Former Brewers pitching prospect Tom Wilhelmsen gets another chance with Mariners
Former Milwaukee Brewers pitching prospect Tom Wilhelmsen failed two drug tests, went to rehab, was suspended for a year, then walked away from baseball. He hasn't pitched in the minors since 2003, but the Mariners want to see if there's anything left in his arm.
Seattle Times staff reporter; Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — Tom Wilhelmsen still knows how to be the life of the party.
That's what the folks at The Hut, a tiki lounge in the college district of nearby Tucson, say about the head bartender who walked out on his baseball dream five years ago. The 6-foot-6, 220-pounder, who once lit up radar guns with a 97 mph fastball his first and only season of professional baseball in the Milwaukee Brewers system, is a bit of a local legend.
It's not so much the drinks he's spent years mixing there. More the engaging, laid-back personality that draws people in and keeps the party going. These days, the party is more about others than Wilhelmsen, who was a little too carefree with marijuana and having fun his first go-round in pro ball and wound up suspended for an entire season, burned out and looking for other ways to earn a living.
But now, nearly seven years since he last pitched in Class A, the onetime minor-league all-star is back for another try. Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who was with Milwaukee that lone season Wilhelmsen pitched back in 2003, has signed him to a minor-league contract in hopes there is still life in that arm.
"I've changed a lot of things about my life and thought a lot about what my priorities are," Wilhelmsen, still only 26, said Monday on his first full day here. "One of them is I wasn't sure I wanted to be a bartender for the rest of my life."
Wilhelmsen doesn't say this with malice. He loved the bartending job during the years he sought fulfillment after deciding baseball wasn't for him.
Despite being touted as one of the top arms in the Brewers' system at age 19, he insists he has no regrets about quitting. He simply wasn't ready to handle baseball as a full-time job.
And the Brewers weren't ready for him.
Fresh out of high school in Tucson, Wilhelmsen was handed a $250,000 bonus after being drafted in the seventh round. The Brewers were going to ease him in slowly in rookie ball, but scrapped those plans just two games into his debut season once he started hitting 97 mph on the radar gun.
Wilhelmsen was vaulted up to the Class A Midwest League, where he made the All-Star team by going 5-5 with a 2.76 earned-run average in 15 starts, striking out 63 and walking 27 in 88 innings. But off the field, being thrust into an environment of older, party-ready players didn't mesh too well with his lack of maturity.
After two failed drug tests for marijuana the following year, the Brewers forced Wilhelmsen into a 28-day treatment facility. Milwaukee also suspended him for the entire 2004 season, though Wilhelmsen says he'd told the team he was burned out after the rehab ordeal and wanted to take a year off.
"I was a kid," he said. "I'm not saying what I did was right, but I was also doing the kinds of things that a lot of kids do. I was immature. I just wasn't ready for baseball."
And by 2005, when he reported for extended spring training after the suspension, Wilhelmsen decided he was done with baseball altogether.
"I just couldn't get excited about it anymore," he said.
And so, he did what guys his age often do. Grabbed a backpack and set off to tour Europe. Later, he did the same thing in Mexico, Hawaii, then all over the western United States.
He'd bartend at The Hut, earn enough money to spend on vacations, then head out to see the world.
Along the way, he rekindled a romance with his high school sweetheart, Cassie.
"It was pretty effortless for him to go from baseball to bartending," said Tom Finical, one of the managing partners for The Hut. "Tom is a pretty energetic and down to Earth type of guy. He really goes full force into everything he does. The Hut is really a people type of place and Tom is easygoing enough to draw everybody in. He really has been a big key to our success."
But Finical also sensed that baseball was still out there for Wilhelmsen. That he'd been too young and "needed some time out there in the world" to understand things better.
"It's not like a Ted Danson situation," he said of the actor, who played an at-times regretful ex-major leaguer-turned-bartender on the sitcom "Cheers."
"He never seemed bitter about it or anything," Finical said. "But everybody kind of knows his story, what he had and you always got the impression it could still happen."
Wilhelmsen went years without picking up a ball, refusing to even watch baseball on television. But he did watch NFL games and, while marveling at the athleticism of players, eventually realized sports was what he wanted to do.
Soon after, he got out of bed one morning, went outside and lit up a cigarette. Seconds later he stubbed it out.
"I said, 'What am I doing? I don't want to be a bartender the rest of my life. I don't want to spend my life trying to figure out if I'm good at anything.'
"So, I quit smoking grass, quit smoking cigarettes and decided I needed to start running and needed to start throwing again."
Wilhelmsen remembers the day, June 14, 2008, when he quit smoking marijuana for good. The very next day, on Father's Day, he told his dad, John, a high school baseball coach, that he wanted to play catch with him and discuss a comeback.
It was an emotional moment for his father, who had been told exactly three years earlier — on Father's Day — that his son was quitting baseball for good.
"He totally destroyed my catcher's glove," his father said of their catch session. "I had to go to a leather store, bought some really nice leather, and then took it to a shoe repair place and had them put the whole glove back together."
His father still regrets that he didn't do more to ensure his son had better supervision his first pro season. That he allowed him to be put into a treatment facility among hardened users of more serious drugs.
"He was just a kid," he said. "He was doing what kids do. I never looked at him as being a bad person because he smoked pot. I looked at him as dumb because he screwed up a great opportunity. But I love him."
And now, he adds, he's stepping back and focusing on being a father rather than the coach who was always there to mentor his son's baseball skills.
It has worked out so far.
Wilhelmsen got called the day before his wedding last year and was told the Tucson Toros of the independent Golden League wanted him to try out. He did that when he returned from his honeymoon with Cassie, throwing 94 mph.
The Brewers, who still owned Wilhelmsen's contract, called soon after he started pitching for the Toros, striking out 13 batters in 11 2/3 innings while hitting 97 mph. But shortly before he was to report to Milwaukee for a tryout, he pinched a nerve in an area between his shoulder and neck and had to be shut down.
Milwaukee released him weeks later. But Zduriencik — whose scouts had seen him pitch in Tucson — took a call from his agent, had Wilhelmsen see a doctor, then signed him after a throwing tryout here a couple of days ago.
Wilhelmsen is getting treatment and won't start a throwing program for another month or two. Zduriencik is willing to wait.
"That arm is something special," Zduriencik said. "Real special."
And that's all Wilhelmsen wants to hear. He better understands what's in front of him now and the work it will take to achieve.
"I wasn't ready before," he said. "Now, I am. We'll just see where this takes me."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.