• Exclusives

    Braves family loses Tommy Hanson

    When news broke Monday that Tommy Hanson was in a coma in an Atlanta hospital after a friend found him not breathing, Braves Country became immediately concerned about the former Brave. The phrase ‘once a Brave, always a Brave’ has never meant as much as it does in times like this. News came Tuesday that Hanson, 29, had died.

    Hanson spent the 2009-2012 with the Atlanta Braves. After the first half of 2012, he was traded to the LA Angels of Anaheim.

    Hanson spent the 2009-2012 with the Atlanta Braves. After the first half of 2012, he was traded to the LA Angels of Anaheim.

    In 2009, Tommy Hanson burst on the big league scene after lighting up the minors with his unhittable fastball. His reputation preceded him. In 2008 while pitching for the Mississippi Braves, Tommy threw a no-hitter, earned a MiLBY for Class A Advanced Single Game Performance, was rewarded for a dominant season with a spot on the Baseball America’s Minor League Team of the Year, was the Arizona Fall League’s MVP and was named Braves Pitcher of the Year. It is no exaggeration to say the league was anxiously anticipating his debut.

    We often forget how promising Atlanta’s pitching staff was in the late 2000s. Jair Jurrjens, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, Craig Kimbrel and Tommy Hanson were either on the roster or making their way through the minors to The Show. Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado were only a year or two away. The front office had acquired Tim Hudson, Eric O’Flaherty, Kenshin Kawakami, Derek Lowe and Billy Wagner to round out the staff and offer veteran leadership to the up-and-coming arms. Of course, pitching rarely works out as planned. Kawakami was a bust, the Braves ate money to move Lowe, Medlen and Beachy required Tommy John and Tommy Hanson, well, Hanson saw the highest highs and lowest lows of the sport.

    Hanson did as everyone thought he would: He burst onto the scene in 2009 making his arrival noticed with a 3rd place running in the National League Rookie of the Year vote. That after having debuted in June! People forget that the Atlanta Braves brought Tommy in after cutting none other than Tom Glavine. They had a lot of hope for this young, 6’6″ red head from California. And he didn’t disappoint. His 2009 season is the kind pitchers’ dream of: 11-4, 2.89 ERA and 116 strikeouts (8.2 SO/9) in 127.2 innings pitched over 21 starts. But Tommy wasn’t just a line of stats to the Braves, he was a good clubhouse guy and a great teammate. You won’t find a former teammate that doesn’t say he was a joy to have around and one of the best guys to have on your side.

    In 2010, the Braves sent long-time manager Bobby Cox off in style. Their 91-71 record got them the Wild Card. Hanson’s 10-11 record on the season is hardly as telling of his season as his 3.33 ERA. He was a workhorse, going to the mound for 202-2/3 innings of work. Tommy was in or near the top 30 in both ERA and strikeouts that year. The Braves would go home after a mediocre loss to the Giants in the NLDS, but there was hope for a return to the postseason with such strong arms in the Braves’ system.

    The Braves did make it back to the postseason in the first ever National League Wild Card game, a game they lost. But Tommy Hanson didn’t pitch, his fellow Californian Kris Medlen did. And at this point, it was clear that something was very wrong with the righthander’s arm.

    By the end of 2012, even I, a fan of Tommy, was calling him “a shell of his former self.” In October of that year, I wrote:

    “Though it seemed injury was the likely culprit at the end of last season and again midway through the 2012 season, those who follow the Braves are fearful that Hanson’s drop in velocity and dominance is a sign that the Tommy of old will not be returning.”

    It was painful watching Tommy fall as quickly as he did. In 2009 he looked as if he had a long career in baseball and one that would, if not consistently at least flirt with dominance. At the end of 2011, Tommy dealt with a nagging injury that can reasonably be blamed for his late struggles.

    The trade that sent Hanson to the Angels for Jordan Walden was widely heralded as a wise trade and one that would be good for both players. Anaheim didn’t need Walden to close and the Braves hoped a change of scenery would return Tommy to the pitcher he was when he broke into the league. Tommy’s ERA had been growing, he had spent time on the disabled list with a back strain and he hadn’t looked himself. While it was hard for the team and their fans to part with Big Red, as he had come to be called, everyone was rooting for Tommy Hanson. It was impossible to not root for Tommy.

    Despite his struggles within the game, outside the game he remained a great friend and teammate. The outpouring of condolences to the Hanson family from members of the Braves, Angels and Rangers organizations are proof. Something former Brave Kris Medlen said in a text to Dave O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution struck me:

    “I also feel bad for anyone who didn’t get a chance to know the man. He was the kindest, most loyal person I’ve ever met. He loved his family more than anything in the world, and his friends felt like family when around them. He was not ‘like’ a brother to me, he was my brother and I’m going to miss him so much.”

    Tommy Hanson joined his teammates in Hawaii for the weddingKimbrel's teammates pose in tribute to the Braves' closer

    Tommy Hanson joined his teammates in Hawaii for the wedding of former (and now current) Brave Peter Moylan.

    We as fans may not have known Tommy personally, but we got to see these young Braves come up alongside him and we got to appreciate just how close they all were.

    I was reminded of when Braves fans everywhere were posting pictures of themselves doing “The Kimbrel” and one of those pictures came from the players themselves. Attending Peter Moylan’s wedding in Hawaii, Tommy joined Medlen, Moylan and Kimbrel to show their support for the unusual stance of their teammate. It is a reminder of something we often forget about these players we watch for 162 games a season: They are first and foremost people. They have friends. They have family. And yes, sometimes their teammates become their family, but that isn’t a given. That Medlen calls Hanson a brother speaks to the kind of man he was.

    Baseball is just a game. This comes as a surprise to some, I know, but after the toughest game, the worst loss, the high of winning and even the end of the season, it’s just a game. There is life outside baseball. Both the game and life outside it aren’t always easy. Tommy knew this better than most. As Braves Country heals from this loss and moves on to another season, the last at Turner Field, it’s important not to forget this.

    Personally, I will never forget Tommy’s brilliant first half in 2011 and how disappointing it was to not have him named to the All Star team. That summer his finest start came against Houston. He entered that game with 2 games already where he’d recorded 10 strikeouts. That didn’t stop him from topping his best. He went 7 innings with 14 strikeouts and 1 earned run. It was one of those games when you knew this kid was special. Not only was his pitching unbelievable, his spirit was contagious. All 6’6″ of him stood on that mound and in that dugout, his flaming red hair and brilliant smile on display, and showed us that there was truly something special about Tommy Hanson.

    May Tommy rest in peace and be forever in our hearts.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.