Tom Wilhelmsen, 27, has rocketed through three of Seattle's lower minor-league levels, striking out 73 batters in 74 innings.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Tending bar again on weekends this past winter wasn’t part of some clever plan by Tom Wilhelmsen to reconnect with his humble side.
It would be easy to understand how Wilhelmsen, 27, might want to come back down to earth a bit, given the dream he’d lived in Seattle’s minor-league ranks last season after six years away from affiliated professional baseball. But Wilhelmsen, invited by the Mariners to their major-league camp this spring for the first time in his most unlikely of careers, insists there’s a much simpler reason he moonlighted at his former day job.
He needed the money.
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“It was the offseason, I had rent to pay,” said the 6-foot-6, 220-pound pitcher. “So, I popped in a few times and went back behind the bar for some shifts.”
Gone are the days when the $250,000 signing bonus he got from the Milwaukee Brewers back in 2002 as a 19-year-old with 97 mph stuff might have carried Wilhelmsen through the months between minor-league paychecks. Wilhelmsen had to use some of that money to pay for a drug-rehabilitation program the Brewers made him enter after he logged two positive marijuana tests following an all-star Class A season in 2003.
Wilhelmsen was suspended by Milwaukee for all of 2004 and then, feeling burned out by baseball, he filed retirement papers in 2005.
He did some growing up after that, tending bar at The Hut in his hometown of Tucson, Ariz., traveling the world when he could scrape enough cash together and finally realizing he wanted to be a baseball player. Five years had passed by that point before Wilhelmsen, who hadn’t touched a glove in the interim, quit smoking, began working out and started playing for an independent-league team in Tucson in 2009.
The Mariners then gave him an impromptu, walk-on tryout last spring.
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who remembered Wilhelmsen from his time in Milwaukee, stood on a side field away from the regular spring workouts and watched the pitcher throw. Right after the tryout was done, almost as quickly as it began, the Mariners signed Wilhelmsen to a minor-league contract.
Everything since has been a blur.
After taking two months to nurse an ailing shoulder back to health, Wilhelmsen rocketed through three of Seattle’s lower minor-league levels, striking out 73 batters in 74 innings. In his final stop, with the Class A Clinton Lumberkings, he threw a perfect game through 6-2/3 innings before finally giving up a hit.
“Every outing I had, even if I gave up six runs, I was able to build on it,” he said. “I was able to learn from it.”
There wasn’t a plethora of crooked-numbers outings for Wilhelmsen to learn from. He went 7-1 with a 2.19 earned-run average overall, including 6-1 with a 2.23 ERA over six starts and one relief outing for the Lumberkings of the Midwest League.
In the Arizona Fall League, working out of the bullpen, he struck out 15 batters in 12 innings and wound up being added to Seattle’s 40-man roster.
Despite the numbers, Wilhelmsen insists the rust of six years away from affiliated pro ball was still evident. He was now the oldest player in the clubhouse but still found himself going to the younger guys for basic pitching tips.
“I’ve lost my change-up,” he said. “So, I’m battling to get that back. I’m remembering how to set batters up. I forgot how to hold runners, how to locate pitches and change eye-levels.
“Pretty much all the mental aspects of pitching, I had to catch up with again.”
If he catches up this spring, Wilhelmsen could find himself starting off in higher-level Class A, or even Class AA, depending on whether the club views him as a starter or a reliever.
His adjustment to life off the field has been much easier. Wilhelmsen admits that, in his go-round as a teenager with six figures in the bank, he was immature and more interested in partying like a college kid than being a pro at his job.
This time around, married, in his late 20s and trying to make up for lost time, he didn’t feel the same urge to go out after games.
“I’d made my mind clear what I wanted to do and how I’d go about it,” he said.
Wilhelmsen has resisted the urge to share his story with younger teammates and lecture them about postgame habits. He figures everyone has to find their own way in life, much as he did.
Still, he said, he does hang with his teammates. His most common off-field activity last year was watching them play video games.
“I’m terrible at video games,” he said. “So, watching is all I do.”
Wilhelmsen and his wife, Cassie, moved to Peoria over the winter to be closer to the Mariners’ training facility. But they still kept their place in Tucson, explaining why Wilhelmsen felt the need to return to The Hut for bartending stints.
“Everyone there pretty much knows your story,” he said of the clientele he’d serve drinks to. “There aren’t any secrets there. But nobody really looked at me or treated me any different. It was pretty much the same.”
For now, at least.
Because if Wilhelmsen’s fairy-tale comeback continues this season where it left off last, life as he knew it may never be the same again.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org