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By Scott Miller
March 21, 2016
You got this. That’s what he always said. You got this. Like a fastball on the black, he would paint the corners with it to his big sister whenever she was down or worried or overwhelmed. Instantly, it made things better.
You got this. Always, Tommy Hanson, all 6’6″, 240 pounds of him, was making others feel better. His big, loving and chaotic modern family, who flocked to his starts the way relatives crowd a newborn. His manager in Atlanta, Bobby Cox, when the big bear of a right-hander arrived as one of baseball’s top prospects in 2009. A tight circle of friends, who, four months after they lost him, still have trouble finishing sentences attempting to explain their thoughts.
It was November 9, 2015, when Hanson died after being found unresponsive in an acquaintance’s basement. Officially, the cause was a drug overdose. He was 29.
Kris Medlen, who first met his buddy when they were on opposite sides of community college baseball games in their native Southern California, simply cannot talk about it. It is still too raw, even now, four months later. If you want to text me some questions, he says, maybe then.
A text goes out, and an answer is returned:
“So I had an idea of who he was when I signed with the Braves. It was the first time away from my own family and him the same. I show up the first day at the minicamp in Orlando before being sent to [Rookie-level] Danville, nervous as all hell, and, lo and behold, my locker neighbor is none other than Thomas J. Hanson Jr. When you are that young and scared and nervous, he was a big, bright light in a room.”
The Medlen texts continue, several nights over the next three weeks. No audible words. Those can be produced only by a voice, and the voice would break and crack because of the sobbing. So, no—no talking. Then: Tap, tap, tap. The words are typed and silently make their way through the darkness.
One awful night. A giant of a man whose professional career was already flickering disappeared into a house one Saturday last November and never came out. Maybe you heard fragments of the story in the rush leading up to the holidays. Former major league pitcher. Coma. Organs shutting down.
Tommy Hanson went 49-35 with a 3.80 ERA while averaging 129 strikeouts per season over five years in the majors.
That big, bright light snuffed right out. A room gone dark. Maybe you heard this and chalked it up to just another athlete—life in the fast lane and all of that.
Except there was no fast lane for the big ol’ country boy with red hair and an easy laugh. What there was, in rapid order, was a trade that sent him away from his family, the wrenching tragedy of his brother’s death, profound despair, a worn shoulder, a throbbing hip—baggage that can burden any athlete with the weight of the world.
“What I can say for our family is that we are learning how to cope,” says Shabrie Hanson, 32, Tommy’s older sister and the rock of a grieving family.
“The only way I think we know how to do that is by allowing God to give us strength because it is a pain that is unspeakable,” she says. “There are no words for it. We’ve had losses in our family, and not to diminish any of them, but Tommy was what Tommy always was: something great.” You got this. She knows she does. She can still hear his voice and feel his guiding hand on her shoulder, and that’s what helped her through the eulogy at the Atlanta funeral in November and another at a memorial service on the college field that launched her brother’s dreams in Riverside, California, in January.
To this day, it’s what helps her and her father, Thomas Sr., and his wife, Cindy, and Shabrie’s mother, also Cindy, and Shabrie’s sisters, ShiAnne (24) and Shelby (19), and the nieces and nephews Tommy loved so very much.
And, of course, Martha. She had married Tommy just two years earlier, in November 2013. They had barely started building their life together. Another voice that still cannot find its range. No, she emails, I just cannot talk at this time.
“All I can say is that Tommy was the sweetest man,” reads the email. “He treated me like gold, and I would have done anything for him. We adored each other. He was a wonderful husband and best friend, and I miss him terribly. He was a great person with an infectious charisma that made everyone who met him fall in love with him.”
Martha Hanson and Tommy’s engagement picture. (Photo courtesy of Martha Hanson)
Reminders this spring, the first without Tommy on a baseball field, are everywhere.
Dogs barking in the distance. Kings of Leon pumping through the speakers in a gym. A pitching coach in Scottsdale, Arizona, reminding young pitchers, the ones who learned at the feet of Hanson last spring in San Francisco Giants camp, that this is how Tommy suggested they throw the curveball, and so let’s try it again, and let’s do it his way this time.
Reminders not only of an enormous loss but also of the beautiful legacy a man can leave behind when he touches so many others.
