Pitcher Tom Wilhelmsen completes improbable comeback by landing Mariners spot
Tom Wilhelmsen and his father once had given up on his dream to make the big leagues, but the Mariners' decision Tuesday to keep the pitcher on the major-league roster changed everything.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — The phone call was a lifetime in coming. Both men had once given up on it ever taking place.
Tom Wilhelmsen had dialed up his father, a couple of hours away in Tucson, Ariz., to tell him he'd pulled off the impossible. On the other end, that father, John, 59, a former high-school baseball coach when he wasn't at his day job putting screen prints on T-shirts, could tell that tears were flowing.
In choked tones, his son told him he'd landed a job in the Mariners' bullpen straight out of midlevel Class A, fewer than 10 months after stepping back on a field following a six-year absence from affiliated professional baseball. And then, his own tears welling up, the father who years back had finally forced himself to accept the premature death of his son's baseball dream, felt the relief wash over him.
Relief that his son would never have to go through life wondering what could have been.
"It's overwhelming," John Wilhelmsen said Tuesday, shortly after the Mariners confirmed his 27-year-old son as one of the team's final bullpen additions, along with Aaron Laffey and Josh Lueke. "It was a very touching father-and-son phone call. I don't want to make it sound sappy, but it was.
"He wasn't sobbing, but he was sniffling and crying. He just kept telling me 'Thank you, Dad. Thank you, Dad.' It meant a lot to me. It really did. It meant a lot to me because a couple of years ago, I'd given up all hope."
The Mariners wrapped up the Arizona portion of spring training Tuesday, but won't announce their final roster until Wednesday because of procedural issues that involve putting center fielder Franklin Gutierrez on the 15-day disabled list and transferring minor-league pitcher Mauricio Robles to the 60-day DL. Once that happens — barring any unforeseen trades or waiver acquisitions — the team will add nonroster outfielder Ryan Langerhans and infielder Luis Rodriguez.
Robles going to the 60-day DL will provide one roster spot for the pair while the outrighting to AAA on Tuesday of relief pitcher Cesar Jimenez supplies the other. Jimenez being cut confirmed that Wilhelmsen had made the team. Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis was bringing Wilhelmsen to see manager Eric Wedge, but couldn't resist breaking the news himself.
"A bunch of different feelings came though me," said Wilhelmsen, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound right-hander who throws 97 mph. "It wasn't overwhelming. It was just very special. It's been a long road."
Things grew a bit more overwhelming when the phone calls began.
The relief Wilhelmsen's father felt picking up the receiver was knowing his son wouldn't be haunted by a decision made years ago at age 20.
After a dazzling rookie season as a Class A all-star for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2003, Wilhelmsen, just 19, twice tested positive for marijuana. The Brewers suspended him for the entire 2004 season. The following year, burned out from baseball, Wilhelmsen filed his retirement papers.
Wilhelmsen got a full-time job as a bartender at The Hut in Tucson, using the money earned to backpack around the United States, Mexico and Europe, with a former high-school sweetheart, Cassie, that he'd reconnected with.
Years later, having watched a game on television the night before, Wilhelmsen began to wonder whether he'd made the right decision. He was standing on a balcony, smoking and staring off into the horizon, asking himself whether he was selling his life short.
Not long after, on Father's Day, he told his dad, who'd coached and mentored him from Little League through high school, that he would attempt a comeback. The Tucson Toros, an independent league team, called on the day before Wilhelmsen's marriage to Cassie in 2009 offering him a tryout.
Soon after Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who had been with the Brewers when Wilhelmsen was there and remembered his "live arm" gave him a 15-minute tryout on a side field here at spring training a year ago. A few months later, Wilhelmsen finally stepped on a pro field again for the Mariners' rookie-league affiliate in Arizona.
And now, nine-plus months after that, he's off to the majors.
"He was always a talented kid," Zduriencik said Tuesday. "You look back at the first year he competed, in the Midwest League, he was an all-star way back when. It is kind of remarkable, with the length of time he's been off, to accomplish what he has accomplished."
His father says there are pitches Wilhelmsen hasn't even shown people yet. He never taught his son a split-fingered fastball, but they worked on a pitch called "the spread" that has a similar grip and acts like a changeup with "tremendous break" on it.
"The Brewers told him to save that pitch for when he's in his 30s and trying to prolong his career," his father said.
John Wilhelmsen coached several talented players at Tucson High School over the years, but none with an arm like his son's. It took him years to get over his son's decision to quit.
Even last summer, when Tom Wilhelmsen was blazing through Class A hitters, his dad got news that one of his ex-players, a former Braves draft pick named Chris Moon, had been killed in Afghanistan. Moon had postponed an early pro career for a baseball scholarship to the University of Arizona, but left after only three months to become an army sniper.
For Wilhelmsen's father, the death was a painful reminder of all his worries for his son. Of how decisions made when you're young can alter one's destiny, sometimes irrevocably.
Tuesday, for the first time, that worry was gone.
"I'm so relieved as a father, because I didn't want him to be 35 and saying, 'I shoulda,' " his father said. "I didn't want him to live his life like that. I wanted him to know for himself that, whatever happened, he gave it 100 percent. After that, whatever happens, happens."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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