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August 18, 2010 at 8:36 AM

Great comeback story percolating in Mariners minor league ranks

Thought I’d take a little time this morning to acknowledge a great comeback story that is just starting to brew inside Seattle’s Class A Clinton team. Tom Wilhelmsen was just named Pitcher of the Week in the Midwest League for the second straight time.
You may remember Wilhelmsen from a story we ran back in spring training. The former big-time Milwaukee Brewers prospect, who made it to Class A ball, was suspended for the entire 2004 season after testing positive for marijuana use.
Once his suspension ended, he tried to come back, but realized he wasn’t happy playing baseball any more. So, he grabbed a backpack and went out to see the world, earning money as a bartender in Arizona when he wasn’t traveling. Then, one day in 2008, he had a moment.
“I’ve changed a lot of things about my life and thought a lot about what my priorities are,” Wilhelmsen told us back in spring training. “One of them is I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a bartender for the rest of my life.”
So, a guy who had not pitched since 2003 got back into baseball shape. He played independent ball with the Tucson Toros, then got called back by the Brewers — who still owned his rights — for a tryout. But Wilhelmsen hurt his arm and was subsequently released. He showed up at Mariners spring training on an invite from GM Jack Zduriencik, who knew Wilhelmsen from his days as an executive with the Brewers, and did some pitching on the side.
Zduriencik liked what he saw. Wilhelmsen told him of his arm troubles and was immediately placed on a rehab program. So, it was another two months before Wilhelmsen could even think about pitching in a game.
But since that happened, he’s been lights-out.

Wilhelmsen went 1-0 with a 3.68 ERA in three starts for Class A Everett, hitting 98 mph on the radar gun according to one Yankees scout I spoke to. That earned him a promotion to mid-level A-ball with Clinton.
Last week, he flirted with a perfect game for 6 2/3 innings, earning him the Pitcher of the Week nod for a second straight time.
Since the move to Clinton, he’s 3-0 with an 0.45 ERA. In 20 innings, he’s allowed just seven hits, averaging 8.1 strikeouts per nine inning and with a strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 3.6.
For you WHIP fans, he’s at 0.6.
Wilhelmsen has made it to the Midwest League before, getting an All-Star nod in that circuit in his previous baseball life. So, it will be interesting to see what happens when he gets another inevitable promotion.
He’s still only 26 and won’t turn 27 until Dec. 16 (my birthday, too, in case you want to send gifts).
This is a great story because it truly is about second chances.
We tend to be a forgiving society, which is great, but I think that can be a little misguided at times. I’m all for instant forgiveness for people who have hurt no one but themselves.
Zduriencik has shown a wide range of willingness to forgive and I think he really nailed it this time. Wilhelmsen was like any young 19-or-20-year-old with a lot of instant cash. He was immature, a little too clownish for his own good and liked to smoke reefer. Read more about his struggles to respect authority in the latter half of this blog post from back in March.
In the end, he had the good sense to walk away from something he didn’t enjoy and did what a lot of my college classmates were able to when they finally finished years of schooling at age 21 and 22 — took off for Europe. Did the backpacking thing. Smoked some joints along the way.
He didn’t rob little old ladies at the supermarket to secure money for a heroin fix, or anything like that. Any harm he did was done to himself and his baseball career.
But he didn’t really care back then. Now he does. And he’s getting a second chance because he’s willing to put all that other stuff aside and do what is needed to be a professional baseball player. Essentially, he grew up. Some people need time to find themselves and can’t do it at 19.
And that is the second chance he’s getting. To start over because he truly wants it and the only person he ever hurt was himself. That’s a true comeback story.
Because the most successful people we meet in this world are the ones who want to be doing what’s in front of them. I’ll bet that will make Wilhelmsen a much better pitcher now than he would have been seven years ago, when he had all the stuff/talent/tools, but really didn’t have a clue.
So, kudos to Wilhelmsen for finally getting one. And to the Mariners for giving a second chance to a player who proved to them he deserved the shot by being willing to make the needed changes in his life.



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