“I always used to make the joke that Tommy was the reason I moved up so quickly because I never owned my own vehicle and was always getting a ride from Tommy, who, with his bonus, bought a badass Infiniti, so I knew if I didn’t keep up, I’d be left behind without a ride! Hahaha. But it really had nothing to do with the rides that he honestly insisted on giving. The way he pitched and dominated hitters got me so fired up and got me over my own self-doubt that I could be great too…
“Our lives revolved around each other’s. It was crazy. Whatever he did, I did. Whatever I did, he was doing the same thing. We were brothers, are brothers. I still struggle with that sometimes… We weren’t satisfied with dominating in the minors. We knew where we needed to be and knew where we belonged. Up there! With the big boys!… It was seriously what kept me going. The need to keep up with Tom.”
—Kris Medlen texts
Atlanta. What happened in the basement at the ranch that night will never be fully known, and maybe sometimes there are just some things people, even those closest to us, are not meant to know. Doors. Not all of them open. There is a man who owns a tattoo joint in town, and this man worked the fringes around the ballclub until he eventually ingratiated himself enough to become the tattoo artist of the Braves. Multiple sources close to the club describe him as a savvy self-promoter, the sort of artist who labors for several hours in his shop to create a skin masterpiece, and when finished, would leave a player to exit only to find autograph seekers waiting in the parking lot. How? The shop’s social media is hard at work while the art is created. Word is sent to the streets. One more satisfied Braves customer is getting inked up. Right now, in real time. Yes, the best kind of advertising.
This man did Hanson’s arm, and the two were friends, and it was to his home that the big pitcher drove on this Saturday because, according to his sister, he wanted a place to shoot his gun.
Shabrie Hanson knows because her brother was hanging out with her fiance for 11, 12 hours on Friday night and into Saturday. Martha was in Florida attending a wedding at the time.
Hanson, who pitched for the Braves for four seasons, spent his offseasons in the Atlanta area, where most of his family remained after his trade to L.A. (Photo: AP)
Yes, there was some family skepticism about Tattoo Man, but, as Shabrie says, “Tommy was always in control. Everybody loved Tommy, and Tommy loved everybody. It doesn’t matter what their faults were. Let the random weirdo sit at our table.”
“He was a special person,” says the New York Yankees’ Brian McCann, Hanson’s catcher in Atlanta. “You wanted to be around Tommy Hanson. He made people laugh.
“He was an all-around unbelievable person.”
“Great kid,” says Hall of Famer Bobby Cox, Hanson’s manager in Atlanta.
Please, Shabrie asks, could you not put Tattoo Man’s name in this story? During several conversations, emails and text exchanges, Shabrie doesn’t ask for anything. Except this.
“No comment,” she says. “[Publicity] is what he wants. He doesn’t even need to be mentioned.”
Says one of Hanson’s close friends: “I really don’t want anything said about him. He’s not the greatest person. You should have seen his Twitter when everything was going on. I get it. Tommy was a big boy and made his own decisions, but the stuff [the artist] was saying just looked like he was trying not to incriminate himself.”
Those tweets since have been deleted. The facts, as they stand, are in the police report. So is Tattoo Man’s name. According to an autopsy, Hanson died of an accidental overdose of cocaine and alcohol, the 911 call coming in when he was found unresponsive in the basement, where he had been sleeping, on Sunday morning. The police said there was no indication of foul play.
The woman who phoned 911, Tattoo Man’s girlfriend, said Hanson’s dogs were barking in the basement, so she went downstairs to let them out and walked straight into a nightmare.
Hanson was not breathing, the panicked woman said. His face was blue. His hands were cold.
The alley he walked down that night looking for an escape had no outlet. This was not the first time Hanson had dabbled in drugs. But he wasn’t a regular user either.
“I talked to Tommy the night before for about 45 minutes. One of the best conversations I’ve had with him in a long time. Talked about some baseball stuff. He was so happy for me about the World Series, was very encouraged about how he felt going into the offseason, talked about my kids and how much he missed seeing them and wanting to come out and visit soon. Just a great convo that made me really feel like he had some things figured out and he was in a good spot in his life. But at the same time, I felt a lot of the time Tommy ever got real sensitive and deep that he was trying to kind of reach out. So as encouraged as I felt about him after that conversation, I started thinking that he was reaching out again. I planned on being there for him and spending more time with him this offseason. But it was too late.”
—Kris Medlen text
One month after pitching one scoreless inning in Game 3 for the Kansas City Royals while earning his first World Series ring, Medlen, back with the Royals this spring as a starter, never again would see his best friend.
