When Tommy Hanson had to go

Tom Priddy/Four Seam Images

Last November, former major league starting pitcher Tommy Hanson, 29, died from what was initially ruled “catastrophic organ failure.” Following an autopsy, it was determined that the cause of death was from “delayed complications of cocaine and alcohol toxicity,” or more commonly known as an accidental coke overdose.

According to his Wiki page Hanson was born in Oklahoma, but I first knew about him from his days playing baseball at Newmark Little League — arguably the best affiliate in San Bernardino, where I’m from. He was a few years older than I was, but one year he carried Newmark to within a game of playing at the Western Regionals, for the chance at the Little League World Series.

Tommy Hanson would later go on to play baseball at Redlands East Valley, a powerhouse high school baseball program, and then to pitch at Riverside Community College. All three cities are within about a 25-minute radius.

In 2005 he was selected in the 22nd round of the MLB amateur draft by the Atlanta Braves, and almost immediately became one of the hottest prospects in their farm system.

When the Texas Rangers made their franchise-altering trade in 2007, the one that sent Mark Teixeira to the Braves for a gaggle of minor leaguers — catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, shortstop Elvis Andrus, and pitchers Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Beau Jones — Tommy Hanson was originally one of their top targets. But the Braves refused to include him in the trade.

Hanson wouldn’t make his big league debut until 2009, as a 22 year-old, but his impact was immediate. From 2009-’11 he was a top-20 starter in the National League, compiling a 3.28 ERA (3.46 FIP) over 460.1 IP, ranking 19th in the NL with +8.5 fWAR during that span.

That was the extent of Tommy Hanson’s run of success in MLB. In 2012 his ERA took a spike, along with his peripherals; he was striking out fewer hitters, walking more and surrendering more home runs. It was also no secret that his shoulder and back were suffering, which is the only way you can explain the Braves eventually giving up on a 25 year-old starter a year removed from being, at worst, a middle-of-the-rotation asset.

To salvage some value, Atlanta flipped him straight up for Angels reliever Jordan Walden before the 2013 season.

In April of 2013, the Angels put Hanson on the bereavement list following the death of his younger step-brother. After six days, according to Aaron Gleeman of Hardball Talk, “He made two starts, pitching relatively well, but then decided he wasn’t fully ready to return, leaving the team again for what proved to be another three weeks.”

When he finally returned, he admitted:

I was having mental issues with the death of my younger brother. I was just trying to get through it. I didn’t know how to handle it. That was the first time anything like that had ever happened to me. I didn’t know how to cope with it. … Physically, I feel great. I’m in great shape. I just had to deal with the issues going on in my head.

Hanson’s stint with the Angels was brief and ineffective. In just 73 innings pitched his ERA was 5.42 and his strikeout and walk rates continued to decline. His MLB career was effectively finished.

In 2014 the Rangers signed him and gave him a shot in spring training, but eventually released him. He was then picked up by the White Sox — where he threw 50 IP in Triple-A — who later released him, and then the Giants, where he played out the 2015 campaign with a couple of their minor league affiliates.

Tommy Hanson died in November of 2015 — a couple weeks after the World Series ended. There were whispers about the impact of the death on his brother even when the Rangers signed him, and a part of me was hoping his 2013 performance was lost for that reason and not something mechanical. I had a ton of optimism that Hanson would be able to ressurect his career in Arlington, and ride off into the sunset of, I don’t know, a 3-year, $45 million contract.

As it turns out, he never was able to come to grips with the loss of his brother. As Mark Whicker of the LA Daily News wrote:

And this is not necessarily a story of neglect. The Angels and Major League Baseball provided counseling and psychological help. But the perceived guilt over the death of a loved one, especially a self-inflicted death, is often too powerful for therapy.

There is no “closure,” an awful word that merely describes the feelings of the bystanders. There is only acceptance, and forgiveness of oneself, never easy and much harder when you work in public.

When Jose Fernandez died a couple weeks ago in a boating accident, the entire sports world stopped for a day. He was a national icon.

Hanson’s death didn’t receive the same recognition through the media, because by the time he passed he was already a forgotten figure. He also didn’t demand a helluva lot of attention, even within the MLB universe.

Here we had a guy who peaked right at the beginning, who was one of the better pitchers in the National League for the first three years of his career. Through injury and poor performance, he was relegated as a has-been in the Pacific Coast League just three years later.

At the time of his death I assumed drugs — coonflated with the knowledge of how hard he took his brother’s death — were the problem, as you don’t see “catastrophic organ failure” every day of the week. That it happened to be cocaine and alcohol that did him in was almost too appropriate, which makes his story all the more depressing.

I think by extension of being from this particular area of Southern California, where the bad news far outweighs the good, Tommy Hanson was one of the rare success stories that made it out, and flourished while he was at it. I never met the guy. I never even saw him pitch way back in the day. I only knew about him from newspaper clips when his All Star team advanced deep into the Southern California Little League playoff structure, and from following his minor league career.

His brief relationship with the Texas Rangers was just a coincidence, but it was one of those coincidences that made me think, at least at the time, that there was a special reason he ended up with the Rangers. I don’t necessarily mean in selfish terms, like he was going to revert back to old form. Just in the sense that he would again be a success story, someone that fought one of the hardest things a human being has to go through.

That doesn’t mean anything now, but it’s something. You don’t have to show suicidal tendencies to one day commit suicide. Sometimes circumstances just lead people to do things. Life is random, and always has been.

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