Happy Birthday, Billy Wagner.
07/27/2010 12:36 PM ET
Billy Wagner is finishing strong
Veteran looking to put a close on successful career
By Hal Bock / MLBPLAYERS.com
The Braves' closer turned 39 on July 25. All of him, that is, except his left elbow. That part of him won't be 2 years old until Sept. 10, the second anniversary of Wagner's Tommy John surgery.
The operation was a rousing success. It restored Wagner to the dominant closer he had been throughout his career. He passed the 400-save plateau in June, and by his birthday, he had 22 saves on this season. That pushed his saves total to 407 for his career, fifth on the all-time list and second among left-handers, trailing only John Franco's 424.
Wagner has said several times that this will be his last season, no matter what. But what if he finishes the year a couple of saves behind Franco's record? Would he be tempted to come back then?
"No way," he said. "I'm done. Who cares about that? It doesn't matter. I didn't care about 400 saves, and I don't care about 424 saves."
Most players are concerned about their baseball legacy. Not Wagner.
"Sure, records are nice," he said. "It's nice to have a lot of things, but reality doesn't work like that. I've done what I've done. My statistics are what they are. I'd be just as fulfilled if I never played again. If I hang around one, two, three years and I'm bad, people would say I hung around too long. If I leave too early, who cares?
"I did what I did over 16 years. One day, we'll all be footnotes. "
That's unlikely for Wagner, one of the premier relievers of his generation. There have been eight seasons of 30 or more saves, including a career-high 44 for Houston in 2003. His 1,152 strikeouts is second among left-handed relievers, trailing only Jesse Orosco's 1,169, and whether he likes it or not, he almost certainly will eclipse that mark this season. Going into this season, he had held opposing hitters to a .189 batting average, third lowest among active relief pitchers.
That's a lot more than footnote stuff.
But Wagner longs to return to the pastoral life of his Virginia farm. He does not view himself as anybody special, certainly not in that community.
"I'm a farmer, a dad and a husband more than a celebrity," he said. "I'm overpaid to play a silly game, and I see people around me with half of what I have. To be able to go along the way I do because I'm able to throw a baseball, God blessed me with a podium."
He nearly was knocked off that podium two years ago when the medial collateral ligament in his left elbow tore along with a muscle in his left elbow. Pitching hurt, he still posted 27 saves for the Mets. He had opened the season with the equivalent of a perfect game for a reliever, retiring the first 28 batters he faced.
Eventually, though, the wear and tear of a lifetime of pitching caught up with him. The pain was intolerable, and Wagner had to give into it. Even if he had been ready to retreat to the farm then and there, he still would have needed the surgery.
"There was no choice," he said. "It hurt to move. I had to have it done."
Wagner returned 11 months after the surgery to pitch two games for the Mets and 15 more for the Red Sox. He moved on to the Braves as a free agent and has been a perfect fit for what has been one of the best bullpens in baseball.
Not bad for a gentleman farmer.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.