Kris Medlen thrilled his friend Tommy Hanson by helping the Royals win the 2015 World Series. (Photo: AP)
“I never heard from him again. So I feel like that has been the hardest for me to wrap my head around, whether or not I could’ve been there for him and got him out of whatever trouble he was in on the inside.”
—Kris Medlen text
Southern California. The crazy thing when Atlanta traded Hanson to the Los Angeles Angels for reliever Jordan Walden on November 30, 2012, was this: Hanson grew up in Redlands, California, just 52 miles from Anaheim.
He had pitched at Riverside City College, just 37 miles from Anaheim.
But by the time he established himself in Atlanta’s rotation in 2010, the entire Hanson family had moved to the Atlanta area. Dad. Stepmother. Mother. Sisters. Brother. Everybody.
Those were the days, when Hanson was viewed as the greatest pitching prospect drafted and developed by the organization since Steve Avery in the early 1990s. In the year of his debut, 2009, Baseball America ranked Hanson as the No. 4 prospect in all of baseball on its Top 100 list. Along with Tampa Bay’s David Price and Baltimore’s Matt Wieters, he was one of the game’s brightest lights.
“From the time Tommy started T-ball at four until the time he passed away, I don’t think any of us missed a game,” Shabrie says. “We watched every game in person, on TV, on the Internet. I’m a waitress. I’ve served drinks with Tommy pitching on my phone on the tray.”
Image titleHanson in his first year on the pitching mound, circa 1992-93, sporting the exposed tongue he would display in the majors. (Photo courtesy of Shabrie Hanson)
He finished third in the 2009 National League Rookie of the Year balloting, started Game 2 of the 2010 NL Division Series against the San Francisco Giants and should have been an All-Star in 2011, when he went 11-7 with a 3.60 ERA in 22 starts.
“He was pitching at that level,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who succeeded Cox, says. “He was a guy you relied on.
“A lot of people relied on him.”
“His dad would come to spring training for the whole spring,” Gonzalez says. “They were a really close family.”
Big Tom is a retired iron worker, a man’s man who hunts and fishes and eats big and cheered bigger. He was easily absorbed into Tommy’s world of baseball and friends because they all were so close and had so much in common. He would travel the country, bird-dogging Tommy’s baseball career, going wherever just to be around Tommy and his pals.
“He’s an amazing guy, and the poor guy has nothing but daughters and Tommy,” chuckles Ryne Reynoso, a former minor league teammate of Hanson and Medlen in the Braves system who grew close to Big Tom over the years. “Tom would have the boys over for food and football in the fall when we weren’t playing.
“He’d bribe Tommy and his friends with his signature dish: chili burritos covered in cheese and more chili.
“Gut-bomb food,” Reynoso says. “We loved it. We’d watch football and eat.
“Those were the good days.”
An extensive family: Tommy (back left) stands (L-R) next to his father, Big Tom; his stepbrother, Aaron; and his sister Shabrie, who is holding her daughter Madie. In the front (L-R) is Tommy’s sister ShiAnne; her son Kayson; Shabrie’s daughter Marlie; Tommy’s stepmother, Cindy; and Tommy’s sister Shelby. (Photo courtesy of Shabrie Hanson)
When Hanson and Medlen made the bigs, for a time, they stayed in a high-rise in Buckhead, a fashionable area of Atlanta, on the 36th floor. Reynoso was playing with Triple-A Gwinnett then, close enough geographically that he stayed there too. Talk about the time of your life. An ex-girlfriend had left behind a couple of tennis rackets and a bucket of balls…
“We’d hit tennis balls off the balcony, and one of us would be down there to try to catch it,” texted Medlen. “Rain or shine. We’d either lightly toss them off or hit them with the rackets. Depended on how hard the wind was blowing. There was a dog park down there, so you’d have to get down there and make sure there wasn’t any dog s— first.”
Soon, it wasn’t just tennis balls. Footballs started dropping from that 36th-floor balcony too. Sometimes, even baseballs.
“It was hilarious,” Reynoso says. “Great, great times.”
Most important, they were there for each other. They pushed each other. Heck, Reynoso, supplementing his baseball income as a bartender, even wound up introducing Medlen to Nicki, the woman who would become his wife. They were in the sweet spot of life: young, surrounded by friends and cushioned by the promise of an incredible future.
