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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Story of Billy the Kid

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.

6 comments to The Story of Billy the Kid

  • Anonymous

    To all the Mets fans (like me) who occasionally were driven to spit and fume and curse as a ninth-inning lead dissolved, or nearly did, with Wagner on the mound:
    Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?
    Billy's ratio of sending the fans home pumping their fists with him, versus waving their fists at him, was a whole lot better than most. Even in his shortish time with the team, he's earned a place in the Mets firehouse pantheon with Tug and Roger and Jesse and Johnny.
    Godspeed, Bill; I hope it heals up good and quick, and gives you the chance to decide for yourself when it's time to hang 'em up. You deserve to walk off the field to Bachmann-Turner Overdrive at least once more before the pension kicks in.

  • Anonymous

    as you say, billy seemed to care about his performance a whole lot more than what passes for the norm in professional athletes. that alone made him someone i could root for, and hard. i hope he can come back, and shut up his toughest critic — himself — at least long enough so he can go out with something like a strut.
    and if he can't, i still think he's a guy who's given us the best he could. every time out.
    godspeed, billy.

  • Anonymous

    “Heartbroken” doesn't begin to cover it. Billy's like Mike to me… every time I saw him out there, I thought “holy crap, we have BILLY FREAKIN' WAGNER.” Never ever ever for one second did I doubt or turn on him. I felt utterly blessed to have him in our laundry.
    He'll come back. He has to. And when he does, his position of My Man in my personal player hierarchy (there's only two positions above it… THE Man–Pedro, inherited from Mike–and the highest possible position, Maddux) will be waiting for him. Hard to imagine anyone filling it.

  • Anonymous

    PS Jace: Beautiful. Thank you. :-)

  • Anonymous

    i'm pretty busted up. i think the team will be OK, but billy deserved better than this.
    very well said. i did not know about some of the personal bits.

  • Anonymous

    Great piece Jason. I was unaware of his personal life. One thing that I always admired about him was that after a bad outing, he would basically say “fuck it” and move on. The perfect closer mentality. I'll savor the Wagner bobblehead from this year even more now. Get well Billy.