PEORIA, Ariz. - When the Milwaukee Brewers named Tom Wilhelmsen their No. 14 prospect in 2003 after 17 minor league games, the question wasn't just how high he would go - but how high might he get?
A 6-foot-6 free spirit at 19, Wilhelmsen wasn’t the most committed athlete in the Milwaukee system. After games, he preferred recreational pot smoking to running or lifting.
“I wasn’t ready to be a professional, on or off the field. My heart wasn’t in it,” Wilhelmsen said Monday. “I wasn’t dedicated, I wasn’t preparing the way I should have been.”
Baseball drug tests detected marijuana in his system – twice.
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“When I was caught a second time, they sent me to rehab, and to make sure I took it seriously, they wanted me to pay for it - $28,000,” Wilhelmsen said.
“It didn’t work. If I wanted to play baseball, I had to do a number of things, starting with not smoking grass. I was in rehab with meth addicts, heroin addicts. I didn’t think I belonged there. I left.”
Wilhelmsen walked away from rehab and away from baseball – and stayed away for five years.
“I wanted to experience my life, my way, and I did. I fell in love, I got married, I saw the world,” he said. “Including Amsterdam. I traveled, I smoked, I had a great time.”
And there Wilhelmsen’s story might have meandered, with him bartending to make enough money to travel. How he found his way back to baseball – and wound up in camp with the Seattle Mariners – is the stuff of a movie script.
On Father’s Day 2008, Wilhelmsen had one of those Hallmark Cards moments.
“When I decided I wanted to play again, I drove to my dad’s house and told him. He jumped out of his skin, then went and got our gloves and we played catch,” Wilhelmsen said. “He was so excited – and so was I.
“My wife Cassie and I dated in high school, but this is all new to her. I wasn’t playing baseball when we got together, and when I said I was going to try to come back, it was like, ‘That’s great, honey.’ I don’t think she knows what’s coming,” he said.
His reason for returning?
“I thought about my future. I don’t have a college degree, and I didn’t want to bartend the rest of my life, get home at 3 a.m. every morning,” he said.
There was one problem.
“I hadn’t picked up a ball in five years – I played in a beer softball league, that was as close as I came,” said Wilhelmsen, who’d routinely thrown pitches 98 mph in his one professional season.
That was when he made 15 starts for Milwaukee’s Class A team, going 5-5 with a 2.76 earned-run average. In 88 innings, he struck out 63 batters.
And then he was gone. Until 2009.
“I started by playing in a men’s league with a couple of childhood friends. Then I heard they were starting an independent league team in Tucson – the Tucson Toros. I sent them an e-mail, explaining my situation and asking for a tryout,” he said.
“They called back during my wedding reception and said I didn’t need to have written them, they were holding open tryouts, but they’d love to have me come in. After our honeymoon, I did.
“At the tryout, I stood on a mound for the first time in almost six years.”
Jack Zduriencik knew all about Wilhelmsen from his days with the Brewers, and had never forgotten the kid’s arm.
“Special,” the Mariners general manager said of Wilhelmsen. “Really special.”
Zduriencik offered Wilhelmsen a minor league contract, and the right-hander pitched at three levels last season, going a combined 7-1 with a 2.19 ERA over 74 innings. He struck out 73 batters, walked 20.
The performance got him a spot on Seattle’s 40-man roster and an invitation to camp.
Wilhelmsen understands how rare this second opportunity is – even if he made more money bartending than pitching last year.
Looking back, Wilhelmsen said he was too young, too immature in 2003.
There was a world out there to see, smoke to make, things to do.
“I needed the time away,” Wilhelmsen said.
“Pitching again, some things have taken longer than others. I have to hold runners on better, I can’t find a change-up grip that works for me – I think I lost that pitch – and remembering how to set a hitter up. It’s coming back,” he said.
“My hope in camp is to enjoy every moment of it, stay healthy, work hard. If I do all that, I think I’ll be in a good spot.”
What would he say to fans who can’t understand how he’d throw away the chance to play professional baseball, in large part because he wouldn’t give up smoking pot?
“Probably nothing,” Wilhelmsen said. “Everyone has an opinion, and mine wouldn’t change anyone else’s.
“I was young, I didn’t hurt anyone but myself. When I decided to come back, I gave up smoking entirely.
“I love the game again.”