Billy Wagner’s Journey from 5’3″, 135 pound, Right-handed, High School Football Player to Left-handed, 16-year Major League Closer

March 12, 2010 – 7:20 am by Paul Bessire

At 38 years-old and generously listed at 5’11″, 205 lbs., 16-year, MLB veteran closer Billy Wagner is not an intimidating presence on the field – until his left-arm unleashes a fastball that used to touch 100 MPH and still hits the upper-90s. The truth is though, that Wagner used to be much smaller and right-handed.

As it stands, only one out of every 30,000 or so kids who play baseball growing up get to  play professionally. Wagner, now with the Atlanta Braves after a successful partial season with the Red Sox despite coming off Tommy John surgery, had a far more unlikely path than most to become one of the better closers of all-time (he is sixth in saves with 385 – just five less than Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley).

Billy Wagner joined Mayhem in the AM on 790 the Zone in Atlanta to discuss his journey, his health, and his role in the clubhouse.

On throwing left-handed:

“When I was younger, probably 6, 7, 8 years-old I lived with my grandparents and afternoons I would come home and play hat football. We couldn’t afford a football so we played with a hat. And a guy from across the street named Chip – I still can’t remember his last name after all these years – comes in. He was about 2-3 years older than me and we were playing around and he fell on my right arm and broke my right arm. So I was in my cast and as a kid you want to play, so I played left-handed. And then I get my cast off my right arm. He comes over and breaks it again. He falls on me and breaks it playing football. Having a cast on your right arm for that long, you figure things out a little bit if you want to play and compete with the older kids. So I ended up being left-handed. But that’s the only thing I can do. I can’t do anything else left-handed.”

On how he knew he was good at baseball:

“I ended up going to Ferrum (College) playing football and I gained something silly like 35-40 lbs. and I had this huge growth spurt where I went from 5’3 to 5’8″ and all of the sudden, things start to get…. I started maturing. When I was in high school, I was throwing all of about 82-83 MPH. Then when I got to college and gained weight and started maturing a little bit, I was throwing it 95… I don’t believe in myself in enough to believe a gun and sit there and go, ‘Man I’m really good.’ I guess I’m a pessimist. I have to let the hitter show me how good I am. So I go out there and the gun may read one thing and I’m looking at that hitter and if I get that hitter out (then it’s good enough).”

On being a starter in the Minors:

“I was a starter, which I hated. I got all the way to the big leagues before I started closing. (Host: Why’d you hate starting?) Too much rest. Too much time off. I couldn’t take the wait and then I would get so geeked up when my start comes that it would take me 2-3 innings to get ready and then I would be out of my pitch count and I’d have to wait again. It was one of those situations where I was more of an everyday type player, but I didn’t have the ability to go out there and start and have enough pitches. In college I was throwing anywhere from 130-15o pitches getting through nine innings and now they say that you only have 100 pitches. 100 pitches? That’s just when I get going. It was a different role for me a different mentality and I just wasn’t very good at it.”

On his role in the clubhouse:

“I think as you spend time in the big leagues, you become more rigid. I’ve always been a black and white type guy and there’s not much gray in the middle for me. Some guys I don’t gel well with because it’s so black and white. I can’t tell you what you want to hear, I tell you what you want to hear because that’s what everyone does to me. Sometimes that rubs guys wrong. For the most part I try to motivate and being a sounding board and if I can help, I’ll be there.”

And on his rough, first outing of spring:

“The first game, there was a lot going on and I was trying to do a whole lot with a little bit of talent. I think if you go out there as a professional player and you are always thinking about making the team and trying to impress, it gives you that adrenaline, then intensity that you need. Sometimes your body’s not ready for that if you try to put it in there, it’s just not going to work… I’m trying to impress. I have new teammates that want to see Billy Wagner. They have this perception and I want to go out there and impress them every day.”

Listen to Billy Wagner with Mayhem in the AM on 790 the Zone in Atlanta.

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