A toast to Tom Wilhelmsen
Seven years after walking away, ex-bartender makes big league debut with Mariners
The Hut is a popular live music/tiki bar in Tucson near the University of Arizona campus. You enter the bar by walking under a 45-foot-high tiki head that formerly reigned over a local miniature golf course. The bar's interior is a former metal fabrication plant where workers made bomb casings in World War II, a heritage The Hut honors with its signature cocktail. Named after the first atomic bomb, the Fat Man is a 60-ounce drink served in a fishbowl and swimming in the maximum alcohol amount allowed by Arizona law.
There was a three-day music festival at The Hut this past weekend, but as soon as one band finished its set Friday night, the bar turned down the music and turned up the Mariners' home opener from Seattle. Bar regulars and employees turned their focus from their Fat Men and beers to focus on the TV screens as Seattle reliever Tom Wilhelmsen took the mound to face the Cleveland Indians lineup. The season is one week old, Seattle is about 1,600 miles away, the Mariners are trailing 6-0 and Wilhelmsen is in the process of making it 11-0, but the bar crowd is going crazy, spirits rising and falling with his every pitch.
"It was like we were watching a University of Arizona basketball game," says Scott Mencke, a co-partner of The Hut. "The people here were overreacting to everything. If Tom threw a strike, people cheered like crazy. When he gave up the home run, people were bent over double." And when Wilhelmsen ended the 10-run inning by striking out Austin Kearns? "It was like Miles Simon just hit the game winner in the NCAA championship [in 1997]. We were all giving high-fives.
"We had people from out of town who came for the music, and they're probably wondering, 'What are these Tucsonians doing, going nuts over this Mariners game?'"
Well, that's easy to explain. These people were simply excited to see a friend and fellow bartender who had mixed Fat Men and poured beer at The Hut as recently as December take another step in baseball's most delightfully unlikely comeback story that doesn't include Dennis Quaid as a high school science teacher/baseball coach.
One month after bicycling to daily spring training workouts, one year after pitching in Class A, two years after playing center field in a co-rec softball league, five years after backpacking around Europe and seven years after leaving organized baseball for a career mixing Fat Men, Wilhelmsen was pitching in the major leagues.
"It's a little different from the beer league we were playing softball in," says Wilhelmsen, who grew up in Tucson. "I ultimately knew this day would come, but I didn't realize it would come this quick. But it's a great feeling."
A great feeling? This story leaves you feeling better than a free round of Fat Men.
"You can just say it's a miracle," Seattle third baseman Chone Figgins says. "It's one of those miracle situations."
Wilhelmsen, 27, is a tall, broad-shouldered young man who is quick to flash a smile bright enough to power U2's entire 360° tour. He is animated and engaging and said to have a very impressive collection of tie-dyed shirts. "Holy [Fill in the blank]" is a favorite expression, with the "Holy" drawn out and stressed. Hole-Ley.
I was very disappointed for years. People would say, 'He'll be back, he'll be back.' I would be like, 'I don't know. You have to want it.' After about three years I would tell people, 'No, he's never coming back.'” -- Tom Wilhelmsen's father, John
"I'm not exaggerating at all: He is the nicest guy you'll meet in your life," Mencke says. "He's beyond nice. He cares about people; he's empathetic to people. He's fair, he's honest, but he's also a personality."
"He is the salt of the earth," says Douglas "Fini" Finical, The Hut's other operating partner. "What you see is what you get. He's a gregarious guy, very open. There's sort of a displaced hippie in him. He loves the Grateful Dead. I see him as a guy who would be just as happy living in 1968. One of those people who is completely genuine. Just completely original and genuine."
And once upon a time, Wilhelmsen also was a promising, hard-throwing right-hander in the Milwaukee Brewers system. A seventh-round pick in the 2003 draft, he went 5-5 with a 2.76 ERA at Class A Beloit in 2003. But he also was a free spirit who twice tested positive for marijuana. The Brewers responded to the second test by suspending him for the 2004 season.
The next year Wilhelmsen effectively suspended himself by giving up his baseball career to travel and hike our national parks. He says he was burned out on baseball and no longer had the passion for the game he once did.
"My first immediate thought was to pull a Mutt Mantle and go wring this kid by his neck and go take him home. That lasted about 30 minutes," says his father and former coach, John Wilhelmsen. "Then it was: 'You know, it's his life.' No matter what your kids do, you're going to love them no matter what. What does the other stuff mean? I knew he wasn't into it anymore because he didn't do anything in the offseason. He would usually work out or ask me to throw with him.
