It's the swan song of an amazing career
Pitching his final season, righty-turned-lefty Billy Wagner has thrived as power closer
One of the greatest left-handed closers of all time is actually right-handed, which is where the amazing tale of Billy Wagner begins. The baseball portion of the story will end after this season; Wagner has announced that he will retire to spend more time with his kids, giving them a secure childhood that he never had. It likely will end as an Atlanta Brave, the team he grew up loving, it likely will end with over 400 career saves and it likely will end with a strikeout on a pitch close to 100 mph thrown by a guy who's only 5-foot-9.
"It's one of the most incredible stories I've ever heard,'' Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said.
When Billy Wagner was 7 years old, two years after his parents had divorced, leaving Wagner to wander between relatives for years, he was playing "hat football'' with his buddy, Chip, in the front yard in Tannersville, Va. (population 360, most of them farmers). Billy and Chip were too poor to own an actual football so they made a scrunched up hat into a football, and took turns tackling each other. Chip fell on Billy, and broke his right arm. The cast came off Wagner's arm six weeks later, and Chip came over to play more hat football.
"That day,'' Wagner said, "he fell on me again and broke my right elbow.''
So, being a kid, Wagner started throwing with his left hand because, after all, kids, especially Billy Wagner, love to play even in a cast. He had no left-handed glove, so he folded his right-handed glove inside out. At age 12, he tried out for a Pony League baseball team and, still without a left-handed glove, he threw with his right hand. "It was awkward, I was awkward throwing, it wasn't good.'' he said. "So, my Uncle Sam went to K-Mart and bought me a left-hander's glove. I used that thing until my sophomore year in college.''
Wagner strengthened his left arm by throwing a baseball from one end of the field in the backyard to the other, then ran and picked it up, threw it back, then did it again and again.
He had a bag of baseballs, right?
"No,'' he said, "I only had one ball.''
At age 13, his aunt and uncle basically adopted Wagner from his grandparents, who had taken him in after his parents had divorced. He rode the bus to school over a mountain, the trip took one hour, each way. The day he started the eighth grade, his aunt and uncle determined that Wagner was so far behind in school that he would be too old to play sports his senior year in high school, "so they had me skip the eighth grade and go right to the ninth grade,'' he said. "I had been moving around, I wasn't a good student. I couldn't take a test. Then I skipped eighth grade. I was 5-3 and 82 pounds. It was like, 'Go, get 'em.' ''
By his senior year in high school, Wagner had grown to 5-foot-5, 135 pounds, and was throwing 84 mph. He got one offer to play baseball at Virginia Tech, but instead went to Ferrum College, where he played defensive back -- football was his best, and favorite, sport. He played baseball in the spring. He threw 88 mph, "but my mechanics were terrible, I was all arms and legs, I had no idea what I was doing, or where it was going,'' he said. "Then our coach, Darren Hodges, made one adjustment in my delivery and, the next pitch was 95.''
From there, Wagner became a strikeout machine in college, but all the while throwing only one pitch: a fastball. In 1992, he averaged 19.1 strikeouts per nine innings (still an NCAA record) and 1.58 hits per nine.
"I had one game in college where I had a no-hitter and 16 strikeouts going into the last inning,'' he said. "I walked the first four guys to start the inning. They were going to take me out with a no-hitter in the ninth, but I said, 'I'm not coming out.' I struck out the next three guys to finish with 19 strikeouts and a no-hitter.''
The Houston Astros selected Wagner in the first round (12th overall pick) of the June 1993 draft. He was a starter then, but when he came to the big leagues in 1996, the Astros made him a reliever. His best season came in 1999 when he had a 1.57 ERA, saved 39 games, threw 74 2/3 innings, allowed only 35 hits, struck out 124 -- 15 per nine innings -- and walked 23.
"My first eight at-bats against him, I struck out seven times,'' Jones said. "He threw uphill, and was all over the place. It was an uncomfortable at-bat. He finally messed up in the playoffs in 1999, and I got him, but I think I'm still like 2-for-14 with like 12 punch-outs [against Wagner].''