Inspired by the movie Step Brothers, Hanson, Medlen and Reynoso one December decided what they needed to do was make their own Christmas card. And not just that but also make one of the prints poster-sized so it would serve as the centerpiece of their apartment.
So one day, they cruised over to Sears Portrait Studio and picked out the most garish matching sweaters they could find—maroon, argyle numbers—with mock turtlenecks underneath. They wore jeans and matching black Vans, and then they acquired the Braves’ mailing list and fired off those cards to everyone, from players to executives.
Ryne Reynoso, Kris Medlen and Tommy Hanson pose for a memorable holiday card when the three were roommates.
“The best was when the wives got the card and didn’t know who we were and told their husbands, ‘Hey, a bunch of gay guys sent you a card,'” Reynoso says. “It was the goofiest Christmas card ever. It was a hit.”
The next spring, at big league camp, Reynoso met Chipper Jones for the first time.
“Oh yeah,” Jones said, a look of recognition crossing his face. “You’re the kid from the picture with Tommy and Kris.”
Home Depot. That’s where Medlen was when his phone buzzed after the 2012 season, when Hanson called with the news: He had just gotten off the phone with then-Atlanta general manager Frank Wren, who had traded him to the Angels.
“I couldn’t believe what he was telling me,” texted Medlen. “I think he was a little shocked, but in this line of work, it’s not a guarantee you’ll only play for one team. But we both just kinda sat on the phone for a few seconds after he said it and were just quiet. His entire family left California, where he grew up, to come to Atlanta to be together and just got traded back there. Had to have been tough for him.”
“He came to camp throwing in the high 90s that first year,” Cox says. “I’ll never forget it. Throwing high 90s with a downward plane.
“He had it all to be a No. 1 guy. I don’t know if he hurt his arm, but his velocity went way down.”
Hanson and Medlen during Tommy’s wedding to Martha. (Photo courtesy of Kris Medlen)
It was on its way down at the time of the trade. Then, in April 2013, just after the season started, just when the next chapter of his baseball life was beginning with the Angels, came the shattering news: His brother. Dead. Heroin overdose.
Aaron had assimilated into the family when Tommy’s father re-married after divorcing Cindy Silverthorne, mother of Tommy and his three sisters. The girls lived with their mother. Tommy lived with his father, his new wife, also Cindy, and her son, Aaron. The word “stepbrother,” though, was never mentioned. Growing up, Tommy and Aaron, two years younger, shared a room, a roof and everything in between. Brothers is what they were. No “step” about it.
“They had a real strong bond,” says Andy Bouchie, a childhood friend of Tommy’s from Redlands who played in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system and was the bullpen catcher for the Detroit Tigers in 2011 before leaving baseball to spend more time with his wife and three daughters. “Aaron and Tommy. When Aaron was struggling with life, Tommy was his foundation.
“Tommy was Aaron’s foundation, his everything, and vice versa. That’s just how Tommy is.”
Except now Tommy was on the other side of the country from his family, relocated in a job that was becoming a struggle. He was absolutely devastated.
“Aaron was a bright young man,” Shabrie says. “He tried to do everything right. It’s a struggle. No one can do everything right. In the struggle, he slipped and kept getting up, slipped, kept getting up. He was a fighter, but eventually the battle wasn’t his to fight anymore.”
Now, life’s battles were left to his brother.
“Tommy called and asked, what was I doing?” says Bouchie, whose Corona, California, home was roughly 35 miles from where Hanson was staying in Newport Beach. “I said, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be pitching tonight?’ Yeah. It was 5 o’clock. He asked, ‘Can you come down here?’
After the death of his stepbrother, Aaron, Hanson found it difficult to focus on pitching for the Angels.
“It was the one and only time I’ve ever heard Tommy speak and ask me for something, and I’ve known him 15, 20 years. He called, and I dropped everything I was doing, including the kids, and took off.
“He never got over that. I think he was grieving until the last day of his life.”
Tommy did not pitch that night. The Angels placed him on the bereavement list, and he spent six days trying to cope. Six days for something a lifetime isn’t long enough to heal. But the Major League Baseball schedule is relentless, and there’s a reason it is called a pitching “rotation”: Your turn keeps coming up. He came back and made two starts, and it was as if the mound was blanketed in fog each time. In a May 4 start against Baltimore, he was peppered for seven hits, two homers and three runs in five innings. He walked two batters. At one point, his catcher, Chris Iannetta, called time and jogged to the mound to ask if he was all right.
