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THE LAST STAND OF BILLY THE KID
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
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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

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APRIL IS THE CRUELEST MONTH, Eliot wrote. Dude wasn't in a Braves uniform the last few weeks. On Sept. 1 it was all good. Steady Bobby Cox, managing his final pennant race, had his club right where he wanted it, leading the National League East by three games. His closer, the jangly Billy Wagner, in the final September of his baseball career, was as reliable as any pitcher in the game. On a weekday afternoon in early September, Cox sat in a dugout on the road, smiled while doing arm curls with a five-pound weight and said, "We're gonna ride Billy all the way to the Series." Billy the Kid was happy to know it. He'd never pitched in a World Series before.

But at High Noon on the last Monday in September, the Braves trailed the first-place Phillies by six games in the NL East. World Series? Bobby and Billy and the Braves were playing, and praying, for that consolation prize, the wild-card spot. (They were a half-game behind the Padres in that race.) Wagner had been superb all year, one of the biggest surprises of the season: 67 appearances, 13 runs allowed, 35 saves, a 1.38 ERA at week's end. And what did the lefthander have to show for all that? A stomach tied in knots.

Baseball loves a farewell, and it would certainly be a lovely moment in some future Ken Burns documentary if Bobby Cox, who will retire after the season having won more games than all but three managers in the game's history, could go out winning it all. But it's not make-or-break for him. Cox, unlike Wagner, already has a World Series ring (two, actually: the first as a Yankee coach in 1977, the other as Atlanta's manager in '95). The only thing in play for the skipper over the next month is the final wording of his Cooperstown plaque. All through his wretched September—his team was 10--14 through Sunday—Cox has had to endure ovations here and parting gifts there.

The Braves' other farewell story, the Wagner au revoir, is more like a private home movie. It could end in ecstasy or (more likely) heartache. Either way, what a saga. Kid grows up poor and hard in rural Appalachia, becomes one of the greatest (and best paid) relievers in the game's history, then, in his 16th and what he insists will be his final season, gets one last crack at that elusive World Series trip. What's at stake here? A man's legacy.

Night after night, for a month now, Wagner has been enduring the same exquisite misery. He stands in a bullpen, spits tobacco juice in a formerly innocent water bottle and crosses his fingers for the Braves to score and for the other NL wild-card contenders—San Diego, San Francisco, Colorado—to swing lead. September baseball turns grown men into seven-year-old boys. Except that when you're 39 and you're at the end of your run, the wins and the losses mean more than ever, even more than when you're seven and dreaming. That's what Wagner's been discovering. He's running out of tomorrows, and his whole body knows it. You should see him a half hour after a big save. His fingers shake so much, he can hardly press the buttons on his cellphone. It's the adrenaline, coursing through his body.

TED WILLIAMS," Billy Wagner said. He was sitting in his truck in the players' parking lot at Turner Field in late August, a game long over, talking about farewells, in this case the legendary hitter's final at bat. "He homers, he doesn't tip his cap. I get that." Williams's team, the Red Sox, was losing that game 50 Septembers ago when he went deep. What was there to celebrate? Then there's Ed Charles, journeyman third baseman, who was standing on Shea Stadium's infield dirt when his team, the Mets, won the '69 World Series. He leaped for the sky and never played again. A nice mental picture for Wagner.

He got to see Ted Williams once, in person, at the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park. That same night Wagner extended his hand to Steve Carlton, but Carlton wouldn't shake it, a strange and random snub. Weird things happen over 16 seasons. Once, when he was with Houston, his first major league club, Wagner was sitting in the bullpen at Dodger Stadium when a fan asked for a ball. Stretch Suba, the Astros' bullpen coach, shouted back, "Throw your clothes down here, I'll throw you a ball." The man's clothes parachuted into the bullpen. All of them. Stretch tossed him a ball.

Weird things happen, and numbers pile up. In August, Wagner set the strikeout record for lefthanded relievers. In the annals of obscure record keeping, that's a keeper. Still, the Braves celebrated it on their scoreboard. After fielding a squiggly foul, Wagner took the mildly historic ball and flipped it into the meager ninth-inning crowd. The ball meant nothing to him. "It's stupid," he said afterward. "Who in their right mind makes a big deal out of doing something they're supposed to do in the first place?" That the Braves were getting their asses kicked that night, that mattered to him. Wagner wants to win, and he wants to go out a winner.

SO FAR WAGNER'S baseball goodbyes have all been awkward. The Astros traded him to the Phillies in 2003 after nine productive seasons (225 saves, three All-Star appearances, four trips to the postseason, all of which ended with first-round defeats), when he least expected it. His two years in Philadelphia, with Wagner at the center of intraclub feuding, felt like a jail sentence. Four years with the Mets followed; they were interrupted by Tommy John surgery in 2008 and ended with Boston claiming him late last season off the waiver wire. Wagner was a rental player for the 2009 playoffs, but the Red Sox played just three games against the Angels, all losses, with Wagner being charged with two eighth-inning runs in the last of them, a one-run defeat. "Another bad postseason for me," Wagner said. "They've all been bad." He wasn't being falsely modest. Wagner has allowed 13 runs over 111/3 innings in 13 appearances. What Wagner would give now to have one more chance.

William Edward Wagner reached the bigs in 1995, arriving at Shea Stadium as a September call-up by the Astros. "I didn't know what I was doing," Wagner said earlier this month. He was sitting in a dugout at Pittsburgh's PNC Park, early afternoon, a weekday night game against the Pirates five hours away. "I wasn't a very good pitcher. Didn't know the difference between a two-seam fastball and a four-seamer. I had never been to New York before. 'Bout everything I owned was in this one giant suitcase. Get back to the hotel after my first game. Phone rings. It's Doug Drabek. He says, 'Meet us for breakfast tomorrow morning.'" In time Houston's veteran pitcher, among others, taught Wagner how to tip clubbies. (Generously, and by check, for tax purposes.) How to react when the umpire doesn't give you a pitch on the paint. (Tilt your head like a confused dog if you must, but do not say a thing.) How to talk to the press. (It's we after a win and I after a loss.)

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