Whether or not Cooperstown ever opens its doors to Billy Wagner, the former Tazewell High School and Ferrum College star has plenty to be proud of.
This was the seventh year that the seven-time All-Star reliever has been on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The new class of inductees will be announced Tuesday.
Wagner pitched in the big leagues from 1995 through 2010. He not only got to measure himself against the greats of his era but also got to meet some of the stars who preceded him to the bigs.
“You come from Southwest Virginia and all of a sudden you’re sitting in the locker room with Yogi Berra or Robin Roberts and Mike Schmidt,” Wagner, 50, said Monday in a phone interview. “You never really thought somebody from Southwest Virginia would be rolling up and hanging out with that type of people, where you’d go to a banquet and [be] sitting beside … Stan Musial.
“More than [pitching in] any All-Star Game was just the ability to be around the people that we got to be around. To be around the Nolan Ryans and Tom Seavers and guys like that.
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“That’s one of the reasons I would love to be put in the hall of fame, is to be able to stand on a stage with a Nolan Ryan and those guys and look around and just know I can sit there with my heroes.”
Wagner, now the baseball coach at The Miller School in Albemarle County, has seen his Cooperstown vote total rise in recent years. A player must be on 75% of the ballots to be enshrined.
Wagner got 16.7% of the votes in 2019, which was his fourth year on the ballot. He rose to 31.7% in 2020 and shot up to 46.4% last year. He was sixth in the voting last year with 186 votes.
“There’s no time in my life [since] … I’ve retired that I haven’t wanted to have the opportunity to go to the hall of fame,” said Wagner, who pitched for the Houston Astros and four other major-league teams. “Driving around on the tractor or lawnmower or whatever, practicing the hall of fame speech, everybody wants that.
“Do I believe I should be in the hall of fame? Absolutely. I did everything I could do. My numbers support that.”
Wagner is not expected to be a part of this year’s class, though. Only eight relievers have ever made the hall of fame.
“The value of the closer or reliever is diminished because nobody thinks they’re very good when they’re doing well because it just looks easy,” Wagner said.
Wagner will also be able to be on the BWAA ballot in 2023, 2024 and 2025. If he is not elected by then, his candidacy will move to the Today’s Game committee, which is comprised of 16 Cooperstown inductees, media members and baseball executives.
“Do I think I get in [via the writers]? Probably not. I think I fall short. I think the best chance to get in will be on the [Today’s Game] veterans’ committee,” Wagner said. “But you really don’t know. More voters get a chance to really look at my numbers and stuff, you kind of start to see the value.
“I don’t feel bad at all. I think it’s just tremendous that I have the opportunity. And someday maybe I get that value.”
Wagner is proud of the longevity of his big-league career.
“There’s always those special key points of that very first game you pitch in, the very last game you pitch in, a couple playoff games here and there, big milestones, but really it becomes just so fuzzy because there’s just so many,” Wagner said. “I appreciate the 16 years because of knowing how difficult it was each and every year to be consistent.”
Wagner ranks sixth in major league history with 422 saves. His total would have been higher had he not retired at the age of 39 after the 2010 season, when he had 37 saves for Atlanta.
“At that point, with kids getting ready to go into the bigger parts of their life and wanting to be around them, … the innings, the saves, all those things, that wasn’t as important as just being there and trying to be Dad and learning how to coexist again as a husband and father,” said Wagner, who has four children. “Having a mother and father there every day, that’s a big thing.
“I know the hall of fame [voters give] … me a lot of grief about leaving too early … but if my numbers aren’t good enough because I left and it’s all about innings and stuff like that, I’m not going to lose sleep over any of that stuff. Leaving money on the table or years on the table was worth it.”
Wagner had a 2.31 ERA — the second-best career ERA of any pitcher in the last 100 years who threw at least 750 innings (according to Cooperstowncred.com).
The left-hander recorded 1,196 strikeouts in his 903 innings. His average of 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings is the best in major league history of any pitcher who threw at least 750 innings.
Foes hit only .187 against Wagner — the lowest opponents’ batting average in major league history of any pitcher who threw at least 750 innings.
Wagner made such a mark even though some of the hitters he faced were on steroids.
“When I was playing, steroids were rampant,” Wagner said. “They had to cheat because of me. They had to cheat because they couldn’t beat me on a daily basis.”
This is the final year that Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are on the BWAA ballot. They have yet to be elected because of allegations of performance-enhancing drug use.
“They should already be in,” Wagner said. “When it comes to Barry and Roger, those guys were tremendous players and there were speculations and stuff like that, but … you’re supposed to be found guilty before you’re judged.”
Alex Rodriguez is on the ballot for the first time. But he was banned by Major League Baseball for the 2014 season for violating the MLB drug policy.
“A-Rod’s lost time. There’s people that have been caught that shouldn’t be allowed to be on the ballot,” Wagner said.
Wagner, who was drafted out of Ferrum by Houston in the first round in 1993, does not often refer to his big-league years when talking to his Miller School players.
“I really am trying to just teach them the fundamentals and keep their joy of the game,” he said.
Wagner, who was coached at Tazewell by the late Lou Peery, is not interested in leaving high school coaching for the college ranks.
“Coach Peery really gave me such good advice and was such a mentor to me, at this point I don’t see how you can have the impact in college as you do in high school,” he said.
Wagner is now the father of a pro baseball player. His son Will was drafted out of Liberty University by the Astros last year. Wagner has been throwing batting practice to Will this offseason.
Wagner’s son Jeremy plays college baseball for Austin Peay.
Neither Will nor Jeremy is a pitcher, but Wagner is still able to give them advice.
“They get to peek inside what a pitcher’s trying to do to them,” Wagner said.