Two days later, the club flew to Texas to begin a series in Houston. How do you keep moving forward when your world has caved in? Hanson was seeing a grief counselor. He was taking antidepressants. Nothing was helping. “I met him for lunch,” says Reynoso, his old buddy from the Atlanta system who was then retired and working for a medical device company in Houston. “He was in good spirits, explaining to me the medication changes. I don’t know who put him on it, but one start he felt real slow, and he had to adjust, and then he missed a start.
“He explained to me that he had to get his medication adjusted and then he’d be fine.”
Concerned, the Angels told him to take a leave of absence, to take as much time as he needed. After that May 4 start, he didn’t pitch again until May 31.
“He was just like a big teddy bear,” says Mike Butcher, the Angels pitching coach at the time who now is in that capacity with the Arizona Diamondbacks. “Super-nice guy. Very gentle in the way he talked. Good person.
“I got to know him a lot better when he had that tragedy with his brother. We had a lot of talks. He would open up, but he still was guarded. He told me everything, but it was in bits and pieces.
Hanson with his three sisters (L-R) Shabrie, Shelby and ShiAnne at Thanksgiving in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Shabrie Hanson)
“What the Angels knew was that they could not put Hanson back on a big league mound right then. He needed time. His fastball velocity was down to an alarming degree. He could barely function without antidepressants, yet the medication made him slow and dulled his reflexes. Not only was his pitching not sharp, but he was also at risk of injury on any balls hit back up the middle as well. Even playing catch was a chore.
“When I look at the whole thing, Tommy felt responsible because he wasn’t there for his brother,” Butcher says. “I know that weighed on him.”
When he returned May 31, he would make 10 more starts during the 2013 season. They were the final 10 big league starts of his major league career. He was 27.
“Tommy didn’t understand death,” Shabrie says. “He didn’t understand why. It was traumatic to him. His heart was so big. He didn’t know how to deal with grief. There are two ways to deal with grief: You can realize it is the strongest form of love, or you can think it is a negative. It takes a lot to find that fine line.
“Besides the stress of performing and doing your job, it was just too much. It was just too much.”
Shabrie flew out to California to stay with her baby brother during his leave from the Angels. So did Big Tommy and his wife, and a couple of Hanson’s friends joined them as well.
“It was so sad,” Shabrie says. “We tried everything. Essentially, what it comes down to even then is that we accepted Aaron is in heaven, and when you’re in heaven, there’s nothing missing. There is no pain. The burdens we carry on this earth are gone.
“It makes it easier. It doesn’t mean you don’t miss him.”
But the burdens only intensified for Tommy.
“The demons start setting in, you lose faith in yourself, you lose confidence,” says Dennis Rogers, Hanson’s longtime coach at Riverside City College and close friend. “Obviously, this was something that was [festering] since the death of his brother.
Image titleHanson with his sister Shabrie, celebrating her 21st birthday. (Photo courtesy of Shabrie Hanson)
“Whatever it was that allowed Tommy to have a lack of confidence, when you’re in a sport that discards you when you’re no longer good, and it’s a win business, and you’re not doing that, and the confidence level gets shattered, where does that lead people?
“I’ve always told my players, it’s what you do, the game. But it’s not who you are. Try to keep that in perspective. But it’s very hard to do.”
The Angels released Hanson following the 2013 season. Texas picked him up to start 2014, in February, but released him in March. Nearly two weeks later, the Chicago White Sox signed him. He made just 10 starts for Triple-A Charlotte, and the Sox let him go at season’s end.
Then, last May, he signed with the Giants organization, and he pitched at Class A San Jose and Triple-A Sacramento.
“He obviously was having a rough go,” says Burt Bradley, the minor league pitching coordinator for the Giants. “He was in Arizona for quite a while [at the Giants’ extended spring training camp] until he got everything working again.
“He had some aches and pains setting him back, and I think he had more than he was saying.”
Quiet as ever, Hanson persevered. Worked his butt off, Bradley says. Always had time to talk with the minor league kids who surrounded him. And, oh, did they have questions for a man who had come straight from the promised land, the place the young minor leaguers dreamed about every night.
“His hip was bothering him a lot,” Bradley says. “He had to make adjustments in his delivery, which took away force from his fastball. And I think his shoulder was bothering him more than he was letting on. When he did get going he was starting to get some more velocity. But his curve wasn’t quite as sharp.
