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THE LAST STAND OF BILLY THE KID

Oct. 04, 2010
Oct. 04, 2010

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Oct. 4, 2010

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THE LAST STAND OF BILLY THE KID

His fastball still hums, his competitiveness still burns. But Billy Wagner, one of the best closers the game has ever seen, insists this is his last season. No wonder the Braves' desperate chase for a playoff spot is so gut-wrenching

This is an article from the Oct. 4, 2010 issue

APRIL IS THE CRUELEST MONTH, Eliot wrote. Dude wasn't in a Braves uniform the last few weeks. On Sept. 1 it was all good. Steady Bobby Cox, managing his final pennant race, had his club right where he wanted it, leading the National League East by three games. His closer, the jangly Billy Wagner, in the final September of his baseball career, was as reliable as any pitcher in the game. On a weekday afternoon in early September, Cox sat in a dugout on the road, smiled while doing arm curls with a five-pound weight and said, "We're gonna ride Billy all the way to the Series." Billy the Kid was happy to know it. He'd never pitched in a World Series before.

But at High Noon on the last Monday in September, the Braves trailed the first-place Phillies by six games in the NL East. World Series? Bobby and Billy and the Braves were playing, and praying, for that consolation prize, the wild-card spot. (They were a half-game behind the Padres in that race.) Wagner had been superb all year, one of the biggest surprises of the season: 67 appearances, 13 runs allowed, 35 saves, a 1.38 ERA at week's end. And what did the lefthander have to show for all that? A stomach tied in knots.

Baseball loves a farewell, and it would certainly be a lovely moment in some future Ken Burns documentary if Bobby Cox, who will retire after the season having won more games than all but three managers in the game's history, could go out winning it all. But it's not make-or-break for him. Cox, unlike Wagner, already has a World Series ring (two, actually: the first as a Yankee coach in 1977, the other as Atlanta's manager in '95). The only thing in play for the skipper over the next month is the final wording of his Cooperstown plaque. All through his wretched September—his team was 10--14 through Sunday—Cox has had to endure ovations here and parting gifts there.

The Braves' other farewell story, the Wagner au revoir, is more like a private home movie. It could end in ecstasy or (more likely) heartache. Either way, what a saga. Kid grows up poor and hard in rural Appalachia, becomes one of the greatest (and best paid) relievers in the game's history, then, in his 16th and what he insists will be his final season, gets one last crack at that elusive World Series trip. What's at stake here? A man's legacy.

Night after night, for a month now, Wagner has been enduring the same exquisite misery. He stands in a bullpen, spits tobacco juice in a formerly innocent water bottle and crosses his fingers for the Braves to score and for the other NL wild-card contenders—San Diego, San Francisco, Colorado—to swing lead. September baseball turns grown men into seven-year-old boys. Except that when you're 39 and you're at the end of your run, the wins and the losses mean more than ever, even more than when you're seven and dreaming. That's what Wagner's been discovering. He's running out of tomorrows, and his whole body knows it. You should see him a half hour after a big save. His fingers shake so much, he can hardly press the buttons on his cellphone. It's the adrenaline, coursing through his body.

TED WILLIAMS," Billy Wagner said. He was sitting in his truck in the players' parking lot at Turner Field in late August, a game long over, talking about farewells, in this case the legendary hitter's final at bat. "He homers, he doesn't tip his cap. I get that." Williams's team, the Red Sox, was losing that game 50 Septembers ago when he went deep. What was there to celebrate? Then there's Ed Charles, journeyman third baseman, who was standing on Shea Stadium's infield dirt when his team, the Mets, won the '69 World Series. He leaped for the sky and never played again. A nice mental picture for Wagner.

He got to see Ted Williams once, in person, at the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park. That same night Wagner extended his hand to Steve Carlton, but Carlton wouldn't shake it, a strange and random snub. Weird things happen over 16 seasons. Once, when he was with Houston, his first major league club, Wagner was sitting in the bullpen at Dodger Stadium when a fan asked for a ball. Stretch Suba, the Astros' bullpen coach, shouted back, "Throw your clothes down here, I'll throw you a ball." The man's clothes parachuted into the bullpen. All of them. Stretch tossed him a ball.

