NEW YORK - Mike Hessman #19 of the New York Mets is hit with a eighth inning pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The Mets defeated the Cardinals 4-0. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Some of those lesser sports have surprise sensations taking the country by storm. Where's the comparable player for baseball?
I don't want to cross the streams too much here. This is Baseball Nation, with its own baseball constitution, and where we frown upon people who buy baseball cars from other nations. We're a xenophobic bunch, too. So if we're going to mention those other sports, we'll do it sparingly.
There are three other major sports in America. One of them uses a flat, cylindrical thing instead of a ball. So we shan't talk about that. The other two have made me jealous. Oh, not because of the ways those sports are played -- with clocks, if you can believe it -- but because they have had some beautifully polarizing players. We're talking players that just annoy the living hell out of the learned -- pronounced lər-nəd -- aficionados of the sport. Players who aren't supposed to be good according to said aficionados because of legitimate, scouty-type reasons, but who capture the attention of the great unwashed.
Football has Tim Tebow. Basketball has Jeremy Lin. I am as qualified to evaluate their own individual merits and likelihood of continued success as I am to review a copy of Twilight translated into Tagalog. I've never read Twilight, but I think I have a pretty good idea of how much I'd enjoy it. I trust the smart people furrowing their collective brow. But because I'm ignorant about the whole thing -- especially because I don't understand the language involved -- I'm going to have to step back and admit that everyone could be wrong.
I want baseball to have a story like that. I want baseball to have a player who lights up the Twitter machine whenever he hits a home run or dances a strikeout jig. Some nominations.
No, no, no. Of course Harper is going to be good. Of course he's going to have a sneer and personality that only a Nationals fan can love. This isn't news. And it's not going to be a controversy. This is not analogous. Just sit back and wait for the annoying.
In this scenario, Ramirez signs on with the A's, plays his first game in June, and starts mashing right away. He's the Manny of old -- terrifying pitchers, thrilling fans, and getting a mitt stuck to his belt buckle even though he's DHing. That would certainly be a story.
But it wouldn't be a story that created a civil war of opinion. Both stat- and scout-types would evaluate a resurgent Manny with the same sort-of-surprised-yet-nonplussed demeanor. It would be a little surprising, but we're still talking about the double helixes that are mooshed together to make Manny Ramirez, after all. He's done it before.
Random Slappy Speedy Guy Who Hits .300 and Steals a Lot of Bases
Now we're getting closer. Let's just pick a guy who is a stolen-base hound in the minors -- Derrick Robinson, for example -- and pretend that he seizes the chance of an emergency call-up. After a month, he's hitting .310/.330/.360 with 25 steals, and Kansas City is agog.
Except there needs to be a hook. Random slappy guy is a baseball tradition. Jose Constanza was something like this guy last year, and other than the hardcore baseball fan, no one noticed. Tebow's religion is the perfect catalyst for unhinged discussion on both sides. Jeremy Lin is an Asian-American who went to Harvard, which was a combined demographic that was tied with "former Traveling Wilbury" in the NBA ranks until he came into the league. These guys have hooks. There's a compelling story behind the sports.
Random slappy guy doesn't have a hook. Plus, this isn't 1985. People don't care about stolen bases quite as much these days, and Billy Hamilton isn't going to save us all just yet. Needs to be a hook … and dingers.
Yesssssss. This is the one. Hessman is the active career home-run leader in the minor leagues, with 329 home runs in 16 minor league seasons. He has over 3,900 plate appearances in AAA alone, and he even has a few home runs in the majors. Not as many as he could have had, though.
That's the kind of Schleprock turn of events that happens to a guy with bus sores on his butt. But he might get another chance. The 33-year-old was recently signed by the Astros to a minor-league contract after fizzling in Japan. He's not on the 40-man roster, but stranger things have happened. Maybe there's an injury, Carlos Lee needs to cover center, and, lookie here, there's a first-base opening.
Then picture Hessman coming up and hitting ten homers in a month. He turns that prodigious International League power into home runs that sail over the Crawford Boxes. He's arrived. He's a Real-Life Crash Davis with cover stories on Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine that feature clever titles like "A Real-Life Crash Davis." And your job, you evidence monkey, is to walk around and cynically puncture all of those bubbles of hope.
Your Dad or Workmate: How about that Hessman? What a great story.
You: Yeah, but his K/BB ratio in the minors doesn't indicate that he can sustain …
Your Dad or Workmate: Guy sure can mash the ball. What a great story.
You: Actually, if you translate his International League stats, they really aren't that …
Your Dad or Workmate: Real-life Crash Davis is what that guy is. Real-life Crash Davis.
Odds of happening: 1 in 1000, but those are better odds than I would have given for Bartolo Colon and Ryan Vogelsong doing what they did last year. And if it does happen, we'll have our very own media sensation to talk about. Our very own Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin.
As it kept happening, we'd be forced to admit that maybe, just maybe, something's changed, and that this Hessman guy can really mash at a corner spot, that he's one of the rare folks who figured something out in his 30s. Baseball, that sneaky and duplicitous sport, would make us doubt our own judgment.
It would be glorious. Here's to Mike Hessman, our best chance of making what should be an interesting season even more interesting.