MLB

OPEN MIC: Billy Wagner Q & A

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There¿s a stereotype for the ideal major-league closer: he¿s got to throw hard, of course, but he should also look the part — a big, burly guy who scowls in for the sign, rivers of sweat dripping down his face as an exclamation mark on the intimidation factor. In short, he should be the kind of guy that makes hitters quake and think, ¿Game over.¿ Looking at , the 5¿11, 195-pound closer for the Houston , you don¿t necessarily think that he fits. Dressed in street clothes, Wagner appears like he might belong in the Houston clubhouse more with a notebook and a media credential rather than a deep-pocket glove and sanitary socks. That is, you might think that, until Wagner unleashes his best weapon: a 100-mph fastball that has earned him the nickname of ¿Billy the Kid¿, after the Old West¿s gunslinging outlaw. We caught up with Wagner recently to shoot around about his craft and learned that his nickname is actually rather ironic — the hard-throwing lefty once thought that by now, he¿d be on the other side of the law:
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  • What do you remember about your major league debut (Sept. 13, 1995 vs. the at Shea Stadium)? I remember ¿ I don¿t remember running out there, I felt like I was floating out there. I remember warming up, with my heart feeling like it was about to explode, and then looking over — I was facing Rico Brogna — and I came to the set, and for the first time I looked over and realized I was playing with , , and was on first. I could have cared less if Rico Brogna crushed that ball 900 feet, it wouldn¿t have fazed my experience one bit. Just that whole experience, knowing that I was actually in the big leagues with some guys that I grew up watching. What did Brogna do? He flew out to left field, and Brian Hunter caught it. (Wagner glances over at Hunter, who¿s still an teammate.) Do you think that a closer in the major leagues needs to have a specific mindset to be successful? You¿ve got to have a mindset as far as knowing the job at hand, to kind of go out there and work one pitch at a time, one hitter at a time. You really have to be able to not think any further than that, and be really absent-minded if you blow a save — it¿s not a big deal, we play 162 games and you¿re going to blow one unless have you have that special year. I don¿t think you¿re content [with the blown save], but you don¿t worry about what people say. Is there any difference between the attitude of, say, a guy who pitches the sixth inning as opposed to a closer? The inning. Just the inning. Everyone characterizes the closer as someone throws hard, but that¿s just not that case. The closer is someone who can go out there and get back up when he gets knocked down. There¿s a lot of pressure, knowing that you hold the win or loss [in your hands]. That¿s a big difference. There¿s a lot of guys [pitching in middle relief] that could be a closer, but they haven¿t been put in that role. I know some guys who get put in that role, they¿ll get knocked down and then they come back, and say, ¿I don¿t like that.¿ It¿s tough. You can¿t worry about winning or losing, you get it done. If you get it done, nobody cares. You started out as a starting pitcher early in your career. Do you ever think, hey, maybe it might be cool to start a game now and again? No, God no, I am so happy that Larry Dierker agreed with my idea. I came up in 1996 and was going to start, but [then-Astros closer] got hurt, so I got my opportunity to stay in the bullpen and wound up closing. I went to Puerto Rico at the end of season, and they were starting me down there. Larry Dierker had just been named pitching coach of the , so I go to him as soon as he got down there and said, ¿Dierk, I hate starting. Can I close?¿ And he said ¿Yup, you can close.¿ It was just that easy. Who¿s the toughest competitor you¿ve ever faced? I don¿t know too many guys who are easy. It¿s not the name that makes you a competitor, the names — Griffey, McGwire, Bagwell. I think every single person I face is my toughest competitor, because they all want to beat the closer. That¿s what puts them on the map. If you weren¿t a baseball player, what do you think you¿d be doing? I¿d be a police officer. I just enjoy helping people, and I enjoy the opportunity to do something good. I feel that a police officer is a guy that¿s there for your help and protection. That¿s what I always thought of myself. Was there ever a point where you were leaning in that direction? Oh yeah, when I was a junior in college. My major was Political Science, and my minor was Criminal Justice. I was pretty much going in to be a cop. I wasn¿t even thinking about baseball. What¿s the best way to kill down time on the road? Well, me, I¿m not that much of an outgoing person. But, I enjoy going to movies, hanging out with the guys, and maybe playing some video games or stuff. But I¿m pretty simple. What¿s the funniest thing you¿ve ever seen on a ball field? You know what? . (Glances at Stone, his fellow reliever, who¿s getting dressed in an adjacent locker.) He might be the funniest person I¿ve ever seen. I¿ve never seen a guy go out and do the most incredible stuff a pitcher is allowed to do ¿ I mean, this guy tries to get to with the bases loaded and nobody out, just so he can set him up for a double play. That is, honestly to God, the funniest thing I¿ve ever seen. You don¿t really think Ricky does that on purpose, do you? Yes, I do! I¿ve seen it so much, I honestly think he does that on purpose. It¿s not an accident anymore. It can¿t be. Last question. You had to come back from elbow surgery in 1999. What was the hardest part about that? Getting confidence from my teammates. For me, that¿s what it was: not if I was going to be healthy or what was going to happen, as long as I felt healthy and strong, to me, I was going to be fine. The first couple of times you go out there (after being injured), your teammates are like, (whispers) ¿Is he back, is he this, is he that?¿ And everybody¿s talking about your velocity. You just can¿t worry about it. I never worried about it. My teammates were great when I was great, and they were great when I [stunk]. So, pretty much, the hardest part is coming back and showing your teammates that you¿re still you. Bryan Hoch is a contributing writer to FOXSports.com. He can be contacted at bryanhoch@yahoo.com.
    Tagged: Astros, Mets, Giants, Rockies

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