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Former Braves' pitcher Tommy Hanson dies at 29

Tommy Hanson died Monday night at the age of 29.

Tommy Hanson was a junior college pitcher in the spring of 2006. The Braves had drafted him the year before, but they had to sign him before a certain date or he would go back into the draft. Hanson was what they called back then a draft-and-follow player.

The Braves were good at signing those guys. They would draft a pitcher, have him go to a junior college and if he did well they would sign him. Jonny Venters comes to mind as another example.

Hanson dominated that season at Riverside Community College. His numbers were ridiculous. There was no doubt the Braves wanted him in their farm system.

I talked with Hanson when he was trying to decide whether to sign or not. He told me he would call me when he made his decision, and he did. I can hear his voice now. “Bill, I’m going to be a Brave!”

Hanson was so excited. The sound of his voice was amazing. He was just 19 years old. He was about to be a professional pitcher. And he couldn’t wait.

From that point, Tommy was always generous with his time. He did chats on the Scout.com website. He did the talk show when asked. He did interviews even when he didn’t always feel like it.

I love pitchers, so it was easy to have a little baseball man crush on Hanson. He was a tall pitcher with great stuff, and the Braves needed someone just like that. He was good, and the Braves definitely needed someone just like that.

It was fun to watch Tommy’s box scores in the minor leagues. His dad, Tom Hanson, contacted me through the Scout website, and we would occasionally talk. Tom was so excited for his son, and we would talk about how great it was going to be when Tommy made it. We would speculate on how and when the Braves would make room for the pitcher who was quickly becoming their top prospect.

I remember going to Chattanooga to watch Tommy pitch in Double-A. That was the worst start of his minor league career, on a Sunday afternoon in May of 2008. He gave up eight runs in 2.2 innings that day. But after the game Tommy did the interview and was as professional as someone who had been in the big leagues for years.

There was a scout there that day. Tommy Thompson was his name. He had managed in Jacksonville when I was a kid, so I knew of him. I asked Thompson in the press box what he thought of Hanson. Thompson loved him. He just knew Tommy was going to be a star in Atlanta. And he was right.

In a little over a year, Tommy made his major league debut. Again, it was a Sunday afternoon. This time it was in Atlanta. I had to leave the press box that day, just to go down and be a fan for a few innings. I don’t regret cheering for a kid that I was rooting for. I wanted to see him do well.

The Brewers knocked him around a bit, as he gave up six earned runs in six innings. But like always, Tommy was professional and answered all the reporters’ questions.

Tommy never big-leagued me. He was always the same kid I spoke with on the phone that day when he was still a nobody, just a junior college pitcher hoping for a signing bonus. He became a somebody. In fact, he became the first homegrown Atlanta pitching prospect to win 10 or more games in their first four seasons with the Braves. That was quite an accomplishment. He made history.

But Tommy was always Tommy. He was a California kid that by no means was some surfer. He belonged more in the south than in the Pacific Ocean. He had definitely found his home when he got to Atlanta.

When you cover the minor leagues, you get to know the kids a little bit. They’re not burdened yet with the responsibility of being a big shot or a big leaguer. Sometimes you’re able to really see the true person, and not some made up personality on television that will soon be on Topps baseball card.

It was easy to like Tommy. He was humble and was just having a lot of fun playing baseball. He respected people around him and even when he was a member of the Atlanta Braves’ starting rotation you would have not known it. I was around him when no one knew him, and I was around him when everyone recognized who he was.

He was still just Tommy, a good kid who threw the ball hard.

His dad was a good dad. Tom was always at Tommy’s games, traveling around from their home in California. When Tommy made it to Atlanta, Tom moved his family here. Even after Tommy was traded (ironically to the Angels – the team that played near where Tommy grew up), the family made their home in Georgia. Tom and Tommy fished together, hunted together. Tommy called him his “pops.” They were quite a pair.

Kris Medlen was one of Tommy’s best friends. They hit it off well when they became Braves’ prospects in 2006. Both were from California. They were a little different. Tommy was 6’1”, while Kris is 5-foot-something. They were quite a pair.

Oh, that Christmas picture that Tommy and Kris took with Ryne Reynoso back in 2009. When Tommy texted me for my address, I could have never imagined what I got in the mail. Classic. When those three got together…

When you are part of an organization, particularly one like the Braves, you’re part of a family. This family has lost a member with the death Monday of Tommy Hanson. We don’t know what happened yet, and maybe right now it just doesn’t matter. But this is a death that will touch a lot of people – ones who were around Tommy ever before he wore a Braves uniform, and those he touched while he did wear the Tomahawk proudly across his chest.

This was a fine young man. For a while, Tommy was a hell of a pitcher. And it was a pleasure to know him. It was a pleasure for us to watch him, just as it was a pleasure for him to pitch for us. Those of us who knew him are completely sick this happened. When all of us got the call or the text letting us know what happened, our hearts broke with the news.

God Bless Tommy and his family, particularly his dad Tom, and all of his friends. Tommy left the organization three years ago, but he’ll always be a Brave. And to me, he’ll always be that draft-and-follow, 19-year-old pitcher who couldn’t wait to tell me he would one day wear an Atlanta uniform.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.


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