What did Tom Wilhelmsen do in his past life to build up such amazingly good karma? He must have bathed lepers while feeding orphans and curing an STD, because the dude is leading a seriously charmed life. Wilhelmsen, if you haven't heard, is a tall, hard-throwing right-hander and one of the most recent additions to the Mariners' opening-day roster. The 27-year-old took a long and unconventional route to the major leagues, quitting baseball for a time to work at a bar and backpack around the globe.
The following year, he twice tested positive for marijuana, and was suspended for the entire season by the Brewers. (In comparison, at the time Wilhelmsen was kicked off the team for smoking pot, steroid use by minor leaguers was typically met with a 15-game suspension.) Wilhelmsen decided to hang up his cleats, returning to Tucson to work as a bartender.
Most ballplayers in Wilhelmsen's situation would've ended up like Kenny Powers, reliving his glory days while ingesting massive amounts of narcotics and secretly wallowing in self-pity. But Wilhelmsen and his high-school sweetheart saved some money and went backpacking across Mexico, Europe and 10 U.S. National Parks.
After the journey ended, Wilhelmsen returned to Tucson. He was standing on the balcony of his apartment one day, smoking a cigarette after watching a baseball game on TV.
"I just looked at the cigarette and said, 'What the hell am I doing?'" Wilhelmsen told MLB.com last year. "I stubbed it out and quit smoking. About a week later, I said, 'Man, if I can quit smoking cigarettes, what else can I do?' I started running and changing things about my lifestyle."
Larry Stone of The Seattle Times describes what happened next:
Not long after, on Father's Day, he told his dad, who'd coached and mentored him from Little League through high school, that he would attempt a comeback. The Tucson Toros, an independent league team, called on the day before Wilhelmsen's marriage to Cassie in 2009 offering him a tryout.
Then, in 2010, Wilhelmsen impressed Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik during a brief tryout in spring training. Zduriencik remembered Wilhelmsen from his time with the Brewers and signed him to a minor-league deal. The pitcher started in rookie ball and worked his way up through the organization.
And now, eight years after toking his way out of baseball, Wilhelmsen will be in the Mariners' bullpen when they take on the A's in Oakland tomorrow for the first game of the season.