January 11, 2012 in Sports

Blanchette: M’s Wilhelmsen proves perfect mix

By The Spokesman-Review
 

As we wait for the Prince to pick his city, it looks more and more as if the Seattle Mariners will again leave their constituency in a rage – or resigned – that ownership refuses to marshal the resources to field a contender.

Instead, the devoted will be left to admire the general manager’s resourcefulness – an unsatisfying solace, though not without an occasional delight.

Like Tom Wilhelmsen.

The M’s sent their winter caravan through Spokane on Wednesday, an annual event once notable for the lack of a single name player on the bus. But among the current Mariners, Tom Wilhelmsen is as name as they get.

He is at least has the best story on the 40-man roster, having put his pitching career on hold – for five years.

Instead, he pursued the bartending arts and backpacked the West with his eventual bride, Cassie.

”I had a great time,” said the 28-year-old right-hander. “I worked in downtown Tucson – late nights, live music, nasty cigarette smoke, the puke and all the great things about the bar business.”

Wilhelmsen’s job at The Hut, a tiki bar maybe 10 blocks from the University of Arizona campus, was a retreat from, well, adulthood.

“I was young,” he allowed, “and I wanted to be young. I didn’t want to grow up.”

Who would have thought playing baseball would ever equate to growing up?

A seventh-round draft pick of the Brewers in 2002 equipped with a 97 mph heater, Wilhelmsen was a Midwest League all-star in his first pro season, but then twice tested positive for marijuana and spent all of 2004 on the suspended list. By June of next year, citing burnout, he filed his retirement papers.

“I was wasting my time and my coaches’ time,” he said, “so I gave it up. It was the right thing to do at the time. Had I stuck with it, I might not be in the position I’m in now.”

But surely more than one of his cocktail customers must have told him he was crazy?

“I couldn’t care less, to be honest, how anyone else felt about it,” Wilhelmsen said. “It sounds like a jerk thing to say, but I live my life and you should live yours.”

But in time, how he was living his life began to gnaw at him.

“I woke up one morning, stepped outside and lit a cigarette,” he recalled, “and halfway through it I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ and I stubbed it out. Being able to do that got me excited about what else I can do – thinking that was the hardest thing in the world.”

On Father’s Day 2008, Wilhelmsen told his father – who had coached him from Little League through high school – that baseball mattered again. Soon they were meeting every other day at a Tucson park, where father would catch his son, and the next year Wilhelmsen approached the Tucson Toros of the independent Golden Baseball League.

“I wrote them a letter, actually, kind of explaining my history and asking them for a tryout,” he laughed. “I went through it all – ‘Hi, my name is Tom Wilhelmsen and I’m a Sagittarius’ – and the day before I got married they called me up and said, ‘Well, you know, it’s a public tryout.’”

Where he got up on a mound for the first time in six years and threw 94 mph.

His fastball wasn’t the only thing that was accelerated. M’s general manager Jack Zduriencik, who remembered Wilhelmsen from their days with the Brewers, signed him in February 2010 after a 15-minute look. He threw 12 innings in three minor league stops and stunningly was standing along the first-base line on Opening Day 2011 at Safeco Field – “the coolest time I’ve ever spent on a baseball field.”

At least until Cleveland’s Travis Hafner smacked one of his pitches off the Hit It Here Cafe for a three-run homer in the fifth inning.

“Super day,” Wilhelmsen grinned.

Either behind the bar or with a pack on his back, Wilhelmsen chanced upon some even-keel perspective to go with a somewhat cockeyed sense of humor. He has kind of a John C. Reilly thing going on, only he’s 6-foot-6 and not as lumpy-dumpy.

Shipped out after giving up six earned runs and nine walks in 92/3 innings, Wilhelmsen was recalled in August and had a 2.35 ERA the rest of the way – having decided, he said, “to stop being afraid.” Now he’s likely the front-runner for the set-up job to closer Brandon League – and may find himself destined for more if the M’s decide to move League’s salary.

“You have to show up at spring training ready to rock and roll,” he said, “but I ended the season in the right spot and I think it’s mine to screw up.”

Well, sure, that’s always a possibility. But after kicking away his baseball career once, Tom Wilhelmsen’s going to have to be much more resourceful to do it again.


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