By Ross Forman
Billy Wagner pitched for five teams in his 16-season career, with seven All-Star Game appearances and 422 saves, which is fifth-most in Major League Baseball history.
“That’s the life of a reliever,” Wagner joked in reply to a comment on his five-team career. He pitched for the Houston Astros (1995-2003), Philadelphia Phillies (2004-05), N.Y. Mets (2006-09), Boston Red Sox (2009) and Atlanta Braves (2010).
The left-handed throwing Wagner had a 47-40 career record, with a 2.31 ERA and 1,196 strikeouts in 853 games. He was the National League Rolaids Relief Man of the Year in 1999, a season in which he recorded 39 saves and struck out 124 in 74 innings.
“As a relief pitcher, you rarely stay in one place. Other than Mariano Rivera with the New York Yankees, few relief pitchers stay in one place, with one team their entire career. So, your bags are pretty much packed all the time,” Wagner said.
Wagner was a first-round draft pick by the Astros in 1983, and he was exclusively a starting pitcher in the minor leagues.
In 1994, Wagner led all minor league pitchers – in every league – in strikeouts (204), and he made his major league debut on Sept. 13, 1995, pitching against one batter late in a game against the N.Y. Mets.
Wagner began 1996 as a minor league starting pitcher, yet finished the season as a relief pitcher for the Astros.
He played his first full season in the majors in 1997, where he recorded 23 saves in 29 save opportunities, with 106 strikeouts in 66.1 innings.
“As a young player coming up through the Houston system, it seemed to go slow. But then when I got to the majors, it went by really fast,” Wagner said. “My career was very entertaining and fascinating. I was always in the good games; that was the fun part of my career.
“The uniqueness of the situation as a closer is you’re in the good games; you’re not in the blowout games; you’re pitching in the meaningful games. For me, that was something that I enjoyed.”
Wagner’s 422 career saves are two behind John Franco (who is No. 4 on the all-time saves list). Rivera, of course, is the all-time leader in saves (652), followed by Trevor Hoffman (601) and Lee Smith (478). Dennis Eckersley is sixth all-time (390), followed by Francisco Rodriguez (386), Joe Nathan (377), Jeff Reardon (367) and Troy Percival (358) to round out the Top 10.
“I wanted to play center field, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t hit,” Wagner said. “Having the opportunity to pitch almost every day as a relief pitcher was as close I could get to being an everyday player.”
And what a player he was, earning All-Star recognition seven times.
“For me, it wasn’t about the actual All-Star game, which was fine. The who’s who of players also at the All-Star Game stood out to me the most, the players who you were around, whether it was current players (at the time) like Mike Piazza, or old-timers who were around, such as Yogi Berra or Tommy Lasorda. That’s what it was all about; listening to their stories was priceless.”
Will Wagner earn a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame? Only time will tell.
Wagner was on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2015, and received 10.5 percent of the vote (46 votes). Of course, Ken Griffey Jr., and Piazza were the lone Hall of Fame inductees for 2016. Hoffman, also in his first year of eligibility, received 67.3 percent of the vote, which requires 75 percent for induction. Smith, in his 14th year on the ballot, only received 34.1 percent of the vote.
Wagner said he doesn’t think much about the Hall, or his chances … “probably not as much as I should,” he added.
After all, he’s busy these days coaching high school and travel-league baseball.
Plus, he added, “it’s not my decision. There’s nothing I can do at this point (to get elected); I’ve already played.”
Still, Wagner added, “It would be a huge honor.”
Wagner signed autographs in mid-February at the 30th annual Tristar Collectors Show, held in Houston, marking his first appearance at a Tristar show in about 15 years.
The industry has really grown over the years, Wagner said. “What’s unique (about the hobby) is, you can get anything.
“I’m a big collector myself, but I’m a traditionalist, so I collect relics related to Whitey Ford and people like that.”
Wagner had five rookie cards released in 1994, which can be purchased today for about $1 each.
• On playing for the Houston Astros: “It was just a good place to get established, and it just felt like we were one big family – with (Jeff) Bagwell, (Craig) Biggio and others.”
• Advice for aspiring major leaguers: “Enjoy playing; enjoy just not trying to be a professional, yet. I sometimes have to remind my 17 or 15-year-old son that they just should play, compete and have fun.”
• On who he feared pitching against: “Anyone with a bat. Sure, that sounds rather broad, but I’ll be honest with you, anyone with a baseball bat – for the closer – was a nightmare because, usually, with one swing they could win the game. Was I afraid to face (Mark) McGwire or other power hitters from that era? Yes, but as much as I was to face David Eckstein.”
Ross Forman is a frequent contributor to SCD. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.