Weird things happen, and numbers pile up. In August, Wagner set the strikeout record for lefthanded relievers. In the annals of obscure record keeping, that's a keeper. Still, the Braves celebrated it on their scoreboard. After fielding a squiggly foul, Wagner took the mildly historic ball and flipped it into the meager ninth-inning crowd. The ball meant nothing to him. "It's stupid," he said afterward. "Who in their right mind makes a big deal out of doing something they're supposed to do in the first place?" That the Braves were getting their asses kicked that night, that mattered to him. Wagner wants to win, and he wants to go out a winner.

SO FAR WAGNER'S baseball goodbyes have all been awkward. The Astros traded him to the Phillies in 2003 after nine productive seasons (225 saves, three All-Star appearances, four trips to the postseason, all of which ended with first-round defeats), when he least expected it. His two years in Philadelphia, with Wagner at the center of intraclub feuding, felt like a jail sentence. Four years with the Mets followed; they were interrupted by Tommy John surgery in 2008 and ended with Boston claiming him late last season off the waiver wire. Wagner was a rental player for the 2009 playoffs, but the Red Sox played just three games against the Angels, all losses, with Wagner being charged with two eighth-inning runs in the last of them, a one-run defeat. "Another bad postseason for me," Wagner said. "They've all been bad." He wasn't being falsely modest. Wagner has allowed 13 runs over 111/3 innings in 13 appearances. What Wagner would give now to have one more chance.

William Edward Wagner reached the bigs in 1995, arriving at Shea Stadium as a September call-up by the Astros. "I didn't know what I was doing," Wagner said earlier this month. He was sitting in a dugout at Pittsburgh's PNC Park, early afternoon, a weekday night game against the Pirates five hours away. "I wasn't a very good pitcher. Didn't know the difference between a two-seam fastball and a four-seamer. I had never been to New York before. 'Bout everything I owned was in this one giant suitcase. Get back to the hotel after my first game. Phone rings. It's Doug Drabek. He says, 'Meet us for breakfast tomorrow morning.'" In time Houston's veteran pitcher, among others, taught Wagner how to tip clubbies. (Generously, and by check, for tax purposes.) How to react when the umpire doesn't give you a pitch on the paint. (Tilt your head like a confused dog if you must, but do not say a thing.) How to talk to the press. (It's we after a win and I after a loss.)

Wagner, wanting to end with a fresh start, sought to finish his career where it began, but when he shopped himself as a free agent last winter, the Astros showed no interest. Then the Braves came calling. Bobby Cox came calling. Wagner was raised in southwestern Virginia, in coal country. Growing up, he saw drinking, fighting, many sofas and, thanks to Ted Turner's superstation, a whole lot of Bobby Cox's Braves. Now, here was Cox, paying an off-season visit to genteel Crozet, Va., near Charlottesville. Wagner lives on a 200-acre farm in Crozet (the pronunciation is French), about three I-81 hours and a world away from the hardscrabble Virginia towns in which he was raised. Cox was carrying an unused silver belt buckle he had found in his closet at home. "I knew Billy likes that Western stuff," the manager said. Cox knows baseball, and he knows people.

Wagner started talking a blue streak, until Cox stopped him. "Billy, you don't have to sell yourself to us," the manager said. "We're here to sell the Braves to you." Wagner signed for 2010, with an option for 2011. Cox knows it won't get used. They'll both have ridden into the sunset by then. They're on this Last Chance Tour together, but they don't talk about it. Cox says he tries not to think about it, the final this and the final that. Cox is all here and now. Wagner, in his own way, is more cosmic. "What's it going to be like for Bobby, not putting the uniform on anymore?" Wagner wonders. "I'll be a footnote in the game. But he's a legend. He's been doing this forever."

Come 2011, Cox will still be working for the Braves. He'll be in civilian clothes, but he'll be around. Wagner's out. When the Braves' 2010 season is over, whenever that might be, Wagner will be heading to his farm. To his wife and four children. To Little League practice and dance recitals and church work. He knows what he's leaving. "I'll miss the guys," he said. "I'll miss the fun."

