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He sounds like a well-adjusted person. But human nature's a funny thing. For all his success (he's fifth on the alltime save list, with 420), Wagner still carries his slights right under his skin. If he's ever elected to the Hall of Fame—and he knows that's a long shot—he wouldn't want to go in as an Astro. Because of the '03 trade. Because he feels the club never officially recognized his 1999 Rolaids Relief Man Award. Because of how he was greeted in '93. "When I got drafted out of college [Ferrum, in Virginia] by the Astros, I went to Houston and met [owner] Drayton McLane," he says. "He looks at me and says, 'I thought you'd be bigger.'" Wagner was about 5'9" and 170 pounds, tops. (He's maybe 10 pounds heavier now.) "I'm like, Really? You just spent half a million dollars to sign me in the first round. Nobody told you about my size?" The root of his greatness is right there. He remembers hurt. Going out on your own terms, that's a way to minimize it.
He's still trying to accomplish things in the game. Last month the Braves had a 4--0 lead through eight at home. Wagner came in to close it out. He struck out the first guy on three pitches. Ditto for the second. Wagner had never retired a side on nine straight strikes. Ten, yes, but never nine. He had a chance to do it, maybe his last. Ryan Zimmerman was next.
Wagner knows the Nationals' third baseman. He likes him. When Zimmerman was at Virginia, Wagner pitched BP to him occasionally and was happy to let the kid get some meaningless knocks off him. Then, in 2006, Zimmerman got his first major league home run, at Shea. Off Wagner. As Zimmerman stepped in this time, Wagner thought, That ain't gonna happen again.
Slider, strike one. Slider for a ball, 1 and 1. Wagner's perfect inning was over. A minor disappointment in a game that will give you a million of them. Another good slider, 1 and 2. Four-seam fastball, 97 miles an hour, broken-bat foul. Slider for a ball, 2 and 2. "Now he's looking at me like, Are you serious? Breaking balls?" Wagner says. "You can't beat me with your best stuff?" Sixth pitch: slider, out of the zone. Swing and a miss, strike three. The night was done. Three straight K's for the closer. An easy win for the club. Good times. The next day the Braves lost to the Nats, six-zip. It's not easy. Cue September Song.
There's a charming YouTube video, a couple of years old now, that shows Wagner throwing BP to his two older boys. Jeremy, all of seven, is raking the old man. The father loops one in at 25 mph.
"Curveball for a strike," he says.
"What?!" Jeremy says. "It hit the plate!" It did. The pitch plopped right down on the dish.
"Perfect," the dad says, dismissing the boy.
A window into Billy Wagner in retirement. Once he slips away to the farm, you're never going to see him again. One more month of baseball first. That's his hope, Bobby's hope, the Braves' hope. Chances are slipping away, a game at a time. But as of Monday, High Noon, the chance was still there. Can you breathe? Billy barely can. Last licks, right here.