Long before I learned the laws of physics, I watched Billy Wagner defy them.
It was June 8, 2003, and my dad and I were in Houston for the weekend. The Astros scored two runs in the eighth to snag a 5-4 lead on the Devil Rays before turning to Wagner, by then established as one of Major League’s premier closers, to seal the game in the final inning. As the 5-foot-11 Wagner sprinted from the bullpen while “Enter Sandman” blared from the Minute Maid Park speakers, his reputation as the power pitcher seemed immediately questionable. He measured about a foot shorter than Randy Johnson, after all: how was this guy going to make big league ball players whiff?
Three vanquished batters and a flurry of fastballs faster than 98 miles per hour later, we left the stadium exhilarated by the paradoxical prowess of Billy the Kid.
Wagner fashioned himself a career with that devastating fastball, launched from a deceptive and quick delivery.
“His calling card was the big fastball,” said Mike Cubbage, a third-base coach with the Astros while Wagner pitched there.
When Wagner retired after the 2010 season with his childhood favorite Atlanta Braves, his 16-year career — spent with the Astros, Phillies and Mets before that last year — featured seven All-Star appearances, 422 saves (fifth all-time) and a staggering 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings. The numbers, along with the “wow” factor associated with witnessing Wagner’s unbridled power, portend a potential bust at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. If it happens, the placard will likely tout him as a major league David, a diminutive, fiery competitor who channeled his aggression into fastballs.
Now three years removed from retirement, however, the Billy Wagner reflecting about his post-baseball life in the dugout of the Miller School’s baseball field conveys images of still water rather than fire. Having spent his childhood in and around Tazewell County in Southwest Virginia, he now lives on a 200-acre expanse in Crozet that he purchased in 2000 at the advice of Cubbage, a Charlottesville resident and former UVa star, with his wife Sarah and children Will, Jeremy, Olivia and Kason. And after a year as Miller’s inaugural junior varsity coach, longtime varsity head coach Sammy Beale’s health struggles ushered Wagner into the lead role this season. As he articulates the lessons that govern his life — lessons learned over the years, the lessons he strives to teach his new players, the lessons that brought him to Albemarle County — it appears that, for a man who pitched with such apparent violence, Billy the Kid seems utterly at peace.
“I think I enjoy coaching way more than I do playing,” Wagner said.
The underdog complex
Cubbage used to call Wagner, a lifelong Virginia Tech fan, “Hokie” when the two collaborated on the Astros in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. According to Cubbage, Wagner planned to play for Tech after graduating from Tazewell High School before Hokies coach Chuck Hartman told Wagner he was too small to pitch in Blacksburg.
Wagner led the nation three times in strikeouts per nine innings at Ferrum College and set a single-season NCAA record in 1992 with 19.1.
“I’d like to know why Chuck thought he couldn’t do it,” Cubbage said with a chuckle.
Such is the pattern that has long shaped the narrative of Wagner’s life as that of the classic underdog proving his doubters wrong with grit and persistence. His early life in Marion, an archetypically “Main Street”-esque small town on the outskirts of Tazewell County, involved food stamp-level poverty and the turmoil of his parents’ divorce — circumstances which, combined with his runty size, conspired to inculcate the underdog complex at an early age. Even when he moved to Tannersville to live with his uncle Jack and aunt Sally Lamie before high school and found stability, he says he was the “ugly-duckling talent-wise” in his family.
The chip remained planted firmly on his shoulder, refusing to let him forget the doubts and dismissals that sharpened his work ethic and fueled his competitive edge, long after the Astros selected him 13th in the 1993 MLB Draft. That resilient, defiant streak persisted to the twilight of his career in 2008, when he recovered from Tommy John surgery in a remarkable nine months after most pundits had all but written his career obituary.
“I played that way,” Wagner said, “because I felt that way.”
Now, his reliance on that attitude helps mold his coaching. Like Wagner as a young player, the idyllic, 150-student Miller School is too minuscule for many teams to consider the Mavericks a legitimate baseball threat. That held especially true this year, with the roster possessing only one senior (catcher Kody Rose) and a bevy of untested underclassmen.
For Miller to fend off more talented adversaries, in other words, Wagner knew he would need to emphasize the two most effective bulwarks against ability: effort and fundamental soundness.
“I say, you have to work harder. You have to do more things than the other schools are doing… because we don’t have an abundance of talent,” Wagner said.
