What's It Like to Be Baseball's Real-Life Crash Davis?

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterAugust 5, 2015

USA Today

Never believe what you see in the movies.

Seriously, I saw Bull Durham, and if Ron Shelton didn't base the Crash Davis character on Mike Hessman, it's only because Hessman was still in elementary school when Shelton was writing the story.

In fact, just this week, after Hessman broke the minor league career home run record (just as Crash does in the movie), Shelton told Doug Miller of MLB.com he figured Davis would probably buy Hessman a beer.

"Between them, they'd know every bar in every non-big city in America," Shelton said.

Well, Davis would, anyway.

Because as much as we seem to want to call Hessman the real-life Crash Davis, the real-life Mike Hessman is a lot more likely to invite Crash for breakfast.

Wild Eggs in Louisville, if he has his choice.

"He's one of those kids where you hope your daughter brings home someone like him," said Larry Parrish, Hessman's manager with the Toledo Mud Hens.

Parrish played 15 years in the major leagues and hit 256 big league home runs. He homered 33 times in the minors, which left him 400 behind Hessman after Monday night's record-breaking grand slam.

"That's a lot of home runs," Parrish said. "And to do it at this level...Well, if you're making $10 million a year [in the big leagues], it's easy to keep yourself in shape."

Hessman has never made $10 million, or anything close to it. He's 37 years old, in his 19th season in the minor leagues, and his major league service time amounts to a little more than one season.

Parrish wonders whether Hessman could have done more if given a real shot, or if he was a kid now in an era when power is treasured and strikeouts don't seem to matter. As it was, he never did get the chance to play every day, and he hasn't had a big league at-bat in nearly five years.

"I'm extremely lucky," Hessman said. "I'm extremely blessed to be able to play the game this long."

He really does talk like that, and by all accounts he really does think like that. It's why he's still playing, long after most others would have given up and long after most organizations would have told him they have no room for him.

It's why he was able to break a record that had stood for 78 years and why Hessman's record will likely stand for that long or longer.

Seriously, who else would stay in the minor leagues long enough to hit 433 homers?

Crash Davis didn't. In the movie, Davis is a 12-year minor leaguer chasing a record of 247 career homers. When he gets there, he plans to retire as a player and turn to managing.

Hessman may well do the same thing.

Toledo Mud Hens

The baseball lifestyle is all he has known since he signed with the Atlanta Braves out of high school as a 15th-round pick. He started off with the Braves and later went to the Detroit Tigers and New York Mets, and along the way he left enough of an impression that his cellphone blew up with congratulatory texts and messages after he hit 433.

"It's been really awesome," Hessman said.

He got up the next morning and worked at the Mud Hens' kids camp, and he got up the day after that and did the same thing. There's always another day and another game and another city, and if there's not another nightspot, there's at least another favorite breakfast spot.

The travel is easier now, Hessman said, because the Mud Hens make many of their trips in a sleeper bus that has real beds. The ballparks are better now, too.

"Some amazing parks in this league," he said.

Hessman as a New York Met
Hessman as a New York MetKathy Willens/Associated Press

It's still not the big leagues. Hessman had a late-season call-up with the Braves in 2003, and he made Atlanta's Opening Day roster the next spring. He spent some time with the Tigers in 2007 and 2008 and a little more than two months with the Mets in 2010.

He never started more than 14 major league games in any season. He was coming off the bench, and he didn't adjust well. In his 250 major league plate appearances, he hit .188 with 14 home runs and 79 strikeouts.

He doesn't complain. It's not his style. He doesn't look back on that time romantically the way Crash Davis did.

"I've been lucky," he said again.

He's been married for 10 years to a woman he met in Myrtle Beach, and he's been a father for five years to a daughter he wishes he could spend more time with. If he gives up the minor league life after this year, it'll be because his daughter is about to start school and it's harder and harder on the family to keep moving around.

He hears the Crash Davis comparison often, but much more from writers and broadcasters than from teammates or opponents. He doesn't mind it, he said, because who wouldn't like being compared to Kevin Costner?

"That's pretty awesome," Hessman said.

He got more attention this week because of the record. Chipper Jones, his teammate in Atlanta, sent his congratulations via Twitter: 

There was no Twitter note from Crash Davis because, after all, Davis is a fictional character. Shelton, who played in the minor leagues, could give him whatever life he wanted, with nights in bars and groupies who look like Susan Sarandon.

It's a movie life, but it's not real life.

It's not Mike Hessman's life, no matter how many home runs he has hit.

 

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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