Spring Training: Mariner's voyage an epic one

2013-03-14T00:00:00Z Spring Training: Mariner's voyage an epic oneDaniel Berk Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 14, 2013 12:00 am  • 

PEORIA - The comeback story Tom Wilhelmsen most likes to talk about these days is the one about how he pitched two days after his daughter, Hahna, was born in August.

Sure, the Seattle Mariners closer and former Tucson High School Badgers star gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, but that's not really the point.

For a man who already has some fascinating chapters in his yet-to-be-written biography, this one is his favorite.

"Your whole routine changes, and you're not living for yourself; you're living for this little girl," Wilhelmsen said Wednesday at Peoria Sports Complex, where the Mariners train.

"It's the greatest thing in the world. There are just so many levels of love and understanding and selflessness. It's been wonderful.

"I wouldn't change it for the world."

By now, you likely know Wilhelmsen's other story. A flamethrower at Tucson High, Wilhelmsen was drafted in the seventh round of the 2002 draft. He pitched one full season in the minor leagues before being suspended for the 2004 season because of two failed marijuana tests.

He quit baseball in 2005, took a five-year hiatus and filled the years by traveling and working as a bartender at The Hut.

He got the itch to throw again, taking the mound for the Tucson Toros independent league team in 2009. A year later, he signed with the Mariners. He worked his way to the big leagues one season later and is now Seattle's closer.

Now that you're officially caught up, Wilhelmsen wouldn't mind closing that chapter and moving on.

He'd rather talk about the present and future rather than the past. He's a happy father who, when he isn't talking about Hahna, loves to chat about his team or even his next travel expedition.

"I feel more confident and aware of what I have and how I want to attack hitters," Wilhelmsen said. "With that level of confidence comes a level of comfort. But I don't want to get too comfortable out there. I have to stay on my toes."

That should be no problem for the 6-foot-6-inch right-hander. That's sort of how he lives his entire life.

After the 2012 season, Wilhelmsen and his family drove from Seattle to Phoenix for the offseason. Included in the trip was a detour to Sedona for a five-mile hike.

When he's done with baseball, Wilhelmsen has plans for more of these adventures.

"After baseball, my No. 1 goal is to travel and explore," Wilhelmsen said. "I have pages and pages of notes on where to go and what to do.

"Machu Picchu is probably No. 1."

Wilhelmsen should still have some of his best baseball ahead of him. He posted a 2.50 ERA last year for the Mariners and picked up 29 saves. He features a devilish fastball and backs it up with a daunting curveball.

"He's great to work with," Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said. "He enjoys what he's doing. He enjoys the game. He enjoys competition. I think he understands this is a special place to be and a special opportunity to have.

"I tell him, 'Enjoy it while you can, do the best you can and don't let it be the end of the world because you've experienced the world.'"

Wilhelmsen, 29, has listened to Willis, and it's made baseball significantly more enjoyable for the former Badgers star.

"I love baseball. I love competing. I love feeling dominant," Wilhelmsen said. "There was a time when baseball didn't do it for me. It took a little bit of time. It was never a pain … or else I would never have tried to get back into it. I needed time away.

"Once that time was up, something kicked me and said, 'All right, it's time to get working.'"

Tom's timeline

A chronological look at Tom Wilhelmsen's wild career:

• 2002: Led Tucson High to the state championship game against Canyon del Oro and was drafted nearly a month later by the Milwaukee Brewers in the seventh round of the MLB draft.

• 2003: Made 17 starts in the minor leagues for the Brewers, posting a 2.84 ERA.

• 2004: Suspended from professional baseball after twice testing positive for marijuana.

• 2005-2008: Stopped playing baseball, worked as a bartender at The Hut and traveled the world.

• 2009: Began playing baseball again, hooking up with the independent Golden League Baseball's Tucson Toros.

• 2010: Signed a minor-league contract with the Seattle Mariners and pitched 74 innings, sporting a 2.19 ERA, for three different teams.

• 2011: Split time between Double-A and the big leagues, logging 32 2/3 innings in his first major-league season.

• 2012: Spent the entire season with the Mariners and had a 2.50 ERA and 29 saves in 73 games. He took over the closer's role midway through the season and finished off a six-pitcher no-hitter in June.

Kelly, A likely Tucson ace, feared lost for season

Casey Kelly, ranked as the San Diego Padres' fourth-best prospect by MLB.com, could be headed for Tommy John surgery.

San Diego manager Bud Black said after the Padres' 7-6 win over the Angels in Peoria on Wednesday that Kelly had his sore right elbow examined by doctors in San Diego this week. Although the club is still awaiting full results, Black didn't sound optimistic about Kelly's immediate future.

The 23-year-old was competing for a spot on San Diego's roster, but was likely to start the year with the Tucson Padres atop their rotation.

"There's going to be a lot of discussion between Casey and Casey's family and I assume they are going to want a second opinion," said Black, who didn't reveal what the first opinion was. "That's the right thing to do. I know doctors are concerned with what tests may look like."

Kelly opened the 2012 season with Tucson, but was shut down with a similar injury after just two starts. He returned to action later in the season, though never with Tucson. Kelly could be the latest in a line of Padres pitchers to undergo Tommy John. Cory Luebke and Joe Wieland are both currently recovering from the surgery.

"Hopefully this time we get lucky," San Diego general manager Josh Byrnes said Wednesday.

- Daniel Berk

Contact reporter Daniel Berk at dberk@azstarnet.com or 573-4330. On Twitter @DSBerk.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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