“We can go out there and catch a ground ball. We can throw strikes. We can hit. We can do things to compete with them. But you have to buy in on the program.”
“Billy is a perfectionist,” Wagner’s assistant coach and friend, John Lewellen, said. “He has his hands in just about everything we’re doing. Even if I’m running a drill at some point in time and one of the kids doesn’t do it exactly right, he steps in there no matter what area it is from hitting to fielding to playing positions.”
After a few early hiccups, the message started to resonate. The Mavericks reeled off eight straight victories to roar into the VISAA Division II playoffs. And though they fell to No. 2 Steward, 11-1, in the first round, they went out playing the kind of scrappy, fundamentally-crisp baseball Wagner champions. Of their last 10 hits on the season, Wagner said, six were well-placed bunts.
For all the competitive fire simmering beneath the surface with Wagner, he constantly reiterates his apathy toward wins and losses. After 16 years as a foot soldier for the bottom-line cause of winning, Wagner concerns himself with the development of his players on and off the field
“I knew that there was much more going on other than baseball, and that’s what attracted me to working with him,” Lewellen said. “The baseball part I knew would be good. But if it was just all about baseball, I don’t think I would have been as excited about doing it.”
Wagner’s enthusiasm for priming high-school age kids for the real world began in earnest when he co-started the Second Chance Learning Center, a nonprofit dedicated to helping troubled Southwest Virginia youth stay in school and pursue a college education, with Erik Robinson at 2005. At Miller, Wagner similarly stresses education to his students, telling them to maintain a higher team GPA than an ERA.
On the field, Wagner complements the academics with what he hopes are life goals that will steel his kids for college and the real world. Everything Miller does, Wagner says, is geared toward preparation for college: the endless drills, the conditioning, the impartiality when it comes to choosing each day’s lineup. By teaching them how to play and approach the game the right way, with diligence and attention to detail, Wagner believes he is inculcating values that can brighten his players’ future. They don’t sound like empty platitudes when Wagner describes them, but as guiding principles for a bunch of baseball-loving boys to learn what it takes to be men.
“The experience that they get here allows them to learn a work ethic and accountability to each other,” Wagner said. “Moving forward into college and into the work force, into the everyday life, they learn that there’s expectations.”
“And amazingly enough, they enjoy it.”
Though his major league pedigree is one of his most treasured assets as a coach, it also forces Wagner and Lewellen to work diligently to manage expectations. Wagner didn’t stroll into the big leagues with Bryce Harper-like talent; he clawed his way there as a Lilliputian kid from rural Virginia. That story can inspire, but it can also dazzle some players with dreams of major league glory for whom a professional baseball career may not be feasible.
“It’s up to me to tell that kid who thinks that who may not be at that level, ‘Hey. There’s other avenues,” Wagner said. “You try to build that stuff, but you try to keep them grounded and keep a taste of humility while you’re doing it."
Ultimately, Lewellen says, the greatest testament to Wagner as a teacher is how little the Mavericks’ win-loss record matters compared to his players’ long-term growth.
“For him, it’s about making them a better person,” Lewellen said. “That’s what excites me, and that’s still what excites me about working for Billy to this day.”
Naming player after player, Wagner knows their stories by heart. He cares about them.
The excitement in his voice, however, reaches a new level of enthusiasm when he talks about No. 3, the infielder. That’s his son: Will Wagner, a rising freshman at Miller.
Like the elder William Wagner, Will was blessed with ample innate talent and the opportunity to grow up around the big league game. He hit .405 in 18 games this year and established himself as one of the rising stars in Miller’s division before entering his proper high school years. Measuring in at 5-4, 110 pounds, he’s also following in his father’s footsteps as a tiny terror on the diamond, another “Little Engine that could” with the talent and baseball shrewdness to flummox his larger adversaries. Wagner says he was an even 5-feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds at the same age.
“He’s the littlest guy here,” Wagner said, “but he’s got the biggest baseball IQ.”
Devotion to wife Sarah and their children has long been a lynchpin of Wagner’s adult life. He first approached Cubbage and inquired about living in Albemarle County 13 years ago to “establish roots for the kids” and provide them with a structure for normalcy and stability which the nomadic life of a ballplayer lacked. Cubbage thinks that Wagner would still be playing were he not more invested in spending time with his family; in his final season with the Braves, after all, he tallied 37 saves and earned another All-Star appearance. Still, what gives him away as a family man is his badly suppressed air of pride when he speaks about Will and baseball that subtle voice tone which carries all the hopes, joys and fears of fathers who want their children to be better than them.
