San Diego Padres pitcher Tom Wilhelmsen, who became a bartender during his seven seasons away from baseball, works with Trevor Hoffman (51) during a spring training practice in Peoria, Ariz., on February 21, 2018. (K.C. Alfred/San Diego Union-Tribune)
Photo: K.C. Alfred/TNS
Photo: K.C. Alfred/TNS

Padres pitcher Wilhelmsen bounced from baseball to bartending and back

He argues the basic folds used by generations of kids are best, shunning any fancy tinkering with the tail section. He hoists the finished product high enough for a couple of teammates to see, slowly turning it so they can gauge its potential from all angles.

He's not done. In fact, he's just starting.

Wilhelmsen debates the pros and cons of flying it in a full clubhouse with so many lacking eye protection. He discusses how to approach the weather conditions on the other side of the door in wind-whipped Peoria. He applies some of baseball's snappy analytics language, wondering about the craft's "exit velocity."

That's Wilhelmsen, a 34-year-old who can and routinely will turn any conversation into organic entertainment.

This is, after all, a guy who spent almost seven years away from baseball, slinging drinks at a Tiki bar in his native Tucson, Ariz. If he makes the Padres' opening-day roster, he'll bring his nickname The Bartender with him.

That was his life before carving a crazy path back to baseball, a long-haired, tie-dye-wearing dude in Birkenstocks who grooved at Jethro Tull concerts and worked the late shift.

"I was that guy," Wilhelmsen said this week. "Oh yeah."

The Brewers drafted Wilhelmsen in the seventh round of the 2002 amateur draft, the 199th player overall. The right-hander pitched his way to a 5-5 record at Single-A Beloit in 2003 before a pair of positive marijuana tests caused Milwaukee to suspend him for the following season.

And that, it seemed, was it for baseball.

So it was off to The Hut, an old metal fabrication plant that once produced bomb casings for World War II. The bar's signature drink was called Fat Man, named after the first atomic weapon.

"I might have forgotten," said Wilhelmsen, when asked to rattle off the ingredients. "Nope, I didn't. Three different flavored rums, Midori, pineapple juice, soda water, Grenadine and a garnish of orange, pineapple, cherry _ and a smile."

Fat Man consumption, somewhat predictably, led to plenty of fights.

"You've got to jump right in the middle," Wilhelmsen said of his scuffle-stopping strategy. "You've got to get them outside. I was fortunate enough to never get struck."

The 6-foot-6 frame should have been enough to ward off most bouts of trouble.

In those days, though, Wilhelmsen said he gave off a different vibe.

"Back then, I had the long hair and a tie-dyed shirt so maybe I didn't look like the most threatening guy," he said. "But I certainly wasn't afraid to get in, because that was part of the job."

Life felt like an unmarked map, filled with dizzying destinations but no clear route. He back-packed Europe for a month with his now-wife, bouncing across five countries.

At Oktoberfest in Munich, Wilhelmsen learned one way to score free beers was a good old-fashioned language barrier.

"We walked into a tent, sat down and ordered a beer and a plate of food," he said. "Another couple across from us spoke in German. We didn't understand. We asked if they spoke English and they said, 'Who do you know here?'

"We're like, 'We don't anybody _ we're just here on holiday.' They said, 'This is a private tent.' Everything already was paid for. Right then, our beers and food come and we're thinking, we're the silly Americans who don't know anything.

"We immediately stood up, but they said to enjoy it. They said, just so you know, the smaller tents are for private parties. So we left some money and quickly wrapped up and left."

Wilhelmsen kept wandering. He set out to explore America's national parks for two and a half months by himself, finding his way to Yosemite. One day on the trail he noticed a minor commotion in the bushes.

"I looked up the trail about 75 feet and there's a baby bear," he said. "So immediately it was like, mama's going to be around. So I whipped out the camera in one hand and this itty-bitty, Swiss Army Knife kind of deal, just in case.

"But no blade was longer than my finger. That's what I had."

Eventually, the mother and three cubs sauntered off. And eventually, Wilhelmsen started to rethink his path.

"I think being able step away from (baseball) and not think about it for a while, I was able to start to miss it," he said. "My life was changing and evolving. I didn't know what else I could go do, so I figured I'd give baseball another shot."

Wilhelmsen tried out for an independent-league team in Tucson. When the Brewers learned he was pitching again, they called to remind him that they still owned his rights.

He promised to drive to the team's Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix the next day _ after pitching one more game and working another shift at the bar.

"In that game, I blew out something in my shoulder," Wilhelmsen said. "I thought for sure my attempt at a comeback was over."

The Mariners called after he was released by the Brewers, offering to help with his rehab. He stepped back on the mound in the second half of 2010 to play A-ball. The next spring, he broke camp with the big club _ just a couple of months after his final shift at The Hut.

That sparked seven seasons in the majors, splitting time between Seattle, Texas and Arizona. He stepped away from the game for seven years. He came back for seven years.

The long-shot return has earned Wilhelmsen nearly $7.7 million, according to Baseball Reference. Along the way, he finished off a six-pitcher no-hitter for the Mariners against the Dodgers in 2012.

"It's a crazy path," Padres manager Andy Green said.

Now, Wilhelmsen is trying to latch onto one of the Padres' final bullpen spots along with a group expected to include Buddy Baumann, Colten Brewer, Carter Capps, Phil Maton and others.

So much has changed for Wilhelmsen, now married with a 5-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy. There are baseballs to throw. There are paper airplanes to build. Someone else needs to pour those Fat Mans.

"In the grand scheme of life, I've won," he said.

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