- The Washington Times - Monday, January 4, 2016

The inductees for this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame class will be announced on Wednesday. Hard-throwing left-handed reliever Billy Wagner, who was born and still lives in southwest Virginia, is on the ballot for the first time. Wagner is fifth all-time in saves and was a seven-time all-star who struck out 11.9 batters per inning during his 15 seasons in the major leagues. The Washington Times spoke with him about coaching high school baseball, the highs and lows of his career and how important entering the Hall of Fame is to him:

Question: How important is it to you to make the Hall of Fame?
Answer: How important? I think it just allows you to feel like you were looked at like something special. I think when you think about who’s in that club, it’s just the kind of thing, you were one of the best. I think important-wise, it’s important as far as my career looking back saying it’s justified that my numbers say I was a great player. I think it would be an honor to have that type of title. I think it’s hard really to say the importance of it. I see so many deserving people that should be in the Hall of Fame. It’s very hard to even imagine myself getting that opportunity because it doesn’t seem to be a numbers thing as it is more of popularity [thing]. Hopefully, my numbers will kind of sway somebody. If not, I’m probably not going to make it on popularity.

Q: How are approaching the announcement? Just letting it happen?
A: I really don’t know. It’s kind of nerve-wracking because … I’m not suspecting I’d be a first-ballot guy. Hopefully, I’m not eliminated. I’d be very disappointed to find out I’ve been eliminated from future consideration. I think I’d be very disappointed. To be on the ballot is a special thing. But, I’d be upset if I wasn’t on the next ballot. You look at Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly, there’s so many great players to choose from. I was just fortunate to play in an era where I was one of the best. You can’t make everybody like you.

Q: Why did you decide to coach youth and high school baseball after you retired?
A: My kids are competitive. I think it comes from both their mother and me. She was a college basketball player. We enjoyed that competition, so they enjoy competition and it was just fun to be around the competition and be able to show them the right way to play the game and the right way to go about handling their business off the field and on the field. These are the times where it’s important to be present in their life so they can make sound decisions and have a good sounding board. Being around them as a baseball coach and stuff, that allowed me to be that sounding board.

Q: How old are your kids and do they play for you?
A: I have a 17-year-old boy, a 15-year-old boy, a 12-year-old daughter, and a nine-year-old son. My 17- and 15-year-old played for me in high school. [They play] infield and one pitches. They’re right-handed.

Q: How do you manage the things that come with kids playing the same sport as their dad did professionally?
A: I’m Dad, first and foremost, so they don’t see me in that light. I think when other people bring that up, they obviously understand it, but it’s just what I did. I mean, they ask me questions about things. My oldest will. When you coach your kids, they’re not thinking of you as a baseball player. First, I’m their dad. Same treatment all kids give their parents. When you hear them too much, you’re just like, ‘Ugh.’ A lot of times, my assistant coach coaches my kids. I don’t say much to them. If I have any advice for them, it’s when they come to me. If I have something to tell them, I usually go through the second party.

Q: Your final season in 2010 was one of your most effective and you had a contract option available. You announced early that year that it would be your final season. Did you have second thoughts after such a good season?
A: No. I enjoyed 15 seasons. I truly enjoyed the game, but I was at a point where it was harder and harder for me to kind of keep myself healthy. My arm was not the only thing that ever bothered me after getting surgery [in 2008]. My back and legs were starting to ache. I just didn’t want to go through that — it’s sort of that situation, if you stay too long and you struggle, there’s just no good way. You just do it and deal with what comes. I was fortunate to have a solid season and be able to retire.

Everybody asked me why I did. Well, if I had sucked, everybody would be going, ‘Don’t you think you should have quit the year before?’ You can’t win that battle. Poor Peyton Manning is getting beat to death over that and two years ago he threw 50 touchdown passes. You play until you feel it’s time to go, not when other people tell you it’s time to go. [Atlanta Braves manager] Bobby Cox, when I told Bobby, he said, ‘You’re throwing the ball as good now as you did 10 years ago.’ But, it’s the point of, you just know it. You know there are other things you need to do that are more important or your body just starts to talk to you a little bit more.

Q: Was it hard to see spring training and a new season start up without you for the first time?
A: No. Not at all. I thought that it would. I think my body was kind of saying, ‘Hey, I’m supposed to be doing something.’ It was nice to kind of be able to step back and be a dad and be a husband and do something different. I think going out the way I did, I’m at peace with the whole thought. If anybody gives me a hard time about it, it’s my kids, because they wanted me to play one more year so I could be ahead of [John] Franco [in saves; Franco has 424 and Wagner has 422]. I said, ‘Well, if I do this, this is what you don’t get to do.’ To writers and other people, it was like you should have stayed. To me, as a father who wanted to be around his kids and have an impact, that was more important at that point.

