Friday, March 26, 2010
#723) BILLY WAGNER
Billy Wagner came to the New York Mets when he signed as a free agent on November 29, 2005. "One of our main priorities this off-season was upgrading the bullpen," said Mets General Manager Omar Minaya following the signing. "Adding Billy Wagner gives us one of the elite closers in the history of the game." The hard-throwing reliever was brought in to replace Braden Looper. Billy's contract with the Mets established him as the highest paid relief pitcher in Major League Baseball to that point.
During his first season in New York he finished with 40 saves and a fine 2.24 ERA. Wagner reached a personal milestone by recording his 300th career save on July 4, 2006. All this during a campaign that saw the Mets claim their first National League Eastern division title in 18 years.
Billy represented the Mets in the 2007 and 2008 MLB All-Star Games. He also became the vocal leader of the team during his time in New York. He was even featured weekly on a local ESPN radio show. During that time providing some of the best quotes and never backing away from an issue. Not surprising for a man whose life presented so many obstacles along the path to the major leagues.
Wagner's mother was 16, his father 19, when he was born into abject poverty in the tiny southwest Virginia town of Tannersville. His parents split bitterly not long after, launching their boy on a terrible odyssey, from uncles to aunts to one set of grandparents then another and eleven schools in ten years. Many mornings, breakfast was a few crackers and peanut butter. Billy only throws left-handed because he broke his right arm—twice—as a child.
As a teenager, Wagner poured his rage into his pitching. Even when his fortunes finally improved, tragedy struck. His wife's parents, who'd become surrogate parents to Wagner himself, were brutally murdered one night. "Things can change at any time," he said, "There is no certainty in tomorrow."
Billy operates a 200-acre farm in Crozet, Virginia with his wife and children. Along with longtime friend Erik Robinson he co-founded the Second Chance Learning Center, which helps struggling students achieve success in the classroom. "I love kids," Wagner said, "I love what positive influences can do for them and if you can help some kid to change their life or change other people then I think that you're a lucky man."
An arm injury finished Billy's season in September of 2008. He was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow and his flexor pronator. Surgery was performed and with tremendous work he would return to the mound as a Met on August 20, 2009.
Billy Wagner signed his card in the set for me at the Atlanta Braves spring training facility in Orlando, Florida on March 7, 2010.