© 2011 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
The phone call came on a Sunday. Father's Day. John Wilhelmsen heard the words coming from the voice on the other end, but they didn't really register.
Walking away? How could this be? As far as John was concerned, Wilhelmsens didn't walk away. They were loyal to the task at hand.
But here was John's son, Tom -- a talented, hard-throwing right-hander in the Milwaukee Brewers' farm system -- telling him he was walking away from professional baseball. On Father's Day, of all days.
Maybe it wouldn't have mattered much if John didn't believe so strongly in his son's abilities. But he had coached countless kids at Tucson High School over the years. Some of them had gone pro, but none of them could throw the ball as well as his son.
So to hear Tom, owner of that arm, telling him the retirement papers had been signed in the parking lot outside the Brewers' complex the previous day was a real punch in the gut to John. He listened calmly, but inside he was burning. Tom was just 20 years old and already giving up on a dream.
In that moment, on that day seven years ago, it was clear the dream belonged more to the father than the son.
When he hung up, John thought about his options.
"Should I run over and give him a stern talking to," he asked himself, "or let him figure it out on his own?"
The stern talk might have worked back in the day, when John was Tom's age. Not now. His son would have to venture off into life, make his own mistakes and live with and learn from their consequences.
Still, watching Tom walk away from baseball broke John's heart. He knew his son was giving up on something special.
He never could have imagined the way Tom would reclaim it.
* * *
The bar's name is The Hut. Consider it a beach in the middle of the desert. Located near the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, its vibe is best established by the 45-foot tiki head patrons walk under as they enter. Inside is an atmosphere that's relaxed, until about 10 p.m., when the music starts and the kids come out to party.
Behind the bar, slinging beers and mixing shots with vulgar names, was Tom Wilhelmsen. For five years, The Hut was his home, the place where his gregarious personality made for good tips and good times. He was a creature of the night scene, often up and out until 4 a.m., and his coworkers at The Hut felt like family.
"If you like people," Wilhelmsen would say, "then bartending is a good thing to get into. If you like beer, it's an especially good thing to get into."
Wilhelmsen liked beer. And he liked living a life free of structure. He loved the feeling of being free to roam. When he'd get bored, he'd look at a map, pull out a notebook and write down his dream destinations. Europe. Hawaii. Mexico. The national parks in the western U.S. These were all places that appealed to his insatiable curiosity. And by saving up some of his earnings from bartending, he could see them all.
This was the life Wilhelmsen wanted for himself, as much as it went against the grain. His raw pitching talent might have made him a seventh-round Draft pick by the Brewers in 2002, but the demands of the professional game had dragged him down. The curfews, the dress code, and, yes, the drug policy. None of it was for him.
Twice in his tenure with the Brewers, Wilhelmsen had tested positive for marijuana use. The second positive test led to a suspension for the entire 2004 season. He had even been fined for wearing Birkenstocks to the ballpark.
"Tom wasn't ready for structure at that point," said his agent, Steve Canter. "He was always a happy-go-lucky, fun-loving guy. But I think he needed to figure out what he wanted to do and who he wanted to be."
This discipline of pro ball ate away at the core of Wilhelmsen's personality, and it ate away at his love of the game.
One day he woke up with a strange feeling.
"Dang," he thought to himself, "I don't want to go to the ballpark today."
The thought persisted the following day. And the day after that. And the day after that. Until finally, Tom asked himself, "What am I doing?" This was his reality check, his acceptance that for all the possibility the game afforded him, his talent meant nothing if his heart wasn't in it.
"I didn't want to waste my time, my coach's time or take away from other players on the team," he said. "I'm not the most important person in the world, especially on a team."
So Wilhelmsen walked away. He left the game and entered The Hut.
* * *
When the topic would come up -- and it often did -- John Wilhelmsen's friends would all offer the same consoling conclusion.
"Don't worry," they'd tell him, "he'll get back into baseball."
But John had his doubts, and they only grew as the weeks, then the months, then the years went by.
"You've got to want it."
That's the message John had imparted upon his players time after time at Tucson High. To be successful at anything in life, you've got to want it. And he knew, as much as it hurt his own feelings and his own expectations for what his son could be, Tom didn't want it.