For ballplayers, growing up is optional. After a win at home a couple of weeks ago, a bunch of Braves, Wagner among them, were telling Chipper Jones war stories in the showers and by the towel rack. Jones, the iconic Atlanta third baseman, on the DL with a torn ACL but still coming to games, was getting imitated, mocked, dissed. He made a beeline to the showers, in shorts and a T-shirt, yelling, "I heard that, I heard that!" Good times. Wagner remembers his first afternoon at the dumpy visitors' clubhouse at Shea, in '95, and seeing the enormous Derrick May throwing teammates into lockers, just for the sport of it.

Baseball is slow to change. Team mood is a different matter, especially when the games matter most and there aren't many left. On the evening of Sept. 7, after a second straight road loss to the lowly Pirates, Wagner boarded a team bus for the short ride from the ballpark back to the hotel. Cox was in the first row, unlit cigar in his mouth. Players held their cellphones and looked out through tinted windows. Pittsburgh was soaking from a passing storm, and fall was in the air. "We're scuffling," Wagner had told a reporter minutes earlier. That night the Marlins couldn't hold a lead in Philadelphia, and the Braves, for the first time in months, found themselves out of first. They've been scuffling and quiet ever since. They had the season's final week to turn things around. Three against the Marlins, three against the Phillies, all at home.

Throughout baseball, people cannot believe Wagner is retiring at the end of the season, regardless of how far into October the Braves play, regardless of what he does. He looks like he could go another two years, easy. His fastball is still in the mid-90s and it moves, and these days he'll throw a full-count breaking ball for a strike. Jones, Wagner's ancient contemporary who is coming back for more next year, calls his teammate "a freak" (that's a compliment), but Wagner is not so impressed with himself. "I'm not as good as I was," he says. By retiring, he's leaving at least $6 million on the table. But Wagner is leaving no wiggle room. He won't be pulling, he said, "a Favre." He's made, he says, more money than he could ever need—close to $100 million. Plus he doesn't need another September like this one. Enough with the exquisite misery already.

He didn't intend for his departure to be public at all. "In late April, I had this feeling, like I wanted to be somewhere else," he said. By which he meant the farm, with his wife and kids. "I couldn't get up for games like I used to." He was telling the story in a hotel dining room, another hotel dining room in a long line of them, eating another late-breakfast ham-and-cheese omelet, asking for another to-go cup for his chew. "I went to Bobby and told him I'd be done after this year," he said. "I wanted the Braves to be able to plan for next year. Bobby told the writers, and when they came around, I wasn't going to deny it." Wagner promised his wife, Sarah, that he's quitting chewing tobacco after his final game. "That'll be fun," he said. Something to look forward to, for when he gets home.

Home is on a beautiful, broad clearing, off a dirt road and miles from the nearest general store, in a hilly, rural nook of Virginia near the Blue Ridge Mountains where the roads are named for one man's mill and another man's ferry. Roadside trees produce apples that are blemished, rock-hard and tastier than anything you'll find at your supermarket. The Wagners have 14 alpacas on their property, and on the highest point there's an outdoor full-sized basketball court with a W at center court. Next to it is an enormous garage with a '68 Ford Shelby and a big white Cadillac Esplanade in it. Wagner has taken breaks from the September baseball agony this month with two quick trips home on off days. Playing the Nationals last weekend in Washington, Wagner's wife and kids were with him.

They live in a sprawling farmhouse with several wings. Just down the hill they're building a grand ch√¢teau, which Billy Wagner, gentleman farmer, maintains will be state-of-the-art for green living. "We'll be able to live off the grid," he says. "I want my kids to know how to live efficiently." Wagner takes efficiency seriously. He has offered the farmhouse to the church in which he was baptized as a kid, Freedom Tabernacle Baptist, in Atkins, Va. The plan is for the house to be dismantled, shipped and rebuilt as a home for needy elderly. An hour or so from the church, in the town of Bluefield, Wagner and a longtime friend, Erik Robinson, started a school called Second Chance Learning Center, which offers tutoring to struggling students and scholarship money for college and trade school.

