SI Vault
Michael Bamberger
October 04, 2010
His fastball still hums, his competitiveness still burns. But Billy Wagner, one of the best closers the game has ever seen, insists this is his last season. No wonder the Braves' desperate chase for a playoff spot is so gut-wrenching
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 04, 2010

The Last Stand Of Billy The Kid

His fastball still hums, his competitiveness still burns. But Billy Wagner, one of the best closers the game has ever seen, insists this is his last season. No wonder the Braves' desperate chase for a playoff spot is so gut-wrenching

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3

Wagner, wanting to end with a fresh start, sought to finish his career where it began, but when he shopped himself as a free agent last winter, the Astros showed no interest. Then the Braves came calling. Bobby Cox came calling. Wagner was raised in southwestern Virginia, in coal country. Growing up, he saw drinking, fighting, many sofas and, thanks to Ted Turner's superstation, a whole lot of Bobby Cox's Braves. Now, here was Cox, paying an off-season visit to genteel Crozet, Va., near Charlottesville. Wagner lives on a 200-acre farm in Crozet (the pronunciation is French), about three I-81 hours and a world away from the hardscrabble Virginia towns in which he was raised. Cox was carrying an unused silver belt buckle he had found in his closet at home. "I knew Billy likes that Western stuff," the manager said. Cox knows baseball, and he knows people.

Wagner started talking a blue streak, until Cox stopped him. "Billy, you don't have to sell yourself to us," the manager said. "We're here to sell the Braves to you." Wagner signed for 2010, with an option for 2011. Cox knows it won't get used. They'll both have ridden into the sunset by then. They're on this Last Chance Tour together, but they don't talk about it. Cox says he tries not to think about it, the final this and the final that. Cox is all here and now. Wagner, in his own way, is more cosmic. "What's it going to be like for Bobby, not putting the uniform on anymore?" Wagner wonders. "I'll be a footnote in the game. But he's a legend. He's been doing this forever."

Come 2011, Cox will still be working for the Braves. He'll be in civilian clothes, but he'll be around. Wagner's out. When the Braves' 2010 season is over, whenever that might be, Wagner will be heading to his farm. To his wife and four children. To Little League practice and dance recitals and church work. He knows what he's leaving. "I'll miss the guys," he said. "I'll miss the fun."

For ballplayers, growing up is optional. After a win at home a couple of weeks ago, a bunch of Braves, Wagner among them, were telling Chipper Jones war stories in the showers and by the towel rack. Jones, the iconic Atlanta third baseman, on the DL with a torn ACL but still coming to games, was getting imitated, mocked, dissed. He made a beeline to the showers, in shorts and a T-shirt, yelling, "I heard that, I heard that!" Good times. Wagner remembers his first afternoon at the dumpy visitors' clubhouse at Shea, in '95, and seeing the enormous Derrick May throwing teammates into lockers, just for the sport of it.

Baseball is slow to change. Team mood is a different matter, especially when the games matter most and there aren't many left. On the evening of Sept. 7, after a second straight road loss to the lowly Pirates, Wagner boarded a team bus for the short ride from the ballpark back to the hotel. Cox was in the first row, unlit cigar in his mouth. Players held their cellphones and looked out through tinted windows. Pittsburgh was soaking from a passing storm, and fall was in the air. "We're scuffling," Wagner had told a reporter minutes earlier. That night the Marlins couldn't hold a lead in Philadelphia, and the Braves, for the first time in months, found themselves out of first. They've been scuffling and quiet ever since. They had the season's final week to turn things around. Three against the Marlins, three against the Phillies, all at home.

Throughout baseball, people cannot believe Wagner is retiring at the end of the season, regardless of how far into October the Braves play, regardless of what he does. He looks like he could go another two years, easy. His fastball is still in the mid-90s and it moves, and these days he'll throw a full-count breaking ball for a strike. Jones, Wagner's ancient contemporary who is coming back for more next year, calls his teammate "a freak" (that's a compliment), but Wagner is not so impressed with himself. "I'm not as good as I was," he says. By retiring, he's leaving at least $6 million on the table. But Wagner is leaving no wiggle room. He won't be pulling, he said, "a Favre." He's made, he says, more money than he could ever need—close to $100 million. Plus he doesn't need another September like this one. Enough with the exquisite misery already.

He didn't intend for his departure to be public at all. "In late April, I had this feeling, like I wanted to be somewhere else," he said. By which he meant the farm, with his wife and kids. "I couldn't get up for games like I used to." He was telling the story in a hotel dining room, another hotel dining room in a long line of them, eating another late-breakfast ham-and-cheese omelet, asking for another to-go cup for his chew. "I went to Bobby and told him I'd be done after this year," he said. "I wanted the Braves to be able to plan for next year. Bobby told the writers, and when they came around, I wasn't going to deny it." Wagner promised his wife, Sarah, that he's quitting chewing tobacco after his final game. "That'll be fun," he said. Something to look forward to, for when he gets home.

Home is on a beautiful, broad clearing, off a dirt road and miles from the nearest general store, in a hilly, rural nook of Virginia near the Blue Ridge Mountains where the roads are named for one man's mill and another man's ferry. Roadside trees produce apples that are blemished, rock-hard and tastier than anything you'll find at your supermarket. The Wagners have 14 alpacas on their property, and on the highest point there's an outdoor full-sized basketball court with a W at center court. Next to it is an enormous garage with a '68 Ford Shelby and a big white Cadillac Esplanade in it. Wagner has taken breaks from the September baseball agony this month with two quick trips home on off days. Playing the Nationals last weekend in Washington, Wagner's wife and kids were with him.

They live in a sprawling farmhouse with several wings. Just down the hill they're building a grand château, which Billy Wagner, gentleman farmer, maintains will be state-of-the-art for green living. "We'll be able to live off the grid," he says. "I want my kids to know how to live efficiently." Wagner takes efficiency seriously. He has offered the farmhouse to the church in which he was baptized as a kid, Freedom Tabernacle Baptist, in Atkins, Va. The plan is for the house to be dismantled, shipped and rebuilt as a home for needy elderly. An hour or so from the church, in the town of Bluefield, Wagner and a longtime friend, Erik Robinson, started a school called Second Chance Learning Center, which offers tutoring to struggling students and scholarship money for college and trade school.

You can't fake the kind of enthusiasm Wagner shows when talking about Second Chance. Or Freedom Tabernacle. Or the athletic prowess of his kids. Or his gratitude to his wife. ("Sarah's been raising our kids and running the house alone for a lot of years now," Wagner says. "It's time for me to step in.") Or his desire to let Bobby Cox ride him all the way to the Series.

Continue Story
1 2 3