Mariners pitching prospect Tom Wilhelmsen is making the most of second chance
Pitcher Tom Wilhelmsen wasn't ready for his first chance at pro baseball, when he was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2002. He pitched in 2003, missed the 2004 season and walked away in 2005. But in 2008 he decided to come back and last year asked the Mariners for an opportunity.
Seattle Times staff columnist
On the difficult days, when he needed to get away and figure out his future, Tom Wilhelmsen got in his car, got out of Tucson and into the wilderness.
Alone on the hiking trails, climbing over one peak and toward another, Wilhelmsen challenged himself in some of the West's most spectacular national parks. He pushed past exhaustion. He made himself continue when his quads felt like they were turning to jelly.
Eventually, he found answers.
"You find out how much you actually can do when you're out there backpacking," Mariners pitching prospect Wilhelmsen said from Peoria, Ariz., Tuesday afternoon. "You're tired. You feel like you can't move your feet anymore.
"But that peak is just right around the corner, or so you think, so you push yourself a little bit more. Every step you take you're one step closer to the ultimate goal. You keep heading in the right direction. It's almost a metaphor."
It is the exact metaphor for Wilhelmsen's return to baseball.
"You keep on going. Keep on trucking," he said, "and then you're there. And if you do those things often enough, you get a sense of power like you can do anything in life you want to do. You get confidence and learn a lot about yourself."
Once the possessor of one of the liveliest arms in the Milwaukee Brewers' organization, Wilhelmsen admits he was too immature for the game when he was drafted in the seventh round in 2002, at age 18.
He was given a bonus of $250,000 and had the idea he could live the good life, smoke all the marijuana his money could buy and still make his way up the Brewers' system.
It didn't happen.
Twice he was suspended after testing positive for marijuana. The Brewers made him go through a 28-day program at a treatment facility. He missed the 2004 season and finally quit in 2005.
"I wasn't ready to live the life of a professional, on or off the field," he said. "I decided this wasn't for me. I had lost my love of the game and I didn't want to waste anyone's time."
At the Brewers' training facility in Maryvale, Ariz., three years after he was drafted, Wilhelmsen signed his voluntary retirement papers, walked to his car, turned to look at the stadium one more time and left baseball, he figured, for good.
"I was a little sad," he said, "but I just knew that my head wasn't in it and my heart wasn't in it. There was almost a relief that I didn't have to worry about it anymore."
People mature at different ages. We have our individual time tables, our own emotional growth spurts.
Wilhelmsen, who turns 27 next month, needed time away from the game to understand how much he still loved it.
"I had to grow up," he said.
He worked a real job, bartending at The Hut, near the University of Arizona campus. He got married to high-school sweetheart Cassie. And he quit smoking cigarettes and marijuana.
"I knew that smoking grass wasn't the way to go," he said. "But I didn't think about it much. I guess I was just naïve and didn't care and didn't understand responsibility as much as I could have or should have or as much as I do now.
"Back then I wasn't thinking about much, other than the now. It caught up to me and eventually wore me out. I never felt any regrets about the decision I made to quit. I needed to become a regular guy and learn some things."
Then he started watching baseball on television again and saw guys he played against making it in the big leagues. He knew he could play with them.
On Father's Day 2008, he called his dad, John, a high-school coach, and told him he wanted to take another shot at the game. His father grabbed a mitt and told him to meet him in the park. The slow march back began.
"To see his enthusiasm pumped me up," the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Wilhelmsen said of his father. "He's been nothing but supportive in every decision I made, whether he agreed with it or not. You can't ask for much more."
About a year ago, Wilhelmsen contacted Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who knew him from their time together in Milwaukee. Zduriencik's scouts had seen him pitch for the Tucson Toros in the independent Golden League. The Mariners offered Wilhelmsen this second chance.
"Jack's given me this chance to see what I can do and I am forever grateful to him for allowing me to do this," Wilhelmsen said. "I signed on and I haven't looked back.
"Everything I've done, every outing I've had, every jog I've taken after throwing, all the work I do always reminds me that I've made the right choice to get back in the game and give 100 percent. It's something I think about every day."
Wilhelmsen is rewarding Zduriencik's confidence.
At Class A Clinton last season, he was 6-1 with a 2.23 earned-run average in seven games, six of them starts. Switched to the bullpen with the Peoria Javelinas in the Arizona Fall League, Wilhelmsen is 1-0 in seven games, and has allowed only three hits in 9-1/3 innings.
"I don't want to say that I can't believe I'm doing this well," Wilhelmsen said, "but I am kind of amazed about it. I'm proud of myself, really. I'm kind of reliving the dream I had when I was a kid. I've found the dream again and that's exciting."
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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