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March 10, 2011

Wagner Draws Record Crowd - In the fourth annual Baseball Night in Blacksburg, MLB veteran Billy Wagner felt right at home

By: Marc Mullen

Former Major League pitcher Billy Wagner spoke to Tech’s team and to Hokie fans at the baseball program’s annual “Baseball Night.”

Featured guest Billy Wagner must have felt right at home at this year’s Baseball Night in Blacksburg held February 12 in the west side stadium club of Lane Stadium.

Wagner, a 16-year veteran of Major League Baseball, is a Tannersville, Va., native and graduated from Tazewell High School, which is roughly a two-hour drive from the Virginia Tech campus.

It wasn’t the proximity that would have made the seven-time MLB All-Star feel at home, but the number of guests in attendance, who listened to him speak for almost an hour in a Q&A session moderated by Mike Burnop.

Tannersville’s population, estimated by Wagner, is 360, which was close to the attendance drawn for the fourth annual Baseball Night, a record crowd, to see the former Ferrum left-handed pitcher, who said answering one question:

“I’m glad I wasn’t a Hokie, even though Coach [Chuck] Hartman did everything he could to get me into the school. I just couldn’t get past the SATs, and I had to battle my entire career with grades. It was my fault I didn’t come here.

“But if I was at Virginia Tech, I wouldn’t have met my wife Sarah. Her and Erik [Robinson] helped me get through school. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. That is why we have created the 2nd Chance Learning Center, a place where kids who need a little extra guidance can get it.”

Among the many topics discussed during the Q&A, which included his favorite manager [Bobby Cox], his dealings with the media [“you’re under the microscope”], and an anecdote about former Hokie pitcher Mike Williams, was a story about the closer’s best teammate.

“Moises Alou was a real teammate,” he said. “He would give you the confidence that you needed to do your job.”

Then he told a story about when he was injured and had to get surgery, and Alou was the first one there when he woke up and would be there whenever Wagner needed him. He then directed the final piece of the story to the team.

Fans who attended the “Baseball Night” not only got to hear Billy Wagner speak, but also could bid on any number of items at the auction beforehand.

“Moises was a real leader, and sometimes he did things that maybe put himself on an island, calling people out,” Wagner said. “But in baseball you need to know that your teammates need you as much as you need them, and he made sure everyone knew that.”

One of the interesting parts of the evening, for those who don’t know, was when Wagner explained whom his inspiration was and letting those in attendance know he wasn’t a natural lefty.

“God is my inspiration,” he said. “He gave me a lightning bolt in my left arm. I am a natural righty, but I’ve broken it twice. I do everything with my right hand except throw a baseball 100 miles per hour.”

But what hit Wagner the most and drew a huge applause afterward was when he answered the question regarding his greatest memory as a professional.

“I would have to say my entire 16-year career in a nutshell,” he said. “I came from a small town and I was able to do it. So many times I was on the mound and I was so nervous out there. There was never a time I said to myself ‘Oh, I got this!’

“I was out there representing my family, my high school and my college. I was very passionate when I pitched.

“I came from a small town of 360 people in southwest Virginia, and I played at Ferrum College. I was 5-foot-8 and 135 pounds coming out of high school, throwing 84 miles per hour. I wasn’t a pro prospect.

“So, my whole career … [Wagner choked up at this point] … was a blessing.”

Wagner, who compiled a 47-40 record in his 16 years with a 2.31 ERA in 853 games, struck out 1,196 batters and registered 422 saves (one of just five pitchers ever). He closed the door completely that night in terms of his plans on returning to the Atlanta Braves for one more season.

“I’m totally content with not playing baseball,” Wagner told reporters during a 15-minute interview session with the local media. “I love watching it. I love talking about it. If I miss anything, it would be some of the guys I played with and actually competing on the field, but other than that, you can keep it.”