Well, as Greg already told you, now it's official: Billy Wagner is facing Tommy John surgery.
This sad news doesn't change much about how I feel about this unlikely September and potential October: I never thought we'd get this far, and finding ourselves in a pennant race is happy surprise enough that anything else will be gravy. And kudos to Jerry Manuel for managing a dicey bullpen in ways Willie Randolph never could have. Willie would have immediately installed a new closer, stuck guys in roles where they might or might not have fit, and stuck to that plan through thin and thin, grimly insisting he had faith in his guys and things would turn around. Jerry has been open with the media, the fans and (by every indication) the players themselves: He's making things up as he goes, at this point in the season winning ballgames is everything, and anybody who wears his uniform will have to be ready to do whatever's asked. We've been without Billy Wagner for more than a month, with Luis Ayala the closer by default rather than declaration and the entire supporting cast on hand as understudies. For the most part, it's worked. Can it work for another seven-odd weeks? Heck if I know. We'll find out soon enough.
But before we plunge back into the terrors and joys of a pennant race, a moment for Billy Wagner. He's never gotten his due in New York, which is partly the nature of the town and partly life as a closer. It's by no means uncommon for pitchers to spin out of control for 10 to 15 hideous innings before regaining their equilibrium, but such a stretch is very different for starters and relievers. If you're in the rotation, that's two or three bad outings; if you're a closer, it can be five or six wins converted into losses, attended by the same number of vitriolic back pages and hours of talk-radio screaming.
The cliche of closers is that to survive they develop very short memories. But I always had the feeling Wagner didn't do it that way — that he actually had a long memory, one that preserved every failure and slight, and that he survived by being tougher than most any of us could imagine having to be.
Wagner's story sounds like fiction, but it isn't: He was born to teenage parents in dirt-poor Appalachian Virginia, and passed among relatives throughout his childhood, attending 11 schools in 10 years as caretakers came and went, struggling with hunger and the shame of food stamps. (He co-founded the Second Chance Learning Center, which offers academic and emotional counseling for at-risk kids in southwestern Virginia, and you better believe his work there means far more to him than some athletes' tax shelters do to them.) In school Wagner poured his rage and hurt into sports, firing balls at targets and firing himself at enemy football players. He became a lefty after he broke his right arm — for the second time — and grew into a schoolboy legend, at one point fanning 19 batters out of 21 faced. But nobody in pro ball cared: Sure, he was a lefty who already threw 85, but he was 5-3, weighed 130 pounds and lived in an American backwater where you were derided on the rare occasions you were noticed at all. No scout even came to see him until he went to college and shattered NCAA strikeout records — and had filled out enough to escape baseball prejudices.
Wagner finally found a father figure in college — the father of the woman he'd marry. The day after the Astros put him on the 40-man roster, his father-in-law and his wife's stepmother were shot to death in front of the stepmother's six-year-old boy. That winter, with the trial looming, the Astros tried to strong-arm him into going to winter ball in Venezuela, hinting that his roster spot could be in danger. Wagner replied that he needed to be with his family, and there were 20-odd teams who'd be interested in him if the Astros weren't. Compared to that, what's Pat Burrell thinking you're a rat or Met teammates angry that you called them out for being away from their lockers?
As we all know, Wagner became the Astros' closer, entering games to “Enter Sandman” long before the closer of a certain fourth-place team farther east became identified with the song. That was a long way from southwestern Virginia, but it wasn't exactly easy. In '98 Kelly Stinnett rocketed a line drive off Wagner's skull that left him lying on the mound, legs twitching and blood coming out of one ear. He was back in less than three weeks. In the summer of 2000 he had surgery for a partially torn elbow tendon and was soft-tossing in September.
Wagner's 37 now, and at that age the kind of surgery he's about to have is inevitably and correctly called “career-threatening.” It's possible he'll never pitch again. But I wouldn't dare bet against him. If Wagner doesn't return, it'll be because his body couldn't take it, and not because of any lack of courage or determination. If you doubt that, just go up and read those last few paragraphs again.