Isaac Hess, the man who won’t take no for an answer, had finally gotten his yes.
After five years of being told over and over that he should give up on baseball, here it was, his signature on a contract with the Padres. Hess was going to get his shot at making it to the big leagues.
It had taken him years to get here. When he arrived at Washington State in 2004 as a sophomore lefthander on a full baseball scholarship, team doctors wouldn’t clear him to play because of a chronic hip condition. His baseball career was over before it ever began.
But Hess wouldn’t take no for an answer, no matter what the question was. When his mom had died suddenly when he was 19, he was left without insurance to pay for hip replacement surgery. With help from his aunt, however, Hess figured out a way to make sure the surgery was covered.
When his doctor told him he’d never pitch again after the surgery, Hess went out to find a second opinion, finding a doctor who cleared him to throw. He transferred to Arizona, limped onto campus with a cane, then tossed it away, took up yoga and got into the best shape of his life. He pestered the Wildcats’ coaching staff to give him a chance, and showed enough on the mound that they asked him to join the team as a senior. But once again, he was told that he couldn’t pass the physical, so his college career ended without him ever throwing a pitch.
At this point, you could argue that a reasonable person would have put his glove and spikes away and moved on. Hess had his degree. He had his health, and he had his whole life in front of him.
Hess wasn’t about to give up, though. With the help of White Sox scouts John Kazanas and J.J. Lally, he landed a spot with the independent Frontier League’s Windy City Thunderbolts, even though his only game action in three years had been in summer college ball.
In two years with the Thunderbolts, Hess went 17-8, 3.67 with 170 strikeouts in 147 innings. He was the FL championship series MVP in 2007 as the T-Bolts won their first of two straight titles. Despite the stats, his 87-90 mph fastball, plus curveball and average changeup, Hess still couldn’t find an affiliated club to sign him. It always came back to the hip, and “I’m sorry, I wish we could sign you, but . . .”
Finally, all of those hurdles had gone away. The Padres invited Hess to a tryout in March, when he threw for pro scout Bill Bryk and vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson. His fastball popped, he snapped off several dive-bombing curveballs and located his changeup. They knew about the hip replacement, but they were ready to sign him anyway.
Here it was, finally, the pro contract that Hess had always dreamed about signing. After innumerable obstacles, Hess signed his name on the dotted line. He was a San Diego Padre. Bryk was telling him he had the stuff to be a big leaguer, and was already one of the better lefty arms in camp.
His friend/pitching instructor/agent Tom Novak hugged him, yelling, “We did it!” His girlfriend cheered.
It was the perfect final shot for the movie: Start in close on Hess’ face as he wears a grin that won’t stop. Pull back to a wide shot of Novak, Hess and his girlfriend hugging and jumping up and down on a baseball field. Dissolve to postscript, explaining that Hess went on to pitch in the big leagues for three seasons.
Cut! Call Disney, we have a movie.
Not So Fast
Unfortunately, Hess’ life has never worked out that way. Nothing is ever that easy. Even as Novak hugged him, Hess was already thinking, “Don’t hug me. I haven’t gotten on the mound yet.”
When the phone rang five hours later, Hess knew it wasn’t going to be good news, even though he had been told to expect a call from Fuson with further instructions. He turned on the speaker as he answered, to let his girlfriend hear the call.
“Hey Issac,” he heard Fuson say. He didn’t need to hear the rest. He could tell from the tone in Fuson’s voice that bad news was coming. While the team’s doctors had initially signed off on the pitcher with an artificial hip, they changed their minds after looking at his X-rays. They didn’t trust his hip.
“My girlfriend was all excited because we were waiting on a call from Grady,” Hess said. “But I could hear it in his voice when he called. I told my girlfriend, ‘Don’t be sad for me.’ I anticipated it. I felt like I wasn’t there yet. I felt like they still weren’t ready.”
The brick wall wasn’t ready to come down after all. So Hess just backed up to take another run. He’s getting ready to spend this summer with the Victoria Seals of the independent Golden League. He just keeps pitching and hoping.
And Hess isn’t some unrealistic dreamer with hopes that don’t match up with reality. He’s been told by several pro scouts that his stuff is good enough to get big league hitters out.
“He just needs a break,” Bryk said. “He throws 86-90 (mph) with good location, a plus curveball and an average change. He’s very athletic. This kid certainly deserves a chance. He’s a prospect. If you look at lefties pitching in the big leagues, he’s better than a lot of them right now.”
The source of Hess’ frustration is his left hip. He suffers from Perthes disease, a condition that affects the ball of the femoral head, causing it not to fit properly in the hip socket. Doctors aren’t sure what causes the condition, though some think it’s triggered by a traumatic event that occurs during the crucial years when a child is growing and developing. In Hess’ case, the best guess is that it goes back to when he badly sprained his ankle when he stepped into a hole as a 4-year-old playing football in the backyard. Doctors diagnosed the condition three years later. He had a pin put in to fix the problem and spent six weeks in a full body cast.
Some people with Perthes disease see it heal properly and go through life with few long-term effects. Hess had some aches in high school, but he still played football and baseball and wrestled.
By the time he got to college, though, almost all of the cartilage in his hip socket was gone. Still, he just took a couple of ibuprofen and went out to the mound. Until the day he was told he needed a hip replacement, he was unaware of how bad the situation really was.
The Talent Is There
The hip doesn’t really bother Hess now, but it’s still a constant nagging pain in another way. Whenever a big league organization starts to get interested in signing Hess, the team’s doctors and/or lawyers shoot the idea down because of concerns over worker’s compensation and potential long-term liability issues.
Hess has told teams that he will sign any waiver they want to make it clear that he won’t hold a team liable for any long-term health effects. But teams are worried that in court any such waiver would be thrown out.
Kazanas has been impressed with Hess’ stuff. But more than that, he says Hess’ makeup makes him even more confident that Hess would be a good signing. For a man who has come back from hip replacement surgery and the death of both parents, a bases-loaded jam doesn’t seem so tough.
“As far as intangibles and makeup, he’s pretty special. A lesser kid without the great passion for the game would have moved on,” Kazanas said. “He believes in himself. People thinking the worst have stopped him.”
Both Bryk and Kazanas have done what they can to help him latch on somewhere, since they know they can’t sign him for their respective teams, but so far they’ve had no luck.
“I’ve told him, ‘Until somebody co-signs the loan for me I can’t buy a club and sign you,’ ” Kazanas said.
So Hess keeps on throwing, knowing he’s good enough to get a chance, but apparently not good enough for teams to take a risk.
Bo Jackson can come back from hip replacement and sign a new contract because he’s Bo Jackson. Teams have been less willing to stick their neck out for a lefthander who projects as an arm out of the pen. Hess himself says that if he could just throw 97 mph, he’d likely not have a problem getting signed.
But for now, he’s stuck in limbo. Good enough to maybe make the big leagues, but not outstanding enough to get a contract.
“(Fuson) and I worked him out together. He felt exactly the way I did, that he’s a major league prospect,” Bryk said. “Grady told the kid, ‘You deserve a chance.’ What happens is when he eventually gets a shot and someone finally signs him, it will be a great. If he’s a player we think he is, he’s a big league player in some role.”
Hess believes eventually it will happen. He just doesn’t know when. He believes he’ll get big leaguers out. He just needs the chance.
“It will be a great movie. I want to play my own part,” Bryk joked.
Maybe the Disney movie will still be made. It just has some more scenes to be written.