On July 15, 1998, playing the Arizona Diamondbacks on the road, Wagner went through his routine. The Astros were leading 8-7 going into the ninth, and he was looking for his 23rd save. He trotted out to the mound and said his prayer, thanking God for the opportunity to play baseball. It was a prayer he'd learned playing ball at Tazewell High. He gave up a single to Matt Williams but got the next batter, Travis Lee, to strike out. Then Diamondbacks catcher Kelly Stinnett came to the plate.
Back in Pearland, Sarah Wagner, eight months and two weeks pregnant, woke up from a nap. She turned on the TV, and the first thing she saw was Stinnett ripping a line drive that thwacked Billy in the head so hard that he took to the air before falling down. The ball caromed all the way to the backstop. There was blood coming out of Billy's left ear, and his feet were twitching.
A shot like that can kill a man, and people were scared. For once, Billy—number 13 in your program—was lucky. He writhed in pain, couldn't formulate a sentence, but he never lost consciousness and was able to make a speedy recovery.
On July 29, while Wagner was on the disabled list, his son was born. Billy and Sarah named the child William James and decided to call him Will. On Aug. 9, Billy was pitching again. By season's end he had saved 30 games in 35 chances. He had struck out a major league record 14-6 batters per nine innings. In the off-season he signed a three-year, $10.3 million contract with Houston.
Wagner Doesn't make it home to Marion much now, nor to Tannersville. Sally and Jack Lamie have moved to Salem, Va. Yvonne has moved to Colorado Springs. Jeff Lamie, now a husband and father and a scratch golfer, has moved to Burlington, N.C. Both of Billy's grandfathers died in April 1998, each at his home. They were 70.
Billy went back for Randolph Hall's funeral. The obituary in the local paper listed Billy as one of Randolph's sons. This didn't please Hotsey Wagner. Still, he attended the wake. Hotsey knew how much his son had admired and loved Randolph, a man who could grow and butcher just about anything.
When Buck Wagner died, Hotsey told his son not to come to the funeral. Too much time away from baseball; too many people in Marion just wanting something from him.
Chasity is 25 and still lives in Marion. She was working two jobs until recently, but now she's just got the one as a cashier at a local gas station. She has three children, one with her first husband, from whom she is divorced, two others with a boyfriend, with whom she no longer lives. All three children spent this summer with the former boyfriend.
Mostly, Billy's family visits him. Cincinnati, Cleveland, Atlanta, they're all about a six-hour drive from Marion. Recently Hotsey loaded his Voyager with Wagner kin for a trip to Atlanta to see the Astros play the Braves. Billy paid for the hotel rooms and took his grandmother Ruby Wagner out for lunch at Benihana. Billy doesn't like eating out. He misses the foods of his childhood, grits, corn bread, biscuits and gravy. He hates being away from Will and Sarah. But that's the life of a ballplayer. That's the life he has chosen. The whoopings he got, the constant moving, the food stamps, the parental turmoil, the murder of his father-in-law and his father-in-law's wife—they have made him the pitcher he is and the man he is. They've made his fastball about the liveliest fastball in the game.
He sees his mother the most. His mother and wife and son. His son is the center of his life. His son is his chance to break the cycle.