Andy Van Hekken receives the cheerful reminders every year. It will be early morning in Korea — one of ninecountries where he has pitched professionally — when his cellphone buzzes with text messages and emails from family and friends in Michigan.
Hey! You were the answer to the trivia question tonight!
The question: Who was the last Major League pitcher to throw a shutout in his debut? The answer has remained the same for nearly 15 years: Van Hekken — in his home state, at his home ballpark — against the Indians on Sept. 3, 2002, before a steadfast crowd of 11,635
Van Hekken has the ball from the evening’s lone strikeout (Omar Vizquel) and final pitch, a fly to left off the bat of John McDonald. On the wall of his home in Holland, Mich., are framed copies of the next day’s Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, Grand Rapids Press and Holland Sentinel sports pages. There’s a photo of Van Hekken embracing his girlfriend, Alina, over a dugout railing. Smiles everywhere.
It was a joyful oasis for the 106-loss Tigers and start of a storybook September for Van Hekken. He opposed Roger Clemens twice. Van Hekken surrendered a home run to Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium. He pitched to a tidy 3.00 ERA over five starts, finishing the year with a respectable outing against the Blue Jays: 6 2/3 innings, four earned runs.
That remains Van Hekken’s most recent start in the Major Leagues. In fact, he has not set foot in an MLB stadium since leaving Toronto after the 2002 season finale. Van Hekken’s shutout on that magical night at Comerica Park is the only win of his MLB career.
But this is not a sad story. There is no personal tragedy — or even an arm surgery — to recount in Van Hekken’s 19 professional seasons.
Instead, a grateful Van Hekken can tell you about the typhoon that Alina (now his wife) and he witnessed from their apartment in Taiwan. He survived earthquakes in Japan and heeded warnings about not leaving the team hotel by himself while playing winter ball in Venezuela.
And after more than a decade of wandering, Van Hekken has found a second home in Seoul, South Korea, where on Friday he made his third Opening Day start for the Korea Baseball Organization’s Nexen Heroes. (He took a hard-luck loss after allowing one earned run over six innings against the LG Twins.) Yes, at age 37, Van Hekken is still pitching.
“A lot of people would be very surprised,” he said.
Van Hekken spoke with MLB.com while attending the Heroes’ preseason camp last month in Surprise, Ariz. He has played in the top professional leagues of Japan, Korea and Taiwan, along with the Mexican League and winter leagues in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. It’s not known if any other player has appeared in high-level pro leagues of those six countries.
“Do you feel like the most interesting man in the baseball world?” Van Hekken was asked.
“No,” he said, laughing. “I feel like a very boring person, who likes to pitch, likes to compete, and obviously, I’m willing to go anywhere to do it.”
Boring? Hardly. Van Hekken is unfailingly modest. And that humility predates the pivot in his story after the sensational September 2002. Having thrown 213 1/3 innings that year, with a 2003 roster spot seemingly secure, Van Hekken thought an idle offseason was what his body needed.
“I just rested, not knowing what I should do,” he said. “I showed up to Spring Training, and I wasn’t ready. I had a terrible spring. That was [Alan] Trammell’s first year as the manager, and I got sent down to Triple-A.”
From there, disappointing results and the Tigers’ preference for hard-throwers doomed Van Hekken’s prospects in Detroit. By 2004, then-Toledo pitching coach Jeff Jones had helped Van Hekken improve his fastball velocity while learning a forkball grip he still uses today. But reputations do not change easily with radar gun readings that peak around 88 mph.
Van Hekken signed with the Braves as a Minor League free agent after that season. And that’s when the peripatetic portion of his career really began.
From 2005-07, Van Hekken toured three Minor League systems — Atlanta, Cincinnati and Kansas City — in addition to the independent Somerset (N.J.) Patriots and Macoto Cobras of Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League.
