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After A Decade In Pro Ball, A Former Pitcher Goes Without Health Insurance12:49
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Paul Wilmet chased his baseball dream all the way to the Major Leagues. But after dedicating so much of his life to the game, he hasn't gotten the support he needs from baseball. (Courtesy Steve Cook, Ellen Clark)MoreCloseclosemore
Paul Wilmet chased his baseball dream all the way to the Major Leagues. But after dedicating so much of his life to the game, he hasn't gotten the support he needs from baseball. (Courtesy Steve Cook, Ellen Clark)

Amanda Pigeon is the head chef at Luna Café in De Pere, Wisconsin — just outside of Green Bay.

"Oh, this is a really small place," Amanda says. "Built back in the 1870s. Lovely old hardwood floors, exposed brick walls."

A while back, Amanda was looking for a pitching coach for her grandson. Local high schools have been recruiting him since he was 7. She mentioned her search to the cafe’s manager, Holly.

"And she said, 'Well, you know, Paul does that sometimes,' " Amanda recalls. "And I said, 'Oh, I didn't know that Paul was involved with baseball.' "

The story that follows is one of friendship and social responsibility — and what sometimes happens to the men who give their prime years to a sport that doesn’t take care of them when they’re through.

Paul Wilmet is a regular at Luna Café. He comes in at the same times every day. Orders a small coffee, maybe a scone.

"I’ll go in the morning, and I'll get a cup. And I'll sip on it most of the day and then go back in right before closing and get another one," Paul says. "I know, it's kind of weird."

Luna Café staff, including Amanda Pigeon (second from left). (Courtesy Amanda Pigeon)
Luna Café staff, including Amanda Pigeon (second from left). (Courtesy Amanda Pigeon)

Amanda knew Paul as a musician. He sometimes performs at the cafe. And over time, Amanda has started to see Paul as more than just a customer. She says he became part of her work family.

Just a few weeks ago, Amanda started noticing that something was wrong.

"He was not acknowledging people the way he used to," Amanda recalls. "And he finally told our manager that he was losing his sight."

"It didn't really bother me until I couldn't see anymore," Paul says. "I make jokes about it, but it's pretty tragic, really."

Paul finally went to go see a doctor. An operation could restore his sight. But he didn’t have insurance, and he was told that he wasn’t yet blind enough to qualify for help from Badger Care, the state insurance program.

So Paul’s eyesight kept getting worse, and he tried to hide what was happening.

"When I'm looking in my handful of change to figure out what's a quarter and what's a penny, somebody probably got tipped off by that," Paul says.

At Luna Café, Paul had a friend who understood what he was going through. Because when she was in her 20s, Amanda had retinal damage that required three surgeries.

"It's not just fear of losing your sight," Amanda says. "You feel like you're losing part of who you are."

This all came to a head two Sundays ago. Amanda was working in the cafe, listening to Only A Game on the radio.

"On the Green Bay station, Wisconsin Public Radio," she says.

Paul came in at his usual time.

"I was actually on my way out the door. I walked up to him. And when I touched him on the arm, it startled him. Because he couldn't see me," Amanda says. "He told me that he — he just walks around for hours every day because when he sits still, he just feels like the room is closing in on him. It's — it’s heartbreaking."

'Everybody Thought I Was Nuts'

Paul makes a lot of jokes about what’s happening to him. He says he knew going in that baseball and music didn’t offer long-term health insurance policies.

But sometimes Paul’s chosen professions feel less like choices and more like destiny.

"When I was 10 years old, I can remember telling someone that I was going to play baseball as long as I could, and I wanted to play in the big leagues," Paul says. "After that I was going to move to a city that — where I could play my own music."

Paul was a very good pitcher in high school, but he dislocated his hip playing ball and missed most of his senior season. College scouts came to his school, but not to see him.

"So I just went on the road playing music," he says. "I actually made money back then."

Paul toured for a few years, making $600 dollars a week — and this was in the late '70s. But one night, as Paul was approaching 21 years old, he was playing a gig with a cover band in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

"It's not just fear of losing your sight. You feel like you're losing part of who you are."

Amanda Pigeon

"I always had, kind of, a problem playing cover tunes," he says.

Paul says he just had a feeling — if he didn’t try to make it as a baseball player, he’d regret it for the rest of his life.

"And I came off the road, and I got in shape," Paul says. "Everybody thought I was nuts."

It took a couple of years for Paul to break into pro ball. It happened early in the summer of 1981, while he was playing for an amateur team in Green Bay.

Two scouts showed up for one of Paul’s games. One was Terry Ryan, who was then with the Mets. And the other was with the Dodgers.

"People don't believe this, but they actually flipped a coin to see who was going to take me. And Terry won," Paul says. "So I signed with the Mets, and the next day I was in Little Falls, New York."

"And how much did they pay you?" I ask.

"I made $600 a month," he says, laughing.

"So you went from $600 a week to $600 a month?"

"I did. Plus $11 meal money on the road. Isn't that crazy? I would have played for free. And they knew it, too."

Paul’s minor league career took him from Little Falls to Lynchburg, Virginia. After the Mets released him, he drove to Florida for spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals. The team didn’t even pay for his gas.