Jones is actually 3-for-21 in his career against Wagner, a .143 batting average.
The first time I met him I thought, 'He's a foot shorter than me, and throws harder than I do.'” -- Randy Johnson on Billy Wagner
Wagner was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 2003 season. He signed with the New York Mets before the '06 season, then was traded to the Boston Red Sox last season and is now with the Braves, who signed him as a free agent even though he had missed nearly all of the 2009 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his left elbow. His career was supposed to be over after that surgery, but, he said, "I saw the preacher from my hometown and he told me that something good was going to happen for me,'' Wagner said. "I told him about my elbow. I told him I didn't think I could pitch. He said he would pray for me and my elbow.''
Wagner got better. He had 22 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings for the Red Sox last year. The Braves were so interested in signing him this winter, they sent manager Bobby Cox, general manager Frank Wren and pitching coach Roger McDowell to Wagner's house in Virginia to convince him to join the Braves.
"It was so embarrassing, I picked them up in my work truck, there was cow s--- all over the truck,'' Wagner said. "Bobby Cox, one of the greatest managers of all time, is sitting next to cow s--- in my truck. I didn't even know where to take them to eat. I took them to the country club, but I didn't even know that it had a Men's Grill. Bobby looked at me and said, 'How many times have you been to this place?' I grew up in a place where eating groundhog was a delicacy, I only go to the country club to get the kids something to eat. So, we finally sat down and I told Bobby that I was healthy, and what I could do for them. Bobby said, 'Billy, you don't have to sell yourself to us, we're here to sell us to you.' "
Wagner jumped at the chance. He had grown up as a Braves fan, idolizing outfielder Dale Murphy. In spring training, he got to meet Murphy. "I was so nervous, I couldn't even talk, and you know me, I can talk,'' Wagner said. "I was like a 5-year-old kid. I mean, this was Dale Murphy. The only other guy I was that nervous talking to was Sandy Koufax. I met him when I was with Houston. I couldn't talk then, either. He saw me throw one night, and I struck out seven in 2 1/3 innings. He said, 'Billy, you're throwing from the wrong side of the rubber.' I told him, 'I'm sure there are a lot of things that I'm doing wrong, and if I was a real pitcher, there are a lot of things I could do better.' "
Wagner may not consider himself a real pitcher, but he has developed a good curveball, he has refined his control and has had an exceptional career. His save on Wednesday night in the Braves' 7-6 win over the Washington Nationals was the 388th of his career, sixth most all time; next up on the list is Dennis Eckersley (390). Wagner has borderline Hall of Fame numbers: nearly 400 saves, a career 2.38 ERA, 282 walks and 1,107 strikeouts in 843 2/3 innings. It will be the innings that likely will keep Wagner out of Cooperstown -- no pitcher in the Hall of Fame has thrown fewer than 1,000 innings.
But even if he doesn't make it to the Hall, Wagner can smile when he looks back at his accomplishments. To throw so hard left-handed when he is naturally right-handed is amazing. To do so at 5-9 is incredible -- he is one of the hardest throwers ever -- and perhaps no one this short has thrown this hard for this long.
"The first time I met him,'' said former teammate Randy Johnson, "I thought, 'He's a foot shorter than me, and throws harder than I do.' " And for Wagner to overcome a poor childhood without parental guidance, and to deal with tragedies later in life, including the murder of an in-law, only adds to the story.
"A lot of things have made me better. I've always approached things like I have nothing to lose,'' he said. "I've had ruts in seasons, but I was relentless. And I was never able to handle a compliment. That has kept me where I'm at.''
And now he is in the last year of his career, playing for his favorite childhood team. He has an option in his contract for 2011, but has no interest in exercising it since he has four children to tend to. There is only one thing left to do, the one thing he has never been a part of.
"Hopefully, I can help this team win the World Series,'' he said, "then I'll ride off into the sunset on a big white horse.''
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.