The Astrodome is a difficult park for a hard thrower. The temperature is always the same, 72°; the air is dry; the fans are seldom boisterous, even this season, when the Houston Astros have led their division most of the way while in a tight race with the Cincinnati Reds. A large, buzzing crowd and hot air tend to add a few miles an hour to a fastball. Billy Wagner—Wee Willie Billy to some of his teammates—finds his heat elsewhere.
Wagner, the Astros' smaller-than-life closer, comes into games after 20 warmup pitches and trots to the mound calmly. There's nothing menacing or imposing about him. He doesn't have a crazed stare. He doesn't hide behind a sinister-looking goatee. He is 28 and has the body of a high school kid; he stands a couple of inches under six feet and would tip the scales at his listed weight of 180 pounds only after a third helping of grits. He tucks his glove under his left arm, his throwing arm, and says a prayer.
Then he brings it. First pitch, fastball, 95 mph. Strike one. Second pitch, fastball, 97 mph. Strike two. Third pitch, fastball, 98 mph. Next victim.
Wagner has struck out the side 40 times in his major league career, and he is finishing only his third full season. He throws fastball after fastball, one four-seamer after another, all in the A to A-plus range. The movement on his pitches is wicked. Batters speak of heaters that start at their heads and finish at the knees, on the outside corner of the plate. On Wagner you can guess fastball. (He throws only occasional sliders and changeups.) What you can't do is hit it.
Most of the best fastball hitters—Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, to name two—have had trouble handling his heater. (At week's end Sosa was hitless in six career at bats against Wagner, with five strikeouts; Bonds was batting .222 with two K's in nine at bats.) Ordinary players have no chance at all. To hit Wagner's fastball they would have to start swinging almost before the pitch is thrown. Randy Johnson, a foot taller than Wagner, says his former Astros teammate throws even harder than he does.
Through Sunday, Wagner had 36 saves, tying him with Trevor Hoffman of the San Diego Padres and Ugueth Urbina of the Montreal Expos for the National League lead. Batters were hitting only .128 against him. His ERA was 1.72, and he had 114 strikeouts in only 68 innings. If the Astros are to win their division—they had a three-game lead over the Reds and could even conceivably be the wild-card team if they are overtaken—and beyond that, if they are to do anything meaningful in October, Wagner must be at the top of his game in these back-to-school weeks. Then all of baseball will be looking at him and wondering the same thing: Where does he get his heat?
It is true that Wagner has superb mechanics, which is amazing when you consider that he is a natural righthander. (He broke bones in his right arm and right shoulder before he was five and learned to pitch with his left arm after the injuries.) It is also true that he drives off the rubber as well as any pitcher since Tom Seaver; his legs are thick and heavy for a man of his otherwise ordinary physique. It is true that he has a remarkable ability to throw first-pitch strikes. But those facts alone do not begin to answer the question.
In the Astros' media guide, Billy Wagner lists Tannersville, Va., as his birthplace, and in a manner of speaking, it is. Tannersville is a farming hamlet in the southern reaches of the Appalachians. There is no airport nearby. There's one store, two churches, no pay phone, maybe 70 houses. Many of the houses are built in a style that residents call "old-timey": wood-frame structures on a foundation of logs, with tin roofs that produce the most peaceful sound—p-tat, p-tat, p-tat, p-tat—in a rainstorm.
The Lamies—Sally and Jack and their daughters, Jackie and Cynthia, and son, Jeff—lived in such a house in Tannersville. Billy Wagner went to live with them, his aunt and uncle and cousins, when he was 14. Jeff Lamie, a year older than Billy, was the first person to suggest that his cousin move in. "But we can barely afford to keep the three of you clothed and fed," Jeff's father said. Jack Lamie was a mechanic who worked on mining equipment. Sally, the sister of Billy's father, was a factory seamstress earning the minimum wage. "How are we going to afford a fourth?" Jack asked.
Jeff didn't answer the question. "Billy's miserable," he said. His parents, too, could see that Billy was looking for some peace and a close-knit family he could claim as his own. In Marion, Va., 19 miles away, Billy's father signed off on the move, and so did his mother.