Van Hekken’s tenure in Taiwan was brief and confusing; at the time, the CPBL was marred by a gambling scandal. (The Cobras ultimately disbanded as a result.) On one surreal night, Van Hekken watched a fight break out — in the Cobras’ dugout, mid-game — after the team’s third base coach accused a player of committing errors and striking out on purpose.
“After that, I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out of here,'” Van Hekken said.
Meanwhile, Andy and Alina were confronted with difficult financial decisions. Van Hekken estimates that his gross earnings in 2007 — between Somerset and Taiwan — totaled about $50,000. The couple had to spend weeks and sometimes months apart. It had been five years since Van Hekken pitched in the Majors.
“Every offseason, we’d sit down and she’d ask me, ‘Do you still want to play?'” he said. “Well, of course I wanted to play. We needed to earn some money. After ’07, I felt really good. I felt I could still pitch and be successful. I honestly thought I could still get to the big leagues.
“So I told her, ‘Let’s give this one more shot and see what happens.'”
One more shot has turned into 10 years — and counting. For that, Van Hekken credits pitching guru Mike Paul, co-owner of Elite Baseball & Softball Training outside Grand Rapids, Mich.
Van Hekken has worked with Paul for the past seven offseasons. As a result, Van Hekken said, his velocity is higher now than when he debuted with the Tigers 15 years ago.
“He saved my career,” Van Hekken said. “I would’ve been done after 2009 or 2010 without him.”
All of which leads us to the following question: If Van Hekken had worked with Paul during that crucial 2002-03 offseason, would he have stayed in the Majors?
“It’s possible,” Van Hekken said. “There’s such a small margin between making it or not, having a perfect game or a bad game … I’d like to think that I could have had a longer big league career, but I am very thankful for what I have had, and that I still get to play.
“I’m even very thankful that I made it at all, that I had that debut game. There are so many guys that never get a chance to get called up.”
Van Hekken spent four full seasons (2012-15) with the Heroes and fell in love with the rollicking atmosphere of KBO games. But he left last year to sign with the Seibu Lions of Japan’s top league. Why? Japan has the top league in Asia, competitively and financially, and Van Hekken had started feeling complacent in Korea — a dangerous notion for someone with baseball wanderlust.
But when he was released by the Lions after struggling, Van Hekken re-signed with the Heroes. He was welcomed back unconditionally.
“I hate feeling comfortable,” Van Hekken said. “I never like to get comfortable where I am. I feel like, if I’m comfortable, things are not going to go well, I’m not going to pitch well, or I’m going to be released.
“This is a small, stupid story, but the first year in Korea, our apartment was furnished. The couch was not super comfortable, and we didn’t have a normal chair. My wife and I were like, ‘We should spend some money and get a nice chair.’ We could keep it if we came back the next year. But then I thought, ‘If I do that, something bad is going to happen.'”
So did he ever buy the chair? Van Hekken shook his head.
“I’d been there four years,” he said. “Same furniture. No comfortable chairs.”
Seoul is where Van Hekken said he heard the most meaningful ovation of his career, during the 2014 Korean Series, when Heroes fans chanted “VAN-HEK-KEN!” following a brilliant outing under postseason pressure. The Heroes lost that series, one reason Van Hekken is back with them for 2017. He wants to win a championship, something he hasn’t accomplished in nearly two decades of professional baseball.
And by the way, Van Hekken is not prepared to say this will be his final season. He hopes to be back in 2018, too, and then stay involved in baseball after he’s done pitching. Maybe he’d work for a Korean club – which probably would involve becoming more fluent in Korean.
Van Hekken is not sure he’s ready for that.
“If I learn, that means I want to stay for awhile,” he said. “It’s committing. It’s part of being comfortable. If I feel a little uncomfortable, then I’m going to be good. I like feeling like an underdog, like I have something to prove.”
And so an odyssey that began in Van Hekken’s home state has delivered him to the other side of the world — and a place he belongs, whenever he’s ready to say so.
Jon Paul Morosi is a reporter for MLB.com and MLB Network.Read more: Detroit Tiger