“He was persevering well. It was shocking when I heard what happened.”
Texted Medlen: “He seemed real encouraged with everything. Throughout the whole process, which can be tough, it seemed like he had his head on straight and was motivated. He was pretty fired up after the season and looking forward to working this offseason and getting back at it the following spring. I was excited for him because I hadn’t heard him that happy about baseball in awhile.”
Image titleHanson caught on with the Rangers in 2014 but couldn’t pitch his way onto the club in spring training. (Photo: AP)
Close as we are to loved ones, tight as we become with our best friends, some things are just unknowable. Depression, like a virus, barges in with invisible force and incapacitates with a silent thud.
Most likely, someone you know is fighting a desperately quiet battle with it as you read this. The website Healthline says that more than 80 percent of people with symptoms of clinical depression are not receiving any treatment for it, while the number of people diagnosed with depression increases by 20 percent each year.
Though Tommy Hanson was not diagnosed with depression, many close to him suspect it had him in its grip. When Tommy Hanson slipped away in November, only the shock and grief were tangible.
At the funeral in Atlanta, a who’s who from the Braves organization and others throughout baseball filled the church. Gonzalez, Cox and Atlanta pitching coach Roger McDowell sat together while so many fought a losing battle to keep it together.
“I remember looking around and seeing so many young people, friends of his, friends of his wife, teammates,” Gonzalez says. “You see all of his old teammates sitting with their wives and kids. And I said, ‘My God, this guy was just beginning his life.'”
At Riverside City College in Southern California, where the Braves found and drafted Hanson, Rogers powered up the baseball field lights on the night Hanson died and left them on until 4 a.m. as an invitation to the many people in the area who were friends with the Hanson family. Helpless and devastated, he figured the least he could do was provide a peaceful, appropriate place for them to pay their respects.
And for the “celebration of life” service he hosted at the field in January, Rogers commissioned one of his wife’s friends to paint the words “Tommy Hanson” on the back wall of the outside of the team’s clubhouse, overlooking the bullpen, as a reminder for the current team and for those who will come after: Work hard, and you can soar.Image title
(Photo courtesy of Dennis Rogers)
“I look at it as an individual’s influence on his environment is greater than any victories,” Rogers says.
People, he preaches in his program, are our most important resource. As a coach, it is so easy to become solely focused on a player’s footwork or arm slot.
“But so much is going on in people’s minds, what their beliefs are, what their struggles are, what their demons are,” Rogers says. “Do we give them tools to deal with these things? We have to give tools more than just breathing.”
It is why so many of his players keep coming back over the years and stay in touch, like Tommy did. But even with that comes no guarantee.
“I do have some deep regret,” Rogers says. “I’m overcoming it. I do wish I could have done more.” So do so many others.
When Tommy Hanson broke, pieces fell everywhere.
Aftershocks continue to rattle those he left behind. He was their rock. He was too big to be silenced.
“You can’t put him in the same sentence as depression because whenever you did talk with him, it was always extremely positive,” Bouchie says. “I know he was on the way back to doing something special in life again. That’s the tragedy. He was in a good spot.
“He was finally getting healthy again. I talked to him a couple of days before, and he seemed great. He was outside grilling. That’s why this is so tough. My final text message from him was, ‘Love you, buddy. Miss you, buddy. Can’t wait to see you. I’ve got to get out there and see you and your girls.’
“I held on to it for a while. I finally had to get rid of it because I kept looking at it and it was tearing me apart.”
“It’s rough. All offseason, every workout, I thought about him. Was pretty sad about it the first couple of times but kinda turned and used the emotion in a positive way and applied it to how I worked and prepared for this year. I’d listen to music we used to hang out to, and it was a mixed feeling. A day hasn’t gone by that I haven’t thought about him, not something you get over, but it’s something I have to deal with and turn into something positive for myself and use this experience as a way to motivate me throughout this year and the rest of my life, really.”
—Kris Medlen text
Tommy holding his nephew Kayson with (L-R) Tommy’s sister ShiAnne; his mother, Cindy Silverthorne; and another sister, Shelby.
Home. That’s where Tommy is now. In the hearts of family and in the souls of friends, far deeper than he ever would have dreamed.
The burdens are left to others now. They remember the good times with a man who was a son, husband, brother, friend. He was their teammate, the best of kind of teammate: the one who always has your back. Sometimes, they still speak of him in present tense, as if he’s just a phone call away.