"I was very disappointed for years. People would say, 'He'll be back, he'll be back.' I would be like, 'I don't know. You have to want it.' After about three years I would tell people, 'No, he's never coming back."'
Wilhelmsen's agent, Steve Canter, says Tom needed some distance. "Some people go to college to grow up; Tom went and worked and traveled and started to get his life together. He got his own education."
He certainly did.
After hiking numerous parks, Wilhelmsen returned to Tucson, where he applied for a bartending job at The Hut. "We were looking at the application and looking at his job history, and there was only one entry," Mencke says. "For the company, he put down: 'Milwaukee Brewers.' Position: 'Pitcher.'" Mencke laughs. "We were looking for good-looking females to hire, but Tom walked into the bar and filled out an application, and after talking to him, I decided right then, this is a good guy to have around. I just had a gut feeling about him."
Wilhelmsen also reconnected with his old high school girlfriend Cassie, and they hiked extensively through the Southwest and the West. They backpacked through Europe in 2006, running the hostel gamut from Amsterdam through Bavaria into Italy and then back up through France and England.
While some of his former teammates were just reaching baseball's major league green cathedrals, Wilhelmsen was touring Notre Dame. When he could have been pitching in Milwaukee while beer-drinking fans sang the "Beer Barrel Polka," he was listening to Germans sing at Munich's Oktoberfest. ("We heard 'Country Roads' every 15 minutes. And that song, 'Heyyyy, baby. Oooh! Aahhh!' every 15 minutes.") And rather than studying video of Albert Pujols, he was gazing in awe at Michelangelo's David. ("It's a statue of a guy, and you think, Oh. Great. But you stand in that line and then you walk in and see it, and you say, 'Hole-ley cow!'")
Back in Tucson, he and Cassie played on a co-rec softball team. Cassie played second; Tom played in the outfield. "I was too afraid to pitch -- it was so close to home plate. So I told my brother who is blind in one eye to do it," Wilhelmsen says and laughs. "He's still in a league, and he still pitches. He calls me up when he strikes out three or gives up 12 runs."
They were fun times, of which Wilhelmsen says, "There was a lot going on," before reconsidering for a moment and adding with a smile, "Really not a lot going on."
Which was pretty much the problem. His was not a bad life when you're in your 20s, but not so much when you grow older and staying up until 4 a.m. isn't quite so much fun as it was and guys you played with in the minors are set for life after earning millions in the majors, then you look down at your arm and wonder what might have been if only you had given baseball your all.
"Cassie was a huge part of it. I started thinking about the future because I wanted to ask her to be my wife," Wilhelmsen says. "That was the big part. What am I going to do? I don't want to come home at four in the morning to her, especially if we're going to have kids. I don't want to smell like beer all the time."
He also was smoking a pack or so of cigarettes a day, but one June day in 2008, he says, "I went outside, lit a cigarette, smoked it about three-quarters down and said, 'What the hell am I doing?' Then I threw the cigarette out, and that was it."
Just like that, Wilhelmsen quit smoking. Then he celebrated Father's Day by calling up his father and repeating a question from "Field of Dreams" that has accounted for an estimated 43 percent of all American male tears shed since 1989. "Hey Dad, you want to play catch?"
When Wilhelmsen's story is turned into a movie, this is where the music will swell and you will see a montage of Wilhelmsen (John Krasinski from "The Office"?) running laps and sprints and agility drills to work himself back into shape. There will be lots of shots of his pitches popping into his father's catcher's glove. Tom mixing Fat Men behind the bar and curveballs on the mound. The montage will make it look easier than it probably was, but the return was quick. By 2009, Wilhelmsen was ready to pitch again. Shortly after marrying Cassie, he tried out and signed a contract with the Tucson Toros of the Golden Baseball League, an independent league so minor that its salaries were about $900 a month, the per diem was $10 and a player with one club once had to drive the team van from Arizona to British Columbia for the next game.
Wilhelmsen was just rounding back into form with the Toros when he suffered a biceps injury that ended his season. He received some workers' compensation and returned to The Hut.
While the arm healed, his agent called up Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who had been Milwaukee's scouting director when Wilhelmsen was with the Brewers. Canter told Zduriencik that Wilhelmsen was pitching again and asked whether the Mariners would take a look at him. When Zduriencik did, he was impressed enough to offer Wilhelmsen a minor league contract in February 2010.
