or three different bags.”
Did you learn to speak the language?
“Not really. The language was very difficult. Where we live it was very Americanized. There was a lot of English spoken.”
Did you have a translator?
“Only on the baseball field. Once we left the field, we were on our own.”
What were the pre-game meals like?
“There were a lot of ramen bowls. They do put out some grilled chicken type stuff with rice.”
How skilled are the Japanese baseball players?
“They are very skilled, very disciplined. They really focus on executing, getting bunts down, moving runners over. It's a small ball game over there. The first inning, they are sac bunting if the leadoff guy gets on.”
If you took the best Japanese teams and put them in the major leagues, how would they do?
“They could compete. They got guys that can hit the ball. They handle the bat extremely well. They slap it all over the field. Hitters are shooting balls down the line left and right. It's something where you can't cheat on certain guys like we do here with the shift.”
How was the pitching?
“They don't quite have the power arms that we have, but their mechanics are very sound. They have a lot of deception and a lot of movement, different kind of funky little rhythms, very good off-speed stuff.”
You have spent the bulk of your 16-year professional career in the minor leagues. Is it true you have more home runs in the minors (350) than any other active minor league player?
“I think that is still the case now. I don't know if anybody caught me last year.”
What do you think when you hear that statistic?
“It is what it is. I enjoy playing the game. As long as I can keep putting this uniform on I am going to go out there and do it.
Why have you been able to mash the ball in the minors (350 career homers with 2,026 RBIs) but struggled in the major leagues?
“Usually, when I had my time up in the major leagues it was pinch hitting, coming off the bench, getting a spot start here and there. Guys that come off the bench, boy, I have a great deal of respect for those guys who make careers out of that.”
You played in 109 games in the major leagues (Tigers, Braves and Mets), getting only 223 at bats. Do you think that you ever received a fair shot in the majors?
“A lot of it is being in the right spot at the right time. I have been blessed to play this game for a long time and to have an opportunity to play in the major leagues. I played for some great managers in Bobby Cox and Jim Leyland, been around some really great baseball people. I have nothing to complain about.”
At age 34, do you still have aspirations to make a major league roster?
“If an opportunity opens up, that would be awesome. I know how the game works. I know where age stands in the game. That's no secret.”
If your baseball career ended today, would you be happy with it?
“Yeah, absolutely. I have been very blessed to stay in the game this long.”