Wilhelmsen Jumps From Low A To Big Leagues

SEATTLE — Of the dozens of rookies who made opening day rosters for the first time this year, there is probably none with a less baseball-ish back story than Seattle righthanded reliever Tom Wilhelmsen.

Wilhelmsen was just like every other Major League aspirant for the longest time, playing ball in high school, getting signed by a big league club, getting his start in the low minors.

Then in 2005, Wilhelmsen packed up his 98-mph fastball and walked away. He'd failed drug tests twice, and he didn't feel like playing along with baseball rules any more. The Milwaukee Brewers guided him into a drug rehab clinic, but while being surrounded by heroin and crystal meth users, he decided it wasn't for him and walked away.

The Brewers suspended him for the 2004 season, but he returned to his native Tucson for a while, spent a lot of time climbing and hiking National Parks in the West to be alone with his thoughts. He explored northern Mexico. He spent time as a bartender. He bummed around Europe with his girlfriend.

Eventually, however, his priorities changed.His girlfriend, Cassie, became his wife. They thought about buying a house, but beyond bartending, his job options were limited.

"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. His form was all over the place at the tryout, but he showed enough to make the Toros. After a season of that, Jack Zduriencik, the former Brewers scouting director, came by in his new guise as Mariners general manager.

It was good for Zduriencik to hear that as part of getting back into baseball, Wilhelmsen had quit smoking, and not just marijuana, but cigarettes, too. He says it was part of his growing up process.

Wilhelmsen split last season between three levels, topping out in low Class A. This year, he's in the Mariners' big league bullpen.

"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 got in his first big league game the opening weekend against Oakland and pitched a perfect 1-2-3 inning of relief. Asked what he was thinking as he walked from the bullpen to the Oakland Coliseum mound, Wilhelmsen shook his head and said, "I honestly don't know."

It wasn't vertigo, exactly, but he is climbing to new heights.

"I was trying to control my breathing," he said, tapping on his chest. "I had to fight to control my heartbeat."

He controlled his pitches, though, and as long as he can do that, the Mariners can live with that.

• Three rookies who'd never been in the big leagues made the opening day Seattle roster—Wilhelmsen and righthanders Josh Lueke and Michael Pineda.

• Shortstop Marcus Littlewood got off to a hot pro debut for Clinton, hitting .471/.526/.471 over his first five games.