[I’d wish for] the chance to squint my eyes when the sky is so blue it hurts to look at it, and to feel the tingle that runs up your arms when you connect dead-on. The chance to run the bases, stretch a double to a triple, and flop face-first into third base, wrapping my arm around the bag.
So says Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in W.P. Kinsella’s classic baseball tale, Shoeless Joe. Moonlight Graham was made famous in Kinsella’s novel (and its film adaptation, Field of Dreams) as a ballplayer who had a “cup of coffee.” On June 29, 1905, Graham took the field late in the game for the New York Giants, playing right field for a couple innings but never getting to bat. Doc Graham was not the first ballplayer to play a single game in the major leagues, nor will he be the last. The New York Mets have had five men take a cup of coffee, but only one of them took his a la Moonlight: no cream, sugar, or plate appearances. Let’s meet Joe Hietpas.
Dateline: October 3, 2004. The Mets were wrapping up a third straight disappointing season, hosting the Montreal Expos in the 162nd and final game of the year (coincidentally, this was the very last game for the Expos before they moved to Washington and became the Nationals). For Art Howe and the rest of the less-than-Amazin’s, all this game meant was the difference between going 71-91 or 70-92, but it meant a whole lot more for the fresh-faced catcher who sat on the bench with a 10 on his uniform (past number of Rusty Staub and Rey Ordonez, future number of Endy Chavez and Terry Collins). For 25-year-old Joe Hietpas, this game represented what could be his big break…or his last shot.
Joe was born to Donald and Kristine Hietpas on May 1, 1979 in Appleton, Wisconsin. As with most eventual major leaguers (no matter their time of service), Hietpas was a stud of a ballplayer in high school, leading the Lightning of Appleton North High School to a Fox Valley Association Championship his senior year in 1996. His .516 batting average and 1.097(!) slugging percentage that year earned him All-State honors and the USA Today Wisconsin Player of the Year Award. His tremendous talents caught the attention of scouts at Northwestern University, who supplemented his quest for an Economics degree with a baseball scholarship. In three seasons for the Wildcats, he hit an impressive .350 in 151 games, while earning Academic All-Big Ten and Second Team Academic All-America honors in 1999 and 2000.
On June 5, 2001, the Mets made Hietpas a 16th-round draft choice, signing him two days later. His first season in the minors was probably the first time in Joe’s up-to-then illustrious baseball career that he found it hard to play the game: he hit just .167 between Rookie League and Double A that summer. 2002 went a little better as he hit .252 in Low Single-A and A ball, but he regressed the next year, batting a measly .156 between High Single- and Double-A. Hietpas showed marginal improvement in 2004, hitting a not-great-but-not-Mendoza .242 splitting time in Port St. Lucie and Binghamton. At this point in his career, however, any dreams of a billing in the big show would have evaporated in the hot Florida sun. The only question left was when, not if, the dream would dry up for good.
Then came the September call-ups: a magical time when a contending team looks for the final piece to finish the puzzle and a losing team looks for pieces to both build around. Hietpas must have known he would never fit into the puzzle, but maybe, just maybe, he would get a look at before being tossed out of the pile. The month passed and #10 remained a benchwarmer, but with Vance Wilson ailing and Mike Piazza relocating to first base, the demand for a non-Todd Zeile catcher was slowly but surely growing. Finally, on October 3, Joe Hietpas got his look.
While the game itself was uneventful, at least it was in the home team’s favor. Tom Glavine pitched six innings of one-run ball, and the Mets’ offense was led by two hot youngsters named Jose Reyes (1-4, 2 R, 3 SB) and David Wright (2-3, HR, 3 RBI). With the team up 8-1 in the top of the 9th, New York needed someone behind the plate. Art Howe went deep to his bench, deep-deep-deep to his bench, and pointed at young #10, and ordered him to suit up. So Joe Hietpas, the pride of Appleton, trotted out to catch Bartolome Fortunato in the very last inning of the very last game of the 2004 season.
Reyes botched an easy first out with an E6 and Brendan Harris drew a walk off of Fortunato. With Montreal threatening, Hietpas coolly calmed down his pitcher and guided him to consecutive strikeouts of Josh Labandeira and Maicer Izturis. On a 3-2 pitch, Fortunato’s 24th of the frame, he got future Met Endy Chavez to ground out to second base, ending the game and the season. Final score: Mets 8, Expos 1. Joe Hietpas’s final line: 1 inning, 0 plate appearances, 1 on-field handshake with the rest of the team in front of 33,569 fans at Shea Stadium.
Hietpas spent some of 2005 at the last checkpoint before the final destination, but with a .194 average in 23 games in Norfolk he came up a few dollars short of another ticket. The next season was Joe’s last as a professional catcher, as he hit just .169 between Double- and Triple-A. His baseball career, however, was not over just yet: after pitching well in emergency relief one day in ’06, the organization converted him to a pitcher for the 2007 season. He did well that year, sporting a 2.47 ERA in 27 Single-A appearances, but a 2008 promotion to Double-A blew that stat up to 6.34 in 43 games. And so, at the ripe old age of 29, Joe Hietpas finally walked away from the game he loved.
It was when he entered the “real world” that Hietpas’s long-lost Economics degree from Northwestern paid its dividends: in 2011 Joe was hired on as an associate member of the SNR Denton law firm. Last year he earned his law degree from Washington University in St. Louis and is a member of the bar in the State of Missouri. (Stay in school, kids.)
Anyone who has ever played baseball, and everyone who ever will, eventually peaks: the level of talent around him surpasses the level of his own talent. The level just before that, the last time that he excelled, becomes the “Glory Days.” For the overwhelming majority of us, our peak happens long before we even sniff the big leagues. Some of us peak in high school, which makes a certain Bruce Springsteen song so popular. For me it was when they switched from pitching machine to live-arm in Little League (maybe that’s why the Kidz Bop version of that song strikes such a chord…). A select few peak at the professional level. In all of history, a small fraction of men and women can say they were talented enough to get paid to be athletes.
He may have only spent one inning playing baseball at its highest level, but this man from Appleton, Wisconsin is forever part of the fraternity of men who played Major League Baseball. While he might not have “recognized [this] most significant moment of [his] life at the time [it] happened,” he must have known he was “a minor leaguer in a major-league park…one step slow on the bases, and a split-second too slow with the bat.” That’s why, 99 years after Archibald Wright Graham took up his glove for one game, Joe Hietpas can look back on his cup of coffee with no regrets. He is an Heir of Moonlight.
October 3. A good day for Frank Robinson in 1974 (becomes the major leagues’ first African-American manager) and Bobby Thompson in 1951 (I shouldn’t even have to tell you why). Also a good day for future concession stands in 1964 (first-ever Buffalo Wings made in Buffalo, New York’s Anchor Bar). A bad day for Rick Ankiel in 2000 (throws five wild pitches in the 3rd inning of Game 1 of the NLDS) and Edgar Allen Poe in 1849 (found going crazy in a Baltimore gutter). A great day for Joe Hietpas in 2004.