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Former Ferrum star Billy Wagner, once one of the best relief pitchers in the majors, is now coaching in Charlottesville.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Miller School coach Billy Wagner talks to his team during a game at North Cross School in Roanoke County on Tuesday.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Miller School coach Billy Wagner, who was once one of the top relief pitchers in the major leagues, is pictured at North Cross School in Roanoke County on Tuesday.
Friday, April 19, 2013
Billy Wagner painted the strike zone for 16 seasons as one of the best relief pitchers in major league baseball.
But who painted the one that got it all started?
Wagner, who recorded 422 career saves for five major league teams, grew up in Marion.
He had a bumpy home life before finding a haven in 1986 at age 15 with his aunt, uncle and cousin, Jeff Lamie, in the small Southwest Virginia community of Tannersville just across the Tazewell County line.
An antsy kid, Wagner made a habit of burning his youthful energy by hurling baseballs against the concrete wall of a building on the Lamies' property.
Strangely, the building seemed to be about the same distance from the edge of a nearby road as a pitcher's mound would sit from home plate on a baseball field. Wagner paced off the distance.
One day, Wagner noticed something even more inviting.
"I was just throwing one day and it looked like someone had taken some mortar and etched out a strike zone," Wagner said. "That's where I spent hours throwing."
So who was the providential painter who helped create the strikeout artist known as Billy the Kid, the man who fanned 19 of 21 batters in a high school game, who set an NCAA Division III record at Ferrum College and who ended his career with more strikeouts than any left-handed relief pitcher in MLB history?
Who painted that strike zone on that wall?
"I don't know," Wagner said earlier this week. "I have no idea.
"When I moved out, my uncle tore the house down and the cellar with it. They put up a double-wide and that's the only thing sitting out there now."
* * *
Wagner's MLB career is gone too, but he is not finished with baseball.
Now 41, Wagner is in his first year as the head coach at Miller School, a Charlottesville private school near the 200-acre spread he has occupied in Albemarle County since 2000.
Wagner is married to the former Sarah Quesenberry of Pulaski County, and the couple has four children, including eighth-grader William, a promising second baseman on the Miller varsity.
Wagner, who also coaches two youth travel teams, was in Roanoke County on Tuesday when the Mavericks defeated North Cross 15-5. Flashing signals from the third-base box, the seven-time Major League All-Star appeared very content to be on a high school field.
"I love the kids," he said. "The kids are what makes coaching fun, giving them experience, talking them through situations like my high school coach did and teaching a life lesson along the way.
"I spend more time on the baseball field than I ever have. I probably enjoy it more than I ever have."
Even though Miller's record is 5-6, his players are having a blast.
"Everyone was excited," senior catcher Kody Rose said. "Most people don't really get a chance to have an MLB all-star come in and teach them.
"It's definitely a big change as far as practice. Everything's much longer. It's more thorough. It's really cool to have a big-league influence."
Miller was coached in 2012 by Sam Beale, a former pitching coach at the University of Virginia. Wagner was the Mavericks' JV coach last season and planned to be a varsity assistant this year, he said, before Beale stepped down for health-related reasons.
Wagner has no other duties at the school and said his coaching deal with Miller is open-ended. He has no plans to return to the majors as a coach.
"I can't deal with that whole ego thing," he said. "I have no desire to do anything else."
Wagner harbored no dreams of playing in the big leagues when he was a buck-wild 5-foot-5, 130-pound pitcher at Tazewell High School.
"I was 5-foot-nothin', a hundred-and-nothin'," Wagner said. "I just went out and played."
Wagner was a scrub on the 1986 Tazewell football team that won the Group AA championship, defeating Radford in the Region IV championship game before knocking off a Martinsville team led by Shawn Moore and a Nottoway team led by future Dallas Cowboys linebacker Robert Jones.
Wagner had grown four inches by the time he got to Ferrum College in 1990, hoping to continue his football career.
"I went to Ferrum to play football and a funny thing happened," he said.
Longtime Ferrum football coach Hank Norton advised Wagner to play baseball under Abe Naff. He got bigger and stronger, developing the leg strength that eventually would produce 100 mph fastballs that would confound even the best major league hitters.
Wagner said he turned the corner after working with former Franklin County High School and Ferrum star Darren Hodges.
"My mechanics were awful," Wagner said. "Darren Hodges was just drafted by the Yankees. He happened to be down there when I came out for the team in baseball. He asked Coach Naff if he could work with me."
Wagner added 10 mph to put his fastball into the 95-mph range. As a junior at Ferrum, he set an NCAA record by averaging 19.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
Major league scouts who never sniffed Tazewell, flocked to Ferrum. The Houston Astros took Wagner with the 12th selection in the first round of the 1992 draft.
Wagner made a quick climb through the Astros' organization as a starting pitcher, reaching AAA Tucson when his life changed forever during a late-season Pacific Coast League game in 1995.
"I was in Salt Lake City, and it was about the eighth inning," Wagner recalled. "The manager, Tim Tolman, walks out there and says, 'That's it, cowboy.' I went, 'What?' I came in the dugout and I was all mad.
"We were good friends because he had coached me in Double-A. He called me about 6:30 the next morning and said, 'Meet me down in the lobby.' I thought, 'I'm in trouble.' He said, 'You're going to the big leagues.' I said, 'They just called?' He said, 'No, they told me yesterday, but you were being your typical self so I just said I'm going to let you simmer.' "
Wagner made 95 career minor league starts without a single appearance in relief. All 853 of his major league appearances were as a reliever.
Wagner said the Astros wanted to use him in the rotation to replace Greg Swindell, but injuries in the bullpen forced a change of plans.
On the night of Sept. 13, 1995, in Shea Stadium, Astros manager Terry Collins summoned Wagner in the sixth inning of a 10-5 loss to the New York Mets.
Wearing the same jersey No. 13 he would don for his entire career, Wagner retired the only batter he faced.
"Todd Jones got hurt and they didn't have anybody," Wagner said. "They said, 'Put Wagner in there.'
"You can't really put a smart guy back there in the bullpen. The next thing they think too much. So they put some dumb old country boy back and you just get up there and throw it as hard as you can and see what happens."
* * *
Wagner played eight full seasons with Houston, four with the Mets, two with Philadelphia and one each with Boston and Atlanta.
His career ended Oct. 3, 2010, at Turner Field in Atlanta where struck out four men in 1 1⁄ 3 innings and recorded the save in an 8-7 win over the Phillies.
Despite suffering a major elbow injury in 2009, Wagner said he could have extended his playing career into 2011.
"I probably could have, but I was really at the point where my kids were needing to do some things," he said. "I thought it was more appropriate that they get to enjoy their life than me going out there another year."
Miller School's players occasionally get to step into the batter's box against the man who could cut sluggers like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds down to size.
"He's pitched against us a couple times in practice," Rose said. "He can still bring it a little bit. I would like to say it was full-speed, but have to say it was three-quarters.
"He's probably one of the most humble coaches I've ever had. He was always the underdog, so he's all about hard work."
Wagner was born a natural right-hander, but after breaking his right arm twice when he was 4 years old, he switched to the southpaw side.
Wagner said Tannersville is so small "You'd have to be lost to find it," but he had no trouble returning to help set up a nonprofit Second Chance Learning Center that assists struggling middle school and high school students in Southwest Virginia.
"They made a good thing out of it," said Lou Peery, who was Wagner's high school coach at Tazewell . "They help them financially. They help them in school. They do a lot of things for them."
There's nothing like having some help when it comes to aiming for a future.
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