Being with family weighs heavily on Wagner

Originally Published: May 10, 2005
By Alan Schwarz | Special to ESPN.com

When this season ends, Billy Wagner is going to sit down for an important meeting with his three top advisors. They will discuss his financial status, his professional legacy, his goals and his future.

Basically, Wagner said, "I want to know what they want Daddy to do."

Billy Wagner
Ed Wolfstein/ICON SMIBilly Wagner might prefer the hills of Virginia to the ones in major league parks.

Granted, Olivia's still in diapers, but this upcoming summit at the Wagner farm in Charlottesville, Va., will go a long way toward deciding whether one of baseball's top closers, and the most dominant left-handed reliever in major league history, will retire after this season. Even though he'll be only 34 and could still be at the top of his game and earning power, Wagner might walk away from the big leagues for one simple, heartfelt reason: to be there while his children grow up.

"If my wife and kids are tired of the rush and the here-a-day, gone-a-day type atmosphere, and they need Daddy, then I need to be there," Wagner said.

He's serious. This is his 10th season in the major leagues, he has earned $35 million in his career (plus another $9 million this year), and he has accomplished just about everything he ever wanted to professionally, save saving a World Series. His contract expires after this season and, rather than re-up in Philly or go somewhere else, it might simply be time to go back to his home, to his wife, Sarah, and their three young kids, and provide relief in an altogether different form.

A man who grew up with almost no childhood of his own – his parents split and shuttled him from relative to relative and state to state, often on welfare – Wagner has always viewed baseball less as a means for him to excel than as a mechanism to provide for the family he always dreamed of building. Will (6), Jeremy (4) and Olivia (almost 2) have so far grown up with him barely around for eight months of the year, and to Wagner that brings up too many sad memories of his own. His work done, it might be time to go home.

"I think it helps me to look above the responsibilities of the game and look at the responsibilities of my family," said Wagner, who raises 20 alpacas on his 60-acre farm. "Now, Sarah's on the farm by herself with the three kids and she's doing all of the chores and cleaning up after them. I call her at 12:30 at night and she goes, 'Did you pitch?' No. 'OK.' She doesn't watch the games because she's got a life. She's got three kids and I don't feel like going, 'Hey, you should have seen what happened at the game.' It's just not that important anymore.

"Can Sarah handle taking three kids to baseball, basketball and football all at one time? I don't want to cheat her out of her life with me sitting here doing what I want to do. It's not about the money anymore."

Wagner certainly isn't performing like a pitcher torn. He opened the season with 11 shutout innings through his first 10 appearances, a streak broken Friday when he yielded a game-tying homer in the eighth but wound up with the win anyway. He has an 0.63 ERA and has fully recovered from his strained groin and rotator cuff that cost him more than three months of last season.

Still reaching 98 mph, Wagner is perhaps as complete a pitcher now as he has ever been, thanks to a slider he learned rather serendipitously from Brad Lidge two years ago. Just before making his first appearance of the 2003 season, Wagner felt horrible warming up in the bullpen and asked Lidge to show him his slider. (Wagner had thrown a slider before, but more with the seams and with one primary finger than Lidge does.) Lidge showed him the grip, Wagner fired off a grand total of one to the bullpen catcher, and said, "Got it. Let's go." He immediately used it to earn the victory in that game. It took until this year for the pitch to mature into a real weapon.

"He throws it for strikes and is more consistent with what he wants to do with it," Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal said. "His slider used to be a waste pitch. He didn't throw it [enough] that hitters had to be worried about it."

Strikeout kings
Billy Wagner is arguably the greatest strikeout reliever of all time, holding three of the top six seasonal marks for whiffs per nine innings (minimum 50 innings):
Pitcher, team SO/9 IP
1. Eric Gagne, 2003 Dodgers 14.98
2. Billy Wagner, 1999 Astros 14.95
3. Brad Lidge, 2004 Astros 14.93
4. Armando Benitez, '99 Mets 14.77
5. Billy Wagner, 1998 Astros 14.55
6. Billy Wagner, 1997 Astros 14.38
7. B.H. Kim, 2000 D-Backs 14.14
8. Rob Dibble, 1992 Reds 14.08
9. Matt Mantei, '99 Marlins/
Diamondbacks
13.64
10. Rob Dibble, 1991 Reds 13.55

Are the Phillies worried their closer might retire after this year? Not particularly, said assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle, who is aware of Wagner's mixed feelings. "To be honest, we haven't taken it real seriously," Arbuckle said. "He might say it's 40-60, but we think maybe 20-80." While it's common for a player in Wagner's position to entertain thoughts of retirement, few actually do it. And besides, the Phillies weren't necessarily locked into re-signing Wagner for the top dollars he would command after the season anyway.

It's conceivable that the pitcher could compromise and sign with the Washington Nationals, who play about 100 miles from Charlottesville. Last month, Wagner had a blast playing catch with Will and Jeremy in the outfield of RFK Stadium, and winding down his career closer to home could become palatable.

It has been quite a career. After bursting on the baseball scene at Ferrum (Va.) College as the greatest strikeout pitcher college baseball has ever seen – his 19.1 strikeouts per nine innings remains the NCAA record – Wagner, who threw a legitimate 100 mph from the left side, easily converted to relief with the Astros in 1996, and quickly started breaking whiff records once again. Each of his first three full years as a reliever, 1997 through 1999, he upped the major league relief record for strikeouts per nine innings, ultimately stopping at a previously unfathomable 14.95. (Eric Gagne nudged it up to 14.98 two years ago.)

In an era when 6-foot-10 Randy Johnson has towered above the left-handed pitching scene, it's 5-foot-11 Billy Wagner who has stood tall for shrimps everywhere. Consider this: Entering this season, Wagner's career 2.52 ERA was the lowest of any left-hander since the dead-ball era ended in 1920 (minimum of 500 innings). And his 12.26 strikeouts per nine innings average was the highest of all time, by a considerable margin – among all pitchers, left-handed or not.

This guy could bring it, and still can. In the last two-plus seasons, he has posted a puny 1.88 ERA, with 177 strikeouts against just 31 walks in 149 innings.

Wagner doesn't have a no-trade clause, and the way the Phillies are playing – they're in the NL East cellar at 15-18 – this summer the team might have to entertain thoughts of dealing him. After all, a bunch of contending clubs (the Giants, the White Sox, and maybe even the Dodgers if Gagne doesn't return strong) could be in the market for a lights-out reliever. The main problem for Philadelphia is that Wagner's market value would drop if interested teams think he'll retire and not be a Mark McGwire or Kris Benson-type acquisition they can re-sign for another several years.

"The greater factor is what we'll get in return if his services are only for the remainder of the season," Arbuckle said. "If other clubs know he might retire, then he truly is a rent-a-player for two months. For them to give you a significant player in return, they'll have to take it into account."

For now, Wagner is taking into account the needs of his family as well as the needs of his teammates, which are both acute and important to him. He said that having the family away on the farm, rather than near his team's city as they had been before last year, is actually easier on him – he isn't constantly reminded of what he's missing, and constantly torn to stay.

He also said that, from where he sits now, the dynamic probably can't last much longer.

"This is the first year of Sarah being pretty much a single parent," Wagner said. He then considers the possibility of having a great year and having his family tell him to keep going – toward 300 saves and that World Series ring – but hesitates to make any guesses.

"It would be a family discussion – I don't know," Wagner said before breaking into a proud grin. "I enjoy my family probably too much."

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer for Baseball America. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," can be ordered on his website, www.alanschwarz.com.