Billy Wagner on his chances of getting into the Hall of Fame (interview)

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Billy Wagner Interview

CTH/TSR: We wanted to get Astros fans caught up with what you are doing nowadays. Are you coaching high school?

Wagner: I am, this is my fifth year of coaching high school baseball, I coach the varsity and JV team.

CTH/TSR: Are there any Astros teammates you keep up with?

Wagner: I talk to Bigge (Craig Biggio) a little bit, occasionally Moises Alou, here and there Scott Elarton. J. Powell and Donnie Wall. I keep up with a few guys, Baggy (Jeff Bagwell) here and there. Once you get out and go to your hometowns or whatever, you tend to lose a little bit, and people tend to move on. I don’t think anyone realizes what a short stint a major league baseball career can be. Once you get out of baseball, you have a whole new set of friends.

CTH/TSR: Has there been any thoughts about getting back into the major leagues?

Wagner: I wouldn’t get back into the MLB as a coach, I don’t think I would enjoy coaching in the big leagues. I enjoy watching the games with my kids; I like coaching high school, and I feel like I have a lot to offer at that level. I’ll leave the coaching in the big leagues to the professionals.

CTH/TSR: Have you had The Rookie moment where you throw a ball at the police radar gun to see how fast you are throwing?

Wagner: I’ve faced the kids, a couple of years back, me, and a buddy would go out and purchase a UVA baseball team in the fall, I would always throw the last inning of the game. I enjoyed it, but those days are over for me, I don’t care that much about that stuff like I used to.

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CTH/TSR: Talk to us about what the hall of fame means to you, do you have to get in or are you satisfied with what you did on the mound?

Wagner: The Hall of Fame is definitely a big thing, it’s what you play for along with the rings and championships. There is no feeling as good as the feeling that you are among the greatest players to ever play; I can’t imagine a player not being honored to be on the ballot and selected into the HOF. When you talk about the HOF, you are talking about Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Micky Mantle are the names that come out and to possibly be the second Astro elected into the HOF would be tremendous. I could be 1 of 3 in the HOF in next three years with Jeff Bagwell trying to get in. It would be a nice way to close out my career.

CTH/TSR: What chances do you have of Bagwell possibly going into the HOF?

Wagner: I’m not sure why there is such a hangup on Bagwell, it could have been the market he played in, he probably wasn’t as publicized as much as others. The guy had 449 homers, the stolen bases, the doubles and the RBI’s. The tremendous defensive player he was, you take away the time after he hurt his shoulder on a slide playing against Texas and that slide won the game. That slide ended up hurting him for the rest of his career, take away that slide and there is no question that he’s a first ballot HOFer. He was dominant and was stealing bases that meant something; he wasn’t stealing 60 bases where 30 of them didn’t mean anything. Playing in the Astros dome, I don’t think people understand how big the Astrodome was.

CTH/TSR: Why do you think it is hard for Astros to get into the HOF?

Wagner: Biggio goes out there and gets 3,000 hits, and it took him three times to get in. It’s funny, 500 homers, he’s in, 3,000 hits, he’s in, 300 wins, he’s in. It has to do with where you played and who covered you, there is no doubt that everyone who is in deserves it, it does help where you played. Numbers aren’t looked at like they should be, people always tell me I didn’t have 500-600 saves, I can’t get that many saves unless I’m put in that position. My save opportunity percentages is 86%, if your save percentage is 86%, which is higher than the guys in the HOF, you have to understand what is dominance. Is it more of who likes who, or is it truly about the numbers and the dominance. What starters and closers can’t control are wins and saves, but you can control strikeouts and dominance. You can’t get the saves without being consistent in your numbers.

You have to consider that we were facing guys who were on steroids. You think about what your numbers would be like if you didn’t face those guys. PEDs had a huge effect on the game and guys that are actually getting the credit for and has caused a log jam in the HOF voting with all these PED users on the ballot. But to look back at it, to even be on that ballot is a big honor to be even recognized as one of the tops in the game. To come from where I came from, if you told me this 30 something years ago, I wouldn’t have thought it to be possible. Very blessed and very humbled in those regards.

CTH/TSR: Was there one player that you least wanted to face in a save situation? Did you have a nemesis?

Wagner: The guys that I hated to face were guys like David Eckstein, he’s not the big guy, but he was a guy who would foul off 8-9 pitches and maybe get a base hit or walk and next thing you know he scores. The guys who did well against me were the guys that you wouldn’t think had a shot against me. Miguel Olivo hit something like 8 million against me, I could never get him out, I actually threw him a knuckleball one time. I even had Brad Asmus tell him what I was going to throw; he would still get a three-foot base hit or a 400 feet homer, I couldn’t get him out. First time I faced Aaron Boone, he had two straight walk-off hit games against me. Asmus finally told Boone what was coming, he was in shock and ended up taking a pitch right down the middle. There are crazy things that happen in baseball that you can’t understand. I enjoyed facing the big power guys, but the Eckstein guys were tougher to face.

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  • CTH/TSR: Can anyone be a closer, or does it take a certain mentality?

