Bartender To Bullpen: Wilhelmsen Living Dream

By John Arlia

Tom Wilhelmsen and the rest of the Arizona Diamondbacks bullpen had something in common going into spring training.

They needed a fresh start.

First-year manager Torey Lovullo gave his relievers just that by telling them to turn the page on last season and focus on their performances this spring.

Wilhelmsen did as instructed and was rewarded earlier this week with a spot on the 40-man roster.

“I’ve gone into this, as I have with every player, with eyes wide open,” Lovullo said. “Everybody has a clean slate and they’re being evaluated on a level playing field.”

That was welcome news for a unit that combined for a 23-24 record, blew 22 save opportunities and posted a 4.94 ERA in 2016, the fourth-worst mark in the majors.

It also gave Wilhelmsen, who had a career-worst 6.80 ERA in stints with the Mariners and Rangers last season, a chance to come in and compete for a roster spot on a minor league deal.

When the Arizona native arrived at Salt River Fields this February for spring training, he had a simple goal.

“I’m trying to make a team first of all,” Wilhelmsen said. “But ultimately my goal is to have fun and the day you stop having fun doing something that you’re trying to do, then it’s kind of a waste of time.”

Trying to make it in professional baseball hasn’t always been fun for Wilhelmsen, who has shown throughout his career that he truly lives by that motto.

Wilhelmsen was drafted out of Tucson Magnet High School in the seventh round of the 2002 MLB draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. He signed with the club and transitioned to playing minor league ball as a 19-year-old in 2003.

Soon after, Wilhelmsen was suspended for the entire 2004 season after failing two drug tests. He lost his love for the game and chose to call it quits on America’s pastime after reporting to spring training in 2005.

He eventually ended up back home in Tucson, working as a bartender at The Hut, a tiki lounge near the University of Arizona and just two blocks from his old high school stomping grounds.

“It just seemed like a fun thing to do,” Wilhelmsen said. “I worked at a live music venue, so I got to see live music every night. I was a big fan of craft beer so maybe it gave me a break instead of being on the other side so much.”

Wilhelmsen says being a bartender at the Hut was everything that you would imagine it to be, meeting people from all walks of life and trying to help them with their problems.

“Ultimately, I’m kind of a therapist,” he said. “I’m there to just listen and serve them medication with a smile if that’s why they were going to the bar. It was a fun experience, that’s for sure.”

Eventually though, the fun wore out and Wilhelmsen found himself chasing his baseball dreams again. After a two-year stint in the minor leagues, he made his major league debut with the Mariners in 2011, nearly a decade after being drafted.

After spending the majority of his six MLB seasons in Seattle, the 33-year-old received a call from the team he cheered on to a World Series win in 2001 as a high-schooler in Tucson.

“It’s kind of a full circle here because growing up you obviously want to play for the home team, your favorite team, that being the Diamondbacks,” Wilhelmsen said. “My wife and I, we’ve always talked about it being a great to end our career at home.”

Wilhelmsen insists he still has a lot of baseball left in him and proved that to management this spring. The right-hander is 2-0 in the Cactus League and has allowed just one run on three hits and striking out eight in nine-plus innings of work.

His role with the Diamondbacks’ bullpen is yet to be determined, but just making the team is a fitting end to an aspiration that was born two blocks from The Hut.

“It’s just really a dream come true,” he said. “I mean playing major league baseball is in itself, but for it to be for the team you grew up rooting for is really cool.”