Wilhelmsen, Mariners party on at Fan Cave
Closer reminisces about his bartending days, talks All-Star candidacy
NEW YORK -- The Bartender threw ice cubes between his legs into a blender and rubbed lemon wedges around rims of cups and poured Seattle Slings and sang a karaoke cover of Semisonic's "Closing Time."
It would seem like a perfect entrance song for Tom Wilhelmsen, but the Mariners play it instead after games at Safeco Field, a mellow drive-home-safely paean for departing fans. Instead, Jimi Hendrix's "Fire" is the official entrance song of one of the best stories in Major League Baseball. In that moment of truth, a song with cascading power is required.
"It was the first time I did sing 'Closing Time,'" the Mariners' closer said. "There was a bar that was down the street that used to play that for last call. We didn't do it at our bar, per se, but I think it fit the situation perfectly."
"The situation" here was a staged party inside the MLB Fan Cave, where fans came in off the street and (non-alcoholic) drinks were served up by Wilhelmsen, the bartender-turned-potential All-Star, and his fellow Mariners pitchers Charlie Furbush, Lucas Luetge and Brandon Maurer. They made an upcoming Fan Cave video, with a lot of karaoke, including Furbush belting out Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" and Styx's "Come Sail Away."
"It's tough, because we lost a tough game last night," said Mariners president Chuck Armstrong, who also was at the Fan Cave as part of the ongoing MLB Owners Meetings and greeting his quartet of hurlers as they arrived. "But to get Tom Wilhelmsen down here, and Charlie Furbush and Brandon Maurer and Lucas Luetge, they're all great guys. We pride ourselves on having good citizens. They care about the game, they care about the fans. I think it says something about them that they'll get out after a tough loss and come out to the Fan Cave, and I hope they have a good time."
That last part was not a problem whatsoever. Wilhelmsen looked like he was enjoying himself more than any of the hundreds of players who have visited in the three years of this MLB playland. He even jumped at the chance to go down the orange home run slide. It is easy to understand why Wilhelmsen is so happy: Everything is a joy ride for him right now, as he lives in the moment, his career more than revived after the long hiatus in which Wilhelmsen tended bar at The Hut near Arizona State University.
Wilhelmsen has converted all 10 of his save opportunities, emerging so far as a prospective American League reserve selection for the Midsummer Classic on July 16 at Citi Field. When asked at the Fan Cave to cite his most memorable moment so far this season, Wilhelmsen immediately went back to the Mariners' 2-1 victory over the Angels on April 28, when he whiffed Josh Hamilton.
"Yeah, I was able to throw back-to-back changeups for strikes," he said. "I've never been able to do that before. And I followed that up with a high heater for strike three."
In that sequence, Wilhelmsen actually started Hamilton with a 77-mph change for ball one, then an 89-mph change for strike one, then a 90-mph four-seamer fouled off for 1-2, followed by a 97-mph four-seamer that he blew past a swinging Hamilton. He called his father John after that one, no one more impressed than his dad. It was the middle of an Albert Pujols-Hamilton-Mark Trumbo 1-2-3, one of three times he faced that meat of the Angels' order in that homestand.
"Which is something I've never been able to do before," Wilhelmsen said. "It was kind of a first for both the changeup and the fastball."
How did the changeup become such an effective addition?
"I think it's just trusting it," Wilhelmsen said. "Just believing, faking yourself to believe it is going to do what it's supposed to do. Then just go out and throw it.
"It's such a touch-feel pitch. If you don't have confidence in it, it's just not going to fall that way. I just trust the catcher, and it's like, 'All right, you've got to do it. You've got Josh Hamilton at bat in a one-run game. You have to do it.' Otherwise he's able to ... you know. I'm a fastball-curveball guy, more or less, so being able to show something else is a bonus and to throw it for a strike is just extra."
Here Wilhelmsen is now, in a series with the greatest closer of all-time, Mariano Rivera, who had saved the game a night earlier against the Mariners. What might it be like to be a teammate of Rivera's for the AL this summer? Jim Johnson of the Orioles, Joe Nathan of the Rangers, Addison Reed of the White Sox and Casey Janssen of the Blue Jays are among other closer candidates.
"It would be more than you could really ask for," Wilhelmsen allows, pondering the possibility of sharing an All-Star space with Rivera. "I don't know what it would be like. I truly don't. It would be amazing, of course. That's every boy's dream.
"Just going to continue working on strike one, and I'd be honored to play with him."
Beside the changeup, Wilhelmsen attributes his recent success "to the batters not hitting the ball out of the park. No, getting strike one is huge. Getting ahead of batters. That's what I'm trying to do."
Wilhelmsen's advice for prospective bartenders is to "smile." He couldn't stop doing that as Furbush taped his karaoke part in hopes of a viral video.
"We're like brothers here," Wilhelmsen said. "It just helps you relax when you have more folks that you're more comfortable with. I mean, it's not like you felt uncomfortable, but it's almost overwhelming how amazing this place really is. So I was glad to share it with them."
Armstrong noted the all-glass walls at the Fan Cave and joked that it would be a good hiding place when the Mariners lose -- "so our fans could see me, but they couldn't get to me." But seriously, he added, improvement is expected for a club with an 18-21 record entering Wednesday's game.
"We're getting better," Armstrong said. "The Mariners have had some injuries. A number of teams have. But we're getting better each week, and I think we could be very competitive here by the end of the year."