Putting happiness over money led to Tom Wilhelmsen’s return to Mariners

Jun 23, 2016, 10:42 AM | Updated: 11:11 am
Tom Wilhelmsen was activated Saturday after a stint on the disabled list for low back spasms. (AP)...
Tom Wilhelmsen was activated Saturday after a stint on the disabled list for low back spasms. (AP)
LISTEN: Tom Wilhelmsen on his return to the Mariners

DETROIT – When the news came out that Tom Wilhelmsen had refused an assignment to the minor leagues with the Rangers and become a free agent, there was little doubt in the minds of those who knew him where he would land next. A big arm, even bigger personality, and yes, big struggles of late, but a reunion with the Mariners seemed inevitable.

“I never wanted to leave,” Wilhelmsen said Wednesday while standing in a clubhouse hallway at Comerica Park, his first stop before returning to the Pacific Northwest. “I’ve always wanted to be here, so of course when I heard there was interest, it was top of my list.”

How he got here only adds to Wilhelmsen’s already improbable baseball story. Last fall, he was preparing for his sixth season in the Mariners organization, excited by a meeting he had with newly-hired manager Scott Servais.

“I loved everything he said about having fun, being accountable, everyone’s on the same playing field,” Wilhelmsen said. “How he and (general manager) Jerry Dipoto view playing at Safeco park and the athleticism that goes with it. All around, it was just good stuff.”

Weeks later, he would learn that he had been sent to Texas as part of the trade for Leonys Martin. He got off to a good start with the Rangers, surrendering no runs in spring training. Then the regular season began. In his first game, he allowed five runs to the Mariners. Three games later, he gave up another five in just two-thirds of an inning. Every few outings there would be an inning of crooked numbers. It was, in his words, the worst experience in his career and hard to deal with.

The whys are something he did not want to get into. For him, best to put it behind him.

“It’s all I can do,” he said. “Just laugh about it. Obviously, not too hard because it was pretty serious and it put me in this situation. I’m never ever trying to fail, but you learn from it and kick it behind you and that’s what you do as a reliever, good and bad.”

Kicking it behind him meant really kicking it behind him. Completely behind him. Fresh start, leave the organization, behind him.

When the Rangers outrighted him off the 40-man roster, Wilhelmsen walked. After clearing waivers, he refused an assignment to the minor leagues, sacrificing the remainder of his contract, nearly $1.8 million. When the news spread, the initial reaction from many was that Wilhelmsen was crazy to walk away from that kind of money.

Put in perspective however, this was Tom Wilhelmsen. He’d left baseball on the table once before, walking away when he had lost the passion to play. Physical gifts and upper 90’s arm be damned. For Wilhelmsen, his priorities have always been different and well defined.

“It was pretty darn easy,” he said of his decision to leave the Rangers and the money. “When I first got into baseball, when I made the decision, it was to be a Major League Baseball player. That was the mindset and attitude that got me to the big leagues so quick. I love my family. This is definitely a tough gig because you are away for so long, so there needs to be something with that. So if I am going to be away from my family for so long, it is going to be in the big leagues. It’s not going to be in the minor leagues.

“Knowing my track record, and not believing in the last 21 outings of this year, I just figured I could get something done on a major-league level and there is just no amount of money that can buy happiness, although I have learned it can be expensive based on this, which is kind of funny to say right now. But there is just no sense of (regret). I mean, money comes and goes, and everything in the world is with is me, so it was a pretty easy decision.”

Wilhelmsen returns to a different Mariners clubhouse. The faces he sees at the lockers around him have changed as he counted only eight teammates that remain from his first stint. But as he points out, the uniform is the same, the field is the same and the fans in the stands are the same. Coming off his disastrous experience in Texas, that’s important to him.

“Unfortunately it didn’t work out for me, but ultimately I want to be happy,” he said. “There’s nothing better than that. I was mightily happy in Seattle. I’m even happier to be back.”

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