The marijuana suspension in 2004 had made Tom feel like an outcast in the Brewers' organization. After the year away, he was invited to extended spring training camp and hardly excited. He had stopped conditioning himself for baseball, then given up on it altogether.
After the retirement papers were signed, Tom took off. He hopped into his car and drove up the coast of California, hiking the peaks and taking in breathtaking views of the ocean. He would call his father to report on his journey, including the time he was parked by the side of a lake and saw a couple of moose fighting in shallow water. John and his wife, Joanne, were understandably nervous about their son venturing off on his own, but Tom was having the time of his life.
In one sense, Tom was lost. He didn't know what he wanted to do with his life. But in another sense, he knew he wasn't doing something he didn't
want to do. To him, that was comfort enough.
When Tom returned home to Tucson, he applied for the bartending job at The Hut. On his application, under previous employment, he listed only one entry: "Milwaukee Brewers, Pitcher." He got the gig.
While John couldn't quite shake the disappointment over Tom's decision, his love of and support for his son reigned supreme. He would note that while bartending might not have been the best use of Tom's talents, it did prove to be a stable position for him.
And Tom had another, unintended benefit borne out of the time away from baseball. He renewed acquaintances with his old high school girlfriend, Cassie. The two began dating again, and soon she would join him on his journeys around the globe. In the coming years, they'd go hiking in the Southwest, backpacking in Europe and exploring the Mayan ruins in Tulum, all leading up to that day when Tom would decide he wanted to make Cassie his wife.
Maybe the path wasn't what he envisioned, but, over the years, John would see it. His son, in his own unique way, was growing up. And for that reason, he couldn't say Tom's retirement from baseball was a bad life decision.
Still, he couldn't help but wonder what might have been.
And at a certain point, Tom began wondering, too.
* * *
Five years elapsed in Tom Wilhelmsen's life away from baseball. He didn't completely abandon the sport, if you consider participation in a co-ed softball beer league an extension of the game. But he didn't bother to pick up a baseball, nor did he accept his dad's invitations to help out with his old high school team.
Tom's nomadic lifestyle had plenty of perks. Yet as he got older, he grew less fond of the late nights and the party scene. He began to think about getting married to Cassie and settling into something more stable.
Naturally, he began to think about the incredible opportunity he had let pass when he signed those retirement papers -- the experiences he could have had as a professional pitcher, and the millions he could have made if he had just stuck it out, lived by the rules and applied his true talent.
His thoughts crystallized in 2008, on a vacation in Hawaii. He played catch with a group of guys, one of whom was a catcher on an independent league team.
"You've got a better arm than the guys on the team," he told Tom. And yes, his arm did still feel live. And throwing the ball sure did feel fun.
Not long after, Tom was back home, standing outside, smoking a cigarette and adding all these thoughts up in his head. He came to a familiar conclusion, only this time in the reverse.
"What am I doing?" he asked himself. And he tossed the cigarette aside.
* * *
The phone call came on a Sunday. Father's Day. John Wilhelmsen heard the words coming from the voice on the other end, and this time they registered loud and clear.
"Let's go to the park," Tom said, "and have a catch."
They met at a field next to the Rockies' former training complex in Tucson. John brought his catcher's mitt and a few balls, and Tom made about 25 throws from 50 feet. He also ran for about 20 minutes, timed with John's stopwatch. He wasn't in very good shape. He maybe did two laps around the field in that 20-minute span. But John sensed a hunger in his son.
This time, Tom wanted it. And he confirmed it after this first workout session, when he told his dad he'd like to start meeting at the field every other day.
Two days later, they showed up again. John brought some agility ladders and cones and a dozen new baseballs. For the better part of the next eight months, they would meet at that same spot, taking one brief break in September, when Tom had a short bout with arm soreness, and another in December, when John needed to have his mitt repaired.
"I've never had my catcher's mitt torn up so much," John said. "I've broken the laces, but I've never had my mitt tear across the leather."
Tom's fastball had made its mark. But John felt it was too straight. One day, he called out for a two-seamer, and Tom reared back and let it fly. The ball broke 14 inches across the plate. John had never seen anything like it, let alone caught anything like it. He began to think that maybe catching Tom without full gear was a bad idea. He bought a catcher's mask at a sporting goods store on the way home.