"He's a little more mature now," Zduriencik says. "He has a better focus of what he wants to do. Now he wants to play baseball, and I think he'll tell you he lost that desire somewhere along the way. And now he's a grown man with a wife, and he has responsibilities. He's experienced some things in life. He's fortunate that he still has a live arm. That doesn't happen every day where a guy moves on with his life and is able to come back five years later and pitch at this level."
Says Wilhelmsen, "I'm just older now, and I have more responsibility and understand what it is to have responsibilities. Maybe not to the fullest extent, but a hell of a lot more than I did when I was younger. I just have more life experience in general and understand how to go about your life."
Wilhelmsen pitched well enough last year for the Mariners' Arizona League team and their Class A teams in Everett, Wash., and Clinton, Iowa, to earn a spot on the 40-man roster and an invitation to spring training this year. He was so thrilled by it all that he occasionally was seen asking teammates and coaches for autographs this spring. Given little chance to make the team out of Arizona, he just kept pitching and getting better. And when the Mariners announced their final roster, he was on the team. He quickly called his father.
"I could hear that he was crying; he was very emotional about it," his father says. "He kept saying, 'Thank you, Dad.' He just made me all warm and fuzzy."
Wilhelmsen made his major league debut in Oakland, striking out one batter in a scoreless inning. His next appearance was Friday's home opener after he added to the dreamlike nature of his comeback by running onto the field with his teammates through a fog machine while 48,000 fans cheered.
With his wife and his father watching from the stands and dozens of friends watching on TV at The Hut, Wilhelmsen entered that night's game in the fourth inning with Seattle trailing 6-0, one out and one runner on. He gave up a single, struck out a batter, walked a batter, gave up a two-run single and then gave up a towering home run to Travis Hafner that banged off the window of the seldom-reached Hit It Here Café in the right-field upper deck.
"That was in his butter," Wilhelmsen says of the gopher ball. "If it was any other place, he probably would have hit it within this zip code. But right there? It was gone. I looked at it and I was just like, 'Hole-ley, bomb!' And I watched it the whole way, and I usually never, ever do that. But I watched that one the whole way. But now I know where his sweet spot is. He won't see another one there if I face him again."
Wilhelmsen's fastball approaches 95 mph, and in four appearances through Thursday, he has struck out six batters in 4 2/3 innings (good). But he also has walked five batters, given up eight hits and allowed six runs (not so good). After missing so many years and returning in so swift and breathtaking a leap, he needs experience in addition to the lively arm.
Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis likens Wilhelmsen's path to the majors to the way a lot of athletes wind up getting their college degree after they leave school for a pro career.
"I went to college to play baseball, and all I was concerned about was to maintain a C average to stay eligible," Willis says. "Then I signed to play pro ball and went off and started my baseball career. And then years later I said, 'I want to go back and finish college.' So when I went back, I made all A's. If there was a 10-page paper assigned, I wrote 15. Because I wanted to do it. And I think when he started as a young man, maybe he wasn't 100 percent sure baseball is what he wanted to do. Now, he's experienced different facets of life and says, 'This is what I want to do.' And he's able to be all in, 100 percent. And because he's experienced the other side of life, he appreciates this opportunity so much more to be able to go out and play the game."
Wilhelmsen says his odd path to the majors has affected him in ways he probably doesn't realize yet.
"It has helped me be a little more grounded. It helps me understand there are other things in this world than baseball," he says. "You're playing baseball and this is your dream as a kid and you play it nonstop. You live it, breathe it, you eat it. There are other things, but that's your focus if you want to get to the highest level. But there's a bigger picture. I'm very glad I was able to live a normal life away from baseball and then come back to it. If I had made it when I was playing ball, I definitely wouldn't be the same guy."
Perhaps. But in many ways, Wilhelmsen still is the same bright, optimistic, genuine personality whom people say he always has been. Consider the rookie backpack.
As is the veteran relievers' custom for embarrassing a rookie, Wilhelmsen received a child's backpack to carry to the bullpen. This is very fitting for a man who backpacked his way through Europe and back into baseball. Plus, it has the bonus of not being one of those pink My Little Pony backpacks past rookies have carried. This one is of R2D2, which Wilhelmsen finds very cool.
"I feel pretty honored by it," he says, flashing that engaging grin. "R2 is the most famous Droid in the world. And he's got my back."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Follow Jim Caple on Twitter: @jimcaple