He didn't want to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's the thing about baseball: If you can throw 95 mph, the velocity and radar guns and the all-consuming nature of the sport come to define you. Tom Wilhelmsen(notes) laughed at that. He wanted to write his own definition. He wanted to live.
So he did. Wilhelmsen sits in the Seattle Mariners clubhouse these days recounting stories not of youthful indiscretion – of quitting baseball as a teenager, spending half a decade behind a bar, traveling the world, coming back on a whim and, within one season, finding himself in the major leagues after seven years away from the game – but of a life that turned out to be rather charmed.
On one of those fanciful trips, Wilhelmsen and his wife, Cassie, roamed about the Southwest with a carful of supplies and a compass pointed toward adventure. They'd work for a few months bartending, pool their money and ship out to points unknown. They ended up in the Chiricahua mountains in Arizona, and when a brutal snowstorm hit, they plopped a bottle of vodka in the ground to keep it cold, blasted music from the car and rode a sled down a hill. The car battery died. They hadn't seen anyone for miles. Cell phone reception was nonexistent. They were stranded.
Wilhelmsen started throwing a Frisbee.
"We had food and water and beer," he reasoned.
Eventually, an old man with Texas plates drove by and gave them a jump. And off they went on another adventure, everything leading back to right here, where perhaps the most improbable major leaguer in 2011 is doing his best to stretch this particular adventure for a while longer.
This time, he's got no intention of giving it up.
At spring training this year, person after person would approach Jason Phillips, the former big leaguer who is now the Mariners' bullpen catcher, and ask to speak to Tom. It caught Phillips off-guard. Felix Hernandez(notes) he'd understand. Maybe even Michael Pineda(notes), the rookie sensation. Wilhelmsen was a 27-year-old in his first major league camp, the anonymous of anonymous.
Eventually it occurred to Phillips: Phoenix is populated by former University of Arizona students, and Arizona students loved Tom Wilhelmsen. At the Hut, a rollicking bar in downtown Tucson with a 55,000-pound Tiki head at the entrance, Wilhelmsen charmed the imbibing for five long years of 12-hour days. He'd stay up until 5 a.m., sleep until 2 p.m. and spend the rest of his time not bothering to think about what he'd left behind.
"Those days I had a lot of fun," Wilhelmsen said. "It was a great time. Not working hard and not focusing on the future. Just enjoying what was going on at the time. No regrets. It was fantastic."
It's not that the past was too painful. On the contrary. By the time Wilhelmsen quit baseball, he was bored with it. Milwaukee signed him after making a seventh-round pick out of Tucson High in 2002, and by the middle of 2003 it was clear the Brewers had a steal: Wilhelmsen threw hard with a great curveball and had the sort of projectable frame at 6-foot-6 that portended even greater promise.
At the end of the year, all that was kaput. Wilhelmsen was smoking pot every day, and after his second positive drug test, the Brewers suspended him for a year. He didn't bother returning.
"I had turned it off before I decided to quit," Wilhelmsen said. "I wasn't into it. I just finally came to the realization. I showed up late, hungover. Not all the time, but enough to show that I didn't give a (expletive). I didn't care."
So Wilhelmsen went to Mexico and Europe and bathed in hot springs and camped in mountain ranges. He played curious 20-something until he realized he wasn't going to be a 20-something much longer.
No epiphany overwhelmed Wilhelmsen. He just figured he'd give baseball a shot again. He quit smoking and started to run. He played catch with his dad, then stretched out to long toss. He heard about a tryout for the Tucson Toros, a team from the defunct Golden League, and pitched in 11 games for them before a pinched nerve in his shoulder ended his season. Milwaukee eventually released Wilhelmsen, and after a February 2010 trip to Seattle, the Mariners – now led by Jack Zduriencik, the Brewers' scouting director in 2003 – signed him.
Around this time last year, Wilhelmsen was still in extended spring training. He stayed there until the summer, then set off for the Northwest League – a level below where he had pitched seven years earlier. He made it back to the Class A Midwest League for the rest of the summer, pitching well and reestablishing a future nobody could've envisioned.
It only improved in the Arizona Fall League. Wilhelmsen allowed one run on four hits in 15 innings, striking out 22 and walking just two. He was a prospect again. Ancient by prospect standards, yes, but a prospect nonetheless.
"He's got a great perspective about everything," Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said. "He wasn't really sure if baseball was the path he wanted to take. He experienced other facets of life. And he realized he did want to play. A lot of guys worry about life after baseball. He's already done it, so this part isn't as intimidating for him. In his heart, he knows he can survive without it."
With it, though – well, with it, Wilhelmsen feels whole. His father, John, coached him growing up. Seeing the look on his face as they played catch and the sound in his voice when Tom called to tell him that he made the Mariners coming out of spring training enhanced the excitement exponentially. And the whole thing is still exciting and improbable and even a little nerve-racking.
Wilhelmsen recalls his first intersquad outing during spring training in great detail. He faced Milton Bradley(notes), Matt Tuiasosopo(notes) and Adam Moore(notes): "Walked Bradley, he stole second. Struck out Tui. I picked Bradley off. Then got Moore out. Made it through that inning, changed my shorts and grabbed some food."
He kept dealing throughout the spring, and it dawned on the Mariners that Wilhelmsen's window is so small, and the team is so busy rebuilding, they might as well let him sink or swim in the major leagues. "He was either heading to Double-A or Triple-A," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said, and then he was wearing No. 54 and sitting in a major league bullpen.
Cassie quit her job bartending and headed to Seattle to find a house, and Wilhelmsen tried to figure his fortune. He had defined himself by following a simple rule: Do what you want to do, not what you're supposed to. "He should write a book," Phillips said. " 'From Bartending to the Big Leagues.' "
Minus one brutal outing against Cleveland, Wilhelmsen has pitched well in a low-pressure role. He's walking too many guys (seven in 7 2/3 innings) and striking out plenty (eight). He's still trying to command a changeup. And the Mariners need to figure out whether they're going to keep him as a power reliever or move him to the rotation.
What matters most: Here's here, living it finally, flying first class and sleeping on beds that feel like they're hugging him – the most luxurious of his adventures. Not necessarily his most exciting or his favorite. But it's his, and this time, he's happy to be living it.
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