HOTSEAT- Throwing the clutch: Call Wagner when it matters
To look at Billy Wagner– all 5' 11" of him– you wouldn't think he could routinely throw a baseball 100 miles per hour. If you were a National League batter, however, you'd find yourself sorely mistaken. And striking out.
Such is a typical day at the office for the Crozet resident. As the top relief pitcher, or "closer," for the New York Mets, Wagner takes the mound late in tight games when his team needs three quick outs. It's a role that Wagner enjoys playing, but one that he says requires a cool head.
"You have to have the same poise all the time," he says. "If you're out of character, people notice. So you try to stay even-keeled, because your teammates have to have confidence you."
Of course, no major league pitcher is perfect, and since closers usually pitch in every game, each one is going to have his share of bad outings– or innings. For Wagner, that's both the best and worst part of the job.
"When I have a bad game, it means we probably lost, so there's no gray area," he says. "But as a closer, there's always tomorrow and the opportunity to go back and prove something."
Throwing in the tightest spots on baseball's biggest stage is a long way from Wagner's childhood home near Tazewell in rural southwest Virginia. However, Wagner credits his country upbringing for his major league success.
"When I'm in the game, it's all on me," he says, "so it all goes back to doing for yourself like I did growing up and being accountable."
Making a living with his left arm might not have ever happened for Wagner if he had not broken his naturally dominant right arm twice when he was a youngster. That's when he got inventive and taught himself how to throw left-handed. Today he claims there was nothing to it.
"As a child at five or six, you're so resilient," he says. "There wasn't any hard work to it. I felt like that was the way it was supposed to be."
That certainly appeared to be the case when he pitched for Ferrum College and set NCAA records in strikeouts per nine innings and fewest hits allowed per game. In fact, the Houston Astros were so impressed that they drafted Wagner 12th overall in the 1993 amateur draft.
Although he went on to pitch for the Astros for nine seasons as one of the game's top relievers, Wagner's rise to the top almost came to an end in a split second. On July 15, 1998, while trying to preserve a one-run Astro lead, he was hit in the head with a screaming line drive off the bat of then-Arizona Diamondback Kelly Stinnett. Wagner suffered a concussion and was rushed to a Phoenix hospital, but was well enough by August 6 to return and finish the season with 30 saves, the third best total in Astros history to date.
While it's an injury that has ended many a pitcher's career because of the indelible memory when they take the mound, the four-time All-Star has remained one of the best in the game since the incident. But he's never completely forgotten it.
"You still pitch with the thought of it happening again," Wagner says. "You have to keep going, but you have nights where you make a pitch and think 'He could hit that back at me.'"
As if toeing the rubber in the ninth inning isn't nerve-racking enough, Wagner's job is further complicated because he plays for a team in the pro sports pressure-cooker of New York. While he found Philadelphia to be a tougher town when he pitched for the Phillies in 2004-2005, Wagner contends that fans in the Big Apple are hard to please.
"In New York, it's not just if you get the job done, but how you get the job done," he says. "When you're not getting it done, it wears on you. When you're getting it done, you don't care what people think."
Wagner's life in central Virginia stands in stark contrast to pitching in front of over 55,000 people at Shea Stadium. During the off-season, he lives on a 140-acre farm in Crozet with his wife, three children, two dozen Black Angus cows– and even a few alpacas.
"I try to work the farm as much as I can," he says. "You just relax when you're there. It's just you and the animals, and you're not on anybody else's timetable."
Wagner discovered Crozet while recuperating from a torn flexor tendon in his pitching arm in 2000. Upon hearing of his desire to return to Virginia, then-Astros third base coach Mike Cubbage recommended that Wagner take a look at the area around his hometown.
"I fell in love with it right away," he says of the Charlottesville area. "I loved the scenery and how low-key it was."
Much as Wagner likes the peace and quiet of the farm, he doesn't want to go back there just yet– the Mets are having their best season in years. At press time, they have a 15-game lead in the National League East, and at 71-45 have easily the best record in all the National League. The words "playoffs" and "championship" are on the lips of Mets fans everywhere, but Wagner insists his team isn't looking anywhere but at the next game.
"It's easy for this team to stay focused because there are so many veterans," he says. "We all know what we have to do, and that's play each game like it's the last one of the year."
Of course, should the team continue those winning ways, the actual last game may end in the Mets piling on Wagner after he throws the last pitch of a victorious World Series.
Why here? Mike Cubbage [Charlottesville resident and former Houston Astros third-base coach] said I'd like it here.
What's worst about living here? I don't know if there is anything. It's growing, and there's a lot of tension that way, but I don't see anything bad.
Favorite hangout? The Great Valu in downtown Crozet. I know everyone who works there.
Most overrated virtue? I don't know that there is one.
People would be surprised to know: That I'm laid back except when I'm at the ballpark
What would you change about yourself? I'd change how blunt I am.
Proudest accomplishment? Making it to the big leagues and sharing it with my family
People find most annoying about you: My bluntness
Whom do you admire? From a professional standpoint, someone like Trevor Hoffman [San Diego Padres relief pitcher] who's classy and handles situations well.
Favorite book? The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Subject that causes you to rant? Some political issues when it comes to family
Biggest 21st-century thrill? I've had lots of great sports accomplishments, but I think I'm still waiting for it.
What do you drive? A 2001 Hummer and a 2006 Chevy Tahoe
In your car CD player right now: I don't have a CD player, but I like to listen to Highway 16 Country on XM Satellite Radio and Sonny Randall when I'm in town.
Next journey? Retirement and having nothing to do.
Most trouble you've gotten in? I don't think I've ever been in that much trouble, but I'm sure my family can think of some.
Regret: Being so naive to situations getting into the big leagues. I'd have been more patient.
Favorite comfort food: Cereal
Always in your refrigerator: Mountain Dew
Must-see TV: Smallville
Favorite cartoon: Superfriends
Describe a perfect day. Being with my family, hanging out by the pool, enjoying whatever comes up and having no expectations
Walter Mitty fantasy: I'm living it now.
Who'd play you in the movie? Tom Hanks or Kevin Costner
Most embarrassing moment? In '04 when I was pitching for the Phillies, in New York, I got thrown out of a ballgame for throwing at Cliff Floyd for the Mets. I knew I wasn't throwing at him, and Cliff knew I wasn't throwing at him. I tried to pick up a cooler that weighed 150 pounds and tried to throw it out of the dugout. It went about two feet.
Best advice you ever got? From my grandfather: "Be accountable."
Favorite bumper sticker? I don't really have one.
PHOTO BY WILLIAM WALKER
Wagner's work means lights out for the Nationals on August 12.
PHOTO BY WILLIAM WALKER