Whatever demons led him down the path that night, those closest to him refuse to believe it could have been suicide.
“Tommy would never give up,” Bouchie says. “He cared way too damn much about that family. He loved Martha with all his heart. I know they were planning on having a family. He cared way too much. His little sisters were his life. His older sister. He had nieces and nephews you would think were his own kids.
“It was just crazy love. Whatever happened was an accident. No way in hell he gives up.”
Says Shabrie: “Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Let’s keep in mind, Tommy was 6’7”, maybe 240. He was a big guy. Tommy was invincible. He was a beast.
“He was the safest person I knew. No drinking and driving. We’re going to have an alarm. Everything was about safety. The coroner report can say what the coroner report wants to say. It was a mistake. It was a mistake. It wasn’t something he did every day. It wasn’t something he did every month. It wasn’t something he did every year. It wasn’t habitual.”
What he was doing in the immediate days before his devastating last night was, as he so often did, something to make someone else feel good. See, Medlen turned 30 in early October, as his Royals were launching their World Series championship run. And as the ticker tape rained in Kansas City, Hanson was ringing up their buddies. Come on. We’ve gotta do something special for Kris’ birthday.
Hanson with his dogs (Photo courtesy of Shabrie Hanson)
So they planned a celebration in Las Vegas: Kris and Nicki, Tommy and Martha, Reynoso and his wife, another friend and former minor league teammate named Paul Bennett and his wife. It was going to be the weekend of December 5.
“Nicki was all about it, Tommy grabbed the reins, and we had been talking a lot of logistics, getting to Vegas, where to stay, all that fun stuff,” Reynoso says. “He was so fired up because he has this hilarious relationship with Kris and Tommy the big, soft, gentle giant. And Kris [is a] fireball who’s a foot shorter (5’10”) than Tommy and a little bulldog.
“It is a hilarious and awesome friendship.
“Tommy seemed in good spirits,” Reynoso says.
“I’ve got a pretty good gauge on Tommy,” Reynoso says. “I know when things aren’t going well. Whether baseball related, personal, whatever.
“He seemed to be really excited about this.”
And then, he was gone.
“Honestly, my favorite memories with Tommy had nothing to do with baseball. Yeah, it’s great to travel and do what we’ve wanted to do since we were little kids, but just knowing him off the field away from all the pressure and fans and all that. All the dinners and drinks and people we met, fish we caught. I mean, I became a part of his gigantic family, and it was absolutely the time of my life. We were never afraid to go grab some beers and just shoot the s–t. They were my favorite times that I spent with him. Something about bellying up to a bar with your best friend and slugging a few, just talking about life. To this day, I think about that. Miss it so much.”
—Kris Medlen text
Maybe this story will help somebody else out there, Medlen and Gonzalez offer from separate spring training camps on opposite sides of the country.
You hope. Isn’t that the thing we cling to in the face of unspeakable tragedy? That some kind of sense will emerge from the giant void. Maybe, though Tommy’s cry for help came too late, its echoes will reach troubled ears before the next night comes along and help someone avoid another unspeakable tragedy.
You’ve got this, he would tell Shabrie. And she knows she must. Her parents, she says, are doing the best they know how to do. And so is she.
Thomas J. Hanson Jr., 1986-2015.
“It’s that dash,” she says. “It’s not the 1986. It’s not the 2015. It’s that dash. There’s a lot in that little dash. That little dash is so much in anyone’s life.
Martha and Tommy Hanson on their wedding night. (Photo courtesy of Kris Medlen)
“When you’re faced with the reality of this pain, I didn’t lose Tommy. It’s the memories and the way that people make you feel, and Tommy nailed it in his 29 years. God took what most people do in 60, 70 years and scrunched it into 29 for Tommy. You don’t realize that until you look back, and wow. Wow. I don’t think he had one enemy. He didn’t know how to hold a grudge.
“That is why I think we’re OK. He had life figured out. He struggled; everyone struggles. When I spoke at Riverside, I came to one huge thing: Everyone fights battles. Some are in the closet, and some are known.
“Everyone fights their own battle.”
Georgia. On a display shelf at the bar in Medlen’s home in Augusta, Georgia, sits a crystal carafe that three buddies, Tommy, Paul Bennett and Ryne Reynoso, went in on last fall for his birthday.
The inscription reads:
Happy 30th Birthday
Las Vegas 2015
Broken-hearted, they canceled the trip.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.