“Billy’s his biggest fan,” Lewellen said. “He won’t show it in the game or anything like that, but he’s pulling for him. He does it when he fails, not because of disappointment, but because he wants his son to be successful.”
The duty to coach Will this year inflicted upon the elder Wagner the new, daunting challenge of walking the tight rope between manager and father. The line often blurs — Will calls Billy “Dad” at practice, while conversations at the dinner table revolve around baseball — but never disappears entirely.
“I get caught being the father sometimes more than being the coach with him,” Wagner said. “It’s a learning process for me.
“It’s hard for him to not see me as just dad. But I like it that way.”
The dilemma of managing expectations also intensifies tenfold within the Wagner household. Other players dream of perhaps playing at higher levels, but Will and Jeremy — the middle Wagner son and a rising seventh-grader — consider their major league future a given. Sarah and Billy never pushed their sons into playing baseball, but the game and the urge to meet the astronomical standards Billy set drew them in all the same. It’s something Billy understands, even if he doesn’t necessarily like it.
“I know the stress on them with having my last name,” Wagner said. “By no means are they ever going to be able to be like me. They may go on to be better. But they shouldn’t have to have that burden which, in our society, they have.”
So life in Albemarle County has hurtled Wagner into the intersection of fatherhood and baseball, a precarious balance in post-baseball life. And yet, despite the inherent challenges, Wagner esteems the opportunity to coach his sons as one of the many things that make that life so fulfilling.
“To be able to get to watch your son on a daily basis grow and enjoy his passion for the game, that’s a father’s dream,” Wagner said. “Not every father has that opportunity.”
Billy Wagner, hall of famer
Is a call from Cooperstown on Wagner’s mind?
“All the time," he said. "To play 16 years and have the opportunity to do something…Yeah. How can it not be?”
Certainly, Wagner’s regular season superlatives merit his consideration for baseball’s hallowed ground. But critics have never targeted his regular-season performance. In 14 postseason performances, Wagner managed just three saves and posted an unsavory 10.03 ERA, never making it to a World Series. When the analysts and statisticians to convene in 2015 to evaluate Wagner’s career, they will actively look for vulnerabilities in his resume.
And that’s why Wagner dreads the Hall of Fame as much as he dwells on it. He remembers the scrutiny he faced all his life, the unyielding criticism from those who thrive on magnifying his flaws. He thinks of Lee Smith, one of the game’s greatest closers and a better person, according to Wagner, and his inability to reach Cooperstown as writers find and new and inventive ways to tear Smith’s successful career to shreds. It all disturbs Wagner, a rural Virginia kid who prayed to God after wins and losses alike because he felt so blessed to have the chance in the first place. Ironically, Wagner fears the same thing that catalyzed his success in the first place: the naysayers who say he’s still not good enough.
Cubbage, for one, thinks Wagner has earned his spot among the game’s greats.
“He’s got similar stats to [Yankees closer Mariano] Rivera in batting average against and strike outs per 9 innings,” Cubbage said.
“The only difference is Rivera has all the world championship rings, and Billy doesn’t.”
Still, the looming discussion clearly bothers Wagner. It rehashes memories of how the game he loved had become a chore during his 16-year career and how all the white noise and wins and losses and saves shaped his perception of success. He says his last year with the Braves was his favorite, if only because he knew he would retire at its conclusion; for once, he was free to just play the game.
“It became very much like a job,” Wagner said. “Everything before and after [the game] was long and drawn out.”
Nevertheless, the Wagner sitting in the Miller School dugout loves baseball more than ever. He credits his renewed passion for the game to the opportunity to coach the Mavericks and help them navigate the murky waters of the high school years, as baseball players and as people. He says he’s not going anywhere, even if major league teams and Division I schools come beating down his door.
“Those experiences have invigorated me to the point that I get excited about coming to baseball practice…I enjoy doing a lot to help these kids.”
One of the last lines Wagner offers is his best. Talking about how he teaches his kids about life beyond baseball, he seems a little taller and happy as he says something that explains Billy Wagner better than any placard at Cooperstown ever could.
“You’ll have to take the jersey off,” Wagner says, “and that’s when you find out who you really are.”
FIND OUT MORE
Rising seventh and eight graders can learn about the game and play under Wagner at the Mavericks Baseball Camp, a four-day, three-night training clinic held at the Miller School campus.