As Tom's pitches found their form, so, too, did his body. He began to complete four or five laps around the field during those 20-minute runs. Father and son began thinking about a tryout for a big league team in 2009, but Tom had proposed to Cassie, and the schedule of wedding events would have conflicted with the Spring Training schedule.
Shortly after the wedding, though, Tom tried out for the Tucson Toros of the independent Golden Baseball League. He made the team and signed up for a salary of about $900 a month.
Tom was back in professional baseball.
* * *
The choices we make in life define our destiny. Few of us are fortunate enough to get a second chance at any of them.
When Tom Wilhelmsen left baseball, he was likely leaving it behind for good. Thousands play the game professionally, and only a fraction of those players reach the Major Leagues. For most, either injury blocks their path or their talent ultimately doesn't stack up to the game's elite.
So to have an arm like Tom's and a professional opportunity at hand and not
give it an earnest effort? It conjures up a line from the movie "A Bronx Tale," in which Robert DeNiro's character tells his son, "The saddest thing in life is wasted talent."
John always knew that, at some level, his son would come to regret walking away from the game. And enough years passed to give him reasonable doubt that Tom would ever be able to work his way back in.
But Tom put in the work. More emotionally mature and more understanding of the life he wanted to live, he attacked baseball with a newfound vigor.
There would be bumps along the way, of course. While Tom was pitching for Tucson in the summer of 2009, his old club, the Brewers, showed interest. They still owned his rights, and they wanted to take a look at him. But the day after the Brewers called, Tom injured his biceps in the bullpen, prematurely ending his season with the Toros and completely ending his chances with Milwaukee.
"I figured he was done," John said. "I figured that was it."
That December, however, Tom's agent got in touch with Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who had been Milwaukee's scouting director when Tom was with the Brewers. Canter told Zduriencik that Tom was throwing again and worth a look, and Zduriencik gave him an audition in Spring Training.
John drove Tom up to the Mariners' camp in Peoria, Ariz., in February 2010, dropped him off, then went off to do errands. He was surprised when he got a call from Tom just 45 minutes later.
"I'm signed," Tom told his dad.
The throwing session had lasted just 15 minutes, and the Mariners liked what they saw.
* * *
Last season, Tom Wilhelmsen pitched for the Mariners' rookie-level and Class A teams, going 7-1 with a 2.19 ERA in 15 appearances. More importantly, though, they had eager eyes on him, in the form of Minor League pitching coordinator Carl Willis, who is now the Major League club's pitching coach.
When Tom arrived to Major League camp this spring, he had hopes of a midseason promotion to the bigs. His father had a more realistic goal of a September callup, when rosters expand.
Neither could have predicted the Hollywood ending that would arrive on March 29. Willis summoned Wilhelmsen and was walking him to manager Eric Wedge's office, but he couldn't resist giving Tom the news on the way there.
Tom had made the team.
"I put my head down in utter disbelief and relief," he said. "I felt my chest cave in a little bit."
His first call was to Cassie, who was at a restaurant with a girlfriend and began screaming in shocked joy. His second was to his father, and the second John answered, Tom felt the tears form in his eyes.
John felt them, too.
The days since have felt like a dream to both father and son. When Tom appeared in the Mariners' home opener on April 8, John was in attendance at Safeco Field, having driven Cassie up from Tucson. That night, Tom would turn in the roughest of his five Major League appearances, to date, giving up five runs in 1 2/3 innings against the Indians, including a titanic blast off the bat of Travis Hafner.
Didn't matter. John was still smiling.
Before the game, he had been sitting at the Pyramid Alehouse across the street from Safeco. He's not much of a drinker, but he admitted to downing a couple celebratory brews that day. He was staring at the stadium, still in stunned disbelief.
He thought about second chances, and how they don't come along very often. He's still amazed at what Tom has done with his.
"It's not overwhelming," John said, "but it's close to that."
John would remember something else about the three days he spent in Seattle. He could never, it seemed, drive from point A to point B without some unexpected detour.
"It was a very confusing weekend," he said. "Three times, we drove to the park, and we somehow took three different ways to get there."
John Wilhelmsen knows as well as anybody. Sometimes lost people find their way.