Q: Plus, no more pitchers’ fielding practice.
A: Well, I run it all the time now being around the coaches. I’m probably working more now on the field than I did when I actually played. I’m lifting and running and doing all the things that I did. Not at the highest rate, but to be able to keep up with these young kids who expect a lot of energy out of their coach and a lot of information. What I enjoy is the coaching and teaching the kids the way that I was taught, helping them not make mistakes I made when I moved up and helping them handle certain situations. I think that was my real calling and I enjoy the whole coaching aspect.

Q: What’s important to being a good closer?
A: I think a couple things. I think anybody can be a good closer. I think being a great closer takes consistency with their teams and manager to learn that role. To have the faith to be able to put them back out there. I think having that kind of forgetful mind of what I did yesterday — that means even when you go out there and you’ve had 30 straight saves and you haven’t blown one, not to get overconfident, but continue to do your job. It’s tough. Each closer will have a week where things just don’t go well. I think it’s the ability to go out there every day that I’m going to get the job done and I’m the best person to do this, and you’re not looking over your shoulder for somebody in the bullpen. I think anybody can be a closer. I think to be a consistent and a great closer, it takes longevity and you have to have an organization that backs you and time to figure that mentality out.

Q: You played in three of the toughest baseball markets: Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Which of those was most challenging and how are those places the same or different?
A: Coming from Houston [and] going to Philly was the hardest, just because I was probably immature and shocked at the trade. Definitely, far and away, never handled that right. I think that was just me being overwhelmed. Philly was tough just because Philly was Philly. What I enjoyed about Philly was it made you raise your game every day, so it made going to New York or going to Boston, that’s just what you do. I thought that was a good thing. It was tough with the crowd. Of course, you’re there as a visitor, but you’re in and out. When you’re there daily, and they wear on you, and you’re still doing well? You get a little confused on what the whole purpose of this is. That was a tough period. But, I did think that allowed me to go to New York and go to Boston and play without being overwhelmed.

Q: Players often view trades as personal.
A: I think that was very easy. I would say that. I was coming off the best year of my career stat-wise [in 2003] and going into the last week, our general manager walks up and says, ‘Hey, [Houston Astros owner] Drayton [McLane] feels that we’re going to have to trade you.’ It kind of throws you back. Well, why? I’m in the midst of a contract as it is. It’s not that I’m getting overpaid, at this point, in baseball terms. It does feel personal. That first one especially because you are — that’s where you think you are going to be. Three of my kids are Texans, and, so, you were starting to plant roots. You’re starting to have that family home life, and you’re thinking, ‘Hey, this is where I’m going to be.’ That little point where you’re ready to have 10 years in the big leagues with Houston, so you’re kind of getting in that era. Then, they come down and say we’ve got to trade and we trade you because we’ve got to save money.

Everybody thought I was traded because of what I said after that, but I had already known I was getting traded, so I was frustrated. It was totally the whole point was that it does feel personal, because you’re not only trading me, you’re trading my family to another place. It was difficult. That’s the good thing about going through it. It’s helped me to help other people when they are traded. Especially Craig Kimbrel, when he got traded to San Diego, he was very upset. But, it was easy to talk to him and say it’s not personal, it’s business. ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ You never know. I think that was a way I was able to learn from my mistakes.

Q: What were the high points and low points of your career?
A: I thought every day was a blessing to go out there and compete. I was probably … I always felt being who I was and doing what I was able to do — strikeouts and dominate — were things I was supposed to do. I didn’t really view it as being anything significant. I was blessed with a great arm to be able to go out there and do that. I think the highs were just the teammates I was able to play with. Stepping on the field and see a Jeff Bagwell or Craig Biggio. A Barry Bonds or [Roger] Clemens, all the people who I had seen on TV. I still felt that feeling of awe when I played. Being from southwest Virginia, to sit there, watching TBS, WGN, to see these guys and hear about them. I always felt like a little kid, to be honored to be on that field. I think the lows for me were probably how I handled incidents in Philadelphia and the learning process of maturity, but also, when I had injuries, I always came back stronger and worked harder. I don’t think an injury was ever a low point. I just think maybe some of the things, the way I handled them, I don’t know if I would have handled them any differently. Maybe I wouldn’t have been as blunt. Just the way I attempted to handle issues probably could have been done a little better.

Q: How would you pitch to Bryce Harper?
A: He is such a great athlete and great player. I’d probably do what I did when I faced Barry Bonds, when I faced anyone else. I’d attack him with a fastball in and try to be the luckier person that day. It wasn’t a secret what everybody was getting anyway. I’m sure Bryce, he probably wouldn’t be looking for anything different.

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