You can't fake the kind of enthusiasm Wagner shows when talking about Second Chance. Or Freedom Tabernacle. Or the athletic prowess of his kids. Or his gratitude to his wife. ("Sarah's been raising our kids and running the house alone for a lot of years now," Wagner says. "It's time for me to step in.") Or his desire to let Bobby Cox ride him all the way to the Series.

He sounds like a well-adjusted person. But human nature's a funny thing. For all his success (he's fifth on the alltime save list, with 420), Wagner still carries his slights right under his skin. If he's ever elected to the Hall of Fame—and he knows that's a long shot—he wouldn't want to go in as an Astro. Because of the '03 trade. Because he feels the club never officially recognized his 1999 Rolaids Relief Man Award. Because of how he was greeted in '93. "When I got drafted out of college [Ferrum, in Virginia] by the Astros, I went to Houston and met [owner] Drayton McLane," he says. "He looks at me and says, 'I thought you'd be bigger.'" Wagner was about 5'9" and 170 pounds, tops. (He's maybe 10 pounds heavier now.) "I'm like, Really? You just spent half a million dollars to sign me in the first round. Nobody told you about my size?" The root of his greatness is right there. He remembers hurt. Going out on your own terms, that's a way to minimize it.

He's still trying to accomplish things in the game. Last month the Braves had a 4--0 lead through eight at home. Wagner came in to close it out. He struck out the first guy on three pitches. Ditto for the second. Wagner had never retired a side on nine straight strikes. Ten, yes, but never nine. He had a chance to do it, maybe his last. Ryan Zimmerman was next.

Wagner knows the Nationals' third baseman. He likes him. When Zimmerman was at Virginia, Wagner pitched BP to him occasionally and was happy to let the kid get some meaningless knocks off him. Then, in 2006, Zimmerman got his first major league home run, at Shea. Off Wagner. As Zimmerman stepped in this time, Wagner thought, That ain't gonna happen again.

Slider, strike one. Slider for a ball, 1 and 1. Wagner's perfect inning was over. A minor disappointment in a game that will give you a million of them. Another good slider, 1 and 2. Four-seam fastball, 97 miles an hour, broken-bat foul. Slider for a ball, 2 and 2. "Now he's looking at me like, Are you serious? Breaking balls?" Wagner says. "You can't beat me with your best stuff?" Sixth pitch: slider, out of the zone. Swing and a miss, strike three. The night was done. Three straight K's for the closer. An easy win for the club. Good times. The next day the Braves lost to the Nats, six-zip. It's not easy. Cue September Song.

There's a charming YouTube video, a couple of years old now, that shows Wagner throwing BP to his two older boys. Jeremy, all of seven, is raking the old man. The father loops one in at 25 mph.

"Curveball for a strike," he says.

"What?!" Jeremy says. "It hit the plate!" It did. The pitch plopped right down on the dish.

"Perfect," the dad says, dismissing the boy.

A window into Billy Wagner in retirement. Once he slips away to the farm, you're never going to see him again. One more month of baseball first. That's his hope, Bobby's hope, the Braves' hope. Chances are slipping away, a game at a time. But as of Monday, High Noon, the chance was still there. Can you breathe? Billy barely can. Last licks, right here.

WAGNER IS RUNNING OUT OF TOMORROWS, AND HE KNOWS IT
"I'M NOT AS GOOD AS I WAS," SAYS WAGNER
BILLY IS STILL TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH THINGS IN THE GAME
PHOTOPhotograph by POUYA DIANAT/ATLANTA BRAVESEXIT STRATEGY After 16 years of toil in major league bullpens, Wagner hopes his last season is capped by his first World Series appearance.TWO PHOTOSPhotograph by POUYA DIANAT/ATLANTA BRAVESBILLY BALL Wagner's 35 saves through Sunday were fourth most in the NL, and his 1.38 ERA would be the lowest full-season mark of his long career—at age 39.PHOTOPhotograph by POUYA DIANAT/ATLANTA BRAVESWAGNERIAN OPERA The closer hasn't been good at happy endings: His departures from Houston, Philadelphia and the Mets were bitter.PHOTOPhotograph by POUYA DIANAT/ATLANTA BRAVESBACK TO THE GARDEN Wagner hopes his season lasts another month, but when it ends he'll retire to work on his Virginia farm and at his school with no regrets.