BY John Hickey 04:54PM 02/28/2011

Free spirit Wilhelmsen could be jolt for Mariners

After suspension, retirement righty on track in Mariners farm system

Mariner right-hander Tom Wilhelmsen decided to return to baseball through old friend Jack Zduriencik / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

PEORIA, Ariz. – For the first time Tuesday the Mariners will get a look at Tom Wilhelmsen in game action. He’s one of five relievers Seattle has scheduled to pitch in the third game of the Cactus League season.

He is far and away the least well known, the least well scouted and the least advanced in his career.

That’s by choice. In 2005 at the age of 22, at a time when all his contemporaries in the game were plotting the quickest ascent to the Everest that is Major League Baseball, Wilhelmsen packed his bags and headed home.

To say he walked away from baseball barely scratches the surface. He was a right-handed starter in the Milwaukee organization with a 98-mph fastball, but he was also a free spirit in every sense of the word.

He had the bug to travel, to explore, to try and make sense of the world. And he liked to smoke marijuana. Milwaukee’s drug tests twice detected the drug in his system, and the second time the Brewers forced him into a rehabilitation clinic. He found himself isolated there with heroin and crystal meth addicts.

He decided it wasn’t for him and he walked away. The Brewers suspended him for the 2004 season.

Wilhelmsen, who still had some money left from his original signing bonus (he was a seventh-round pick in the 2002 draft by Milwaukee) says he spent three months of that suspension exploring 10 different national parks, hiking and climbing “alone with nothing but my thoughts.’’

He came back for spring training with the Brewers in 2005, but when Milwaukee wanted him to go stay at their camp in Maryvale, AZ, and take part in extended spring training after the year he’d missed, he just asked for his voluntary retirement papers.

“They were good about it, no problem,’’ Wilhelmsen said Monday. “And the drive down to Tucson was a great sense of liberation, knowing that I was doing what I wanted to do with my life. I felt I’d made the right decision for me. And I still feel that.’’

Given all the time in the world, Wilhelmsen and his girlfriend, Cassie, spent a month traveling in Europe. They camped out all over New Mexico. They explored southern Mexico. He worked as a bartender in his native Tucson.

“My heart hadn’t been in baseball, not like it should have been,’’ Wilhelmsen said. “I was just a kid, doing what a lot of kids do. I had the chance to be myself, which was important to me.

“What I did was a life decision, and for me it was the right decision.’’

Eventually, however, things changed. He and Cassie got married. They thought about buying a house. And bartending got a bit stale, but his job options weren’t all that bright.

He’d signed out of high school with the Brewers, so he didn’t have a college degree to offer prospective employers.

“You can get very tired of coming home at 4 a.m.,’’ he said. “It was time to think about doing something else. It was a life decision, just like leaving baseball was.”

He hadn’t been on a mound since 2005 when he attended an open tryout for the independent Tucson Toros in 2009. He prepped by throwing in his back yard for a few days with his dad. Wilhelmsen’s form was all over the place at the tryout, but he showed enough of a fastball that the independent Toros added him to their Golden Baseball League roster.  He pitched relief in 11 games.

As part of getting back into baseball, he quit smoking, and not just marijuana, but cigarettes, too. He says it was part of his growing up process.

At that point, Jack Zduriencik, who drafted Wilhelmsen for the Brewers, came calling. Now the Seattle general manager, Zduriencik asked if Wilhelmsen wanted to give pro ball one more shot.

Wilhelmsen is just the kind of player Zduriencik needs to bring to Seattle to accomplish his goal of beefing up the Seattle minor league system. Wilhelmsen is a low-risk, high-return prospect.

And is he interested in baseball again?

Yeah, just a bit. He jumped at the offer. And he was an immediate success. Spending his time in rookie leagues and Class-A ball, he went back to starting and went 7-1 with a 2.06 ERA.

So far in camp, Wilhelmsen has been impressive with his velocity, routinely hitting 96 on the radar gun with his fastball. But five years away from the game has taken its toll.

“It’s not so much the physical part of the game that you lose when you’re away, it’s the mental part,’’ Wilhelmsen said. “I’ve been set back five years, and while I don’t regret it, I know I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. It’s all coming back.’’

Wilhelmsen said the transition is actually harder on his wife.

“I wasn’t a baseball player when we met,’’ he said. “We talked it over about my giving baseball one more shot, but I’m not sure she knew what she was getting into – the travel, the being away from family, all the stuff that baseball demands.

“But she’s excited about it, too, and eager to see where things go. I’d say she’s adjusting great.’’

For the moment, Seattle isn’t a focal point for Wilhelmsen. He’s never pitched above the Class-A level, and he probably will start at Double-A West Tennessee, although there’s an outside chance that he could begin at Triple-A Tacoma. His goals for this spring, he says, aren’t linked to which Mariner minor league roster he winds up on.

“My goals are pretty simple,’’ he said. “I want to stay healthy, learn and work hard. If I do that, the rest will pretty much take care of itself. I love the game again.’’

The Mariners can live with that.


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