"So I put a mattress in back of my 1974 Ford Econoline van, and my wife and I camped out on the beach until they eventually signed me," Paul says.

Paul bounced from one organization to another: a year in Springfield, then Little Rock, then back to Springfield. Then he was sent to Harrisburg. Harrisburg to Buffalo. Buffalo to Oklahoma City.

"Oh, I forgot Venezuela in there, in the winter," he adds.

Eight years into his minor league baseball career, Paul had pretty much given up on making the major leagues. Most don’t.

And then, it happened. Paul Wilmet debuted with the Texas Rangers on July 25, 1989, pitching in relief for Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.

"There's no replacing that feeling," Paul says. "You can't reproduce it. It's something I'll never forget."

'I'll Just Go Without'

Paul pitched just three games in the bigs. He wasn’t at his best. He was pitching with a torn ligament in his elbow. He finally went in for Tommy John surgery.

On his first day back, pitching in a simulated game at spring training with the Orioles, Paul struck out five in a row. On the next pitch, he blew out his arm again.

"That was it," he says. "I was ready to go back and start playing music again, like I'd planned. So that's what I did."

Paul moved to Nashville. He became a successful session player, and even heard a few of his original songs on the radio.

But a decade in minor league ball leaves scars. It’s hard to maintain relationships, Paul says. He and his wife divorced. Then there were the lasting effects of his hip injury, a reconstructed ankle, a reconstructed elbow — and addiction, rehab and recovery.

"And then you go to insure yourself, I've gone into places where they want to put a rider on this and a rider on that," he says. "I've said, 'Well, I'll just go without.' "

Paul didn’t play in the bigs long enough to qualify for a major league pension. His minor league teams didn’t offer pensions or long-term health benefits.

By the time Amanda Pigeon startled him at the Luna Café two Sundays ago, cataracts in both eyes had left Paul nearly blind. He had nowhere to turn for help, not even to baseball, which is now a $12 billion a year industry.

"I don't like to scream sour grapes, but, boy. There's some things in place that will help," Paul says. "But you got to really be pretty much be out on the street before they'll step in."

Amanda and Paul in the studio. (Ellen Clark)
Amanda and Paul in the studio. (Ellen Clark)

Amanda was scared for her friend. She was also angry — not just about Paul’s situation, but also about how the system might someday treat her grandson, that 12-year-old pitcher who was looking for a coach.

"Players are looked upon as marketable commodities," Amanda says.

"I remember my father's factory that he worked at. They saw their workers every day. They saw them at church on the weekends. They bowled or played baseball, and they cared about the people who worked for them. And I don't know where that went. But it seems to have vanished."

'I'm Not The Only Story Like This'

After their talk that Sunday morning, Amanda left the cafe and tried to think of who might be able to help.

"And when I got in my car , you know, it's always tuned to 88.1, and I immediately thought of the show and went straight home and wrote the email," she says.

"Greetings to the OAG staff from Green Bay, Wisconsin ... "

"It just, it poured out from my heart."

"There has to be somebody, somewhere, that gives a damn that a fellow human being will lose what’s left of his sight because he can’t afford the operation that would save it. I saw Paul an hour ago as I left work. He is frightened; and I am frightened for him."

By the time I spoke with Paul a little more than a week later, he already knew that Amanda was trying to make people aware of his story...and the stories of other former pro players.

"And then you go to insure yourself, I've gone into places where they want to put a rider on this and a rider on that. I've said, 'Well, I'll just go without.' "

Paul Wilmet

Paul said he believes in karma. That the good he’s put out in the world — helping to counsel other recovering addicts, sharing his talents at his church, coaching amateur baseball — he felt like it was coming back around.

"I told my son the other day, I said, 'Don't worry, Dante. God always takes care of me.'"

The very next day, Paul received word that Badger Care would cover the operation to restore his sight. A few days later, he was in the surgeon’s office.

"They did all the testing and I was still a good candidate to get it fixed, so I'm pretty excited about that," he says.

Paul’s surgery is scheduled for next week.

"Amanda very strongly feels that baseball should take better care of it's players — it's former players like you," I say to Paul. "How do you feel about that?"

"Well, I didn't really think like I do until I started doing a little research," he says.

When Paul Wilmet debuted with the Texas Rangers, he was one of fewer than 13,000 players to have broken into the Major Leagues since 1871.

"That's a pretty elite group," Paul says.

The average major league salary is now more than $4 million a year. But minor league salaries haven’t even kept up with inflation. They fall below the federal poverty rate. And just last week, Congress passed a provision that would expressly exempt minor league teams from minimum wage and overtime rules.

They called it the "Save America’s Pastime Act."

"I'm not the only story like this," Paul says. "I probably don’t know all of the politics involved, but I do know that the players are the people that the people come to watch. And if there weren't any minor leaguers, there would be no major leaguers.

"I think baseball makes enough money to make sure that everybody's taken care of. And I think they owe that to the fans. I think if the fans knew what really went on, they'd be pretty ticked off."

Learn more about Paul Wilmet's baseball career at The Greatest 21 Days.

This segment aired on March 31, 2018.

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Karen Given Twitter Senior Producer, Only A Game
Karen is the senior producer for WBUR's Only A Game.

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