    Wagner: I’m not going to say that anyone can or can’t be a closer, what sets a closer apart is how he goes out every day with good or bad stuff, how he responds following back to back bad games.  I don’t know of a closer that didn’t have that one bad week each year. Some people think when you blow one or two saves it’s the end of the world, what is unique about a closer is that you only get one shot at saving that game. As a one inning pitcher, you came in with a 1-3 run lead where a bloop, and a bomb could change things. Having the personality of just give me the ball, I’m going to get three outs before they score. It’s tough to get those last three outs because the other team always tries to beat the closer.

    CTH/TSR: How about the first time you had to face your former team?

    Wagner: It was awful, the first time we faced them I hurt my shoulder, so I didn’t get to face them in 04, but I got to face them in 05. I think I had two outs and Biggio took me deep. I didn’t like it, but there are worse people who could have hit a homer off you.

    CTH/TSR: Did he let you hear about it?

    Wagner: Oh yeah, Bagwell and Asmus gave me the hardest time about it. They would say of all the people; you can’t let him take you deep. You always grind against your former team, because you want to prove that you should still be there. It was a real tough situation because I loved the Astros, that’s where I was brought up, I didn’t think I was going to ever leave Houston. I had three kids there, was getting ready to settle in, and then I get traded.

    I don’t think people even realize the true story behind my trade. I think everyone thinks I got traded because I said the tape job and other harsh comments towards Drayton McLane. But, literally two weeks before the end of the season, they had come up to me and told me that they were going to try to trade me to save money. People don’t realize that we came off that series with the Cubs, we had blown the lead late, and the Cubs went to the playoffs over us, it was very frustrating. I’m a competitor, and I wanted to win, it was very frustrating to not make it to the playoffs.

    When you face a Bagwell, Biggio, or Asmus, you want to do well so you can have bragging rights, it’s like competing against your brother, I always gave a better effort against the Astros. When Biggio hit the homer off me, people in Philadephia though I did it on purpose because I loved the Stros so much. I think I pitched in all three games in that series and got two blown saves and a loss without giving up an earned run. I treasure those moments with those three and Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, and Richard Hidalgo, who I came up through the minor leagues with. I miss that Houston family.

    CTH/TSR: You started in 1996 using Enter Sandman as your walk-up music, where you upset that Mariano Rivera stole your song?

    Wagner: It was just a song when I first came up they were playing music from the 70’s, George Straight, it didn’t get you fired up closer music. I remember Bagwell picking that song out for me, I was a country guy all along, I had only heard Metallica when I was in the weight room. Jeff picked it out, and that’s how it happened. That’s the thing about the HOF; you have to talk about yourself, which is what I have been doing for the past two weeks. I’m from Southwest Virginia, if my Grandpa knew that I talked so much about myself these past two weeks, he would roll over in his grave. That’s not how it’s supposed to be done.

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    CTH/TSR: Has there been any effort by the current management team to get you involved with the team as a special assistant or to help out at spring training?

    Wagner: I know three people who are still there. I know Reid Ryan, I’m going to go down in February and do an autograph thing with some company in February. As far as with the Astros, I haven’t discussed anything like that.

    CTH/TSR: Do you ever go back and think about the package the Astros got for you and thought, that’s all they got? I think the three players combined WAR was -3.47. 

    Wagner: When Gerry Hunsicker came to me before the Chicago Series and told me that Drayton was going to trade me because I was making $8 million which is not as high anymore, but it was my second year of that deal. That year I had 44 saves and a one ERA, still in my prime. I don’t know who was involved and what the brought to the table, but there were a lot of guys in that deal.

    CTH/TSR: What advice would you give to the Astros new closer Ken Giles?

    Wagner: That guy is good, we all started somewhere, Trevor was a shortstop. I know A.J. Hinch, we played together, as a closer, you hope that your manager has enough courage and rope to let you have a bad day and not feel like the end of the world. As a young kid, confidence is a big thing. MMP is not the easiest place to pitch at, so if he were to blow the first save, how would he act. When you throw harder, the ball leaves the bat faster. Rich Sutcliffe used to say pitch towards centerfield, but it’s hard to do that at MMP. I hope he has the latitude to go out there and make mistakes and compete because he has a great makeup. What makes a good closer depends on having a manager who puts them back out there the day after they struggle. Larry Dierker was tremendous for me, he kept putting me out there, and you figure it out through competing. Octavio Dotel struggled as a closer, but he was one of the best setup man I have every seen in my life. Lidge had a very solid career as a setup guy and had some great years as a closer. As a setup guy, you know that they can bring someone in if you are struggling. As a closer, you are it. I hope Ken is allowed to go out there and compete, his numbers are great.

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    CTH/TSR: Does it all depend on how you bounce back after a big blown save?

    Wagner: It does, you are only as good as your last game. For me, the way I approached it was looking at it as a big game each time. If you blow any of those 422 saves, then you don’t make the playoffs. As a closer, you are always playing in that playoff high. Every team wants to beat the closer; everyone gets hyped up to do that.

    CTH/TSR: Is there anything that could be done to change the game to make it safer for pitchers?

    Wagner: It’s part of the game, I don’t know how you could change it, they already changed the game to where the strike zone, you can’t pitch inside. It’s so computerized nowadays, pitch track, instant review, they are losing the human element. Roger Clemens used to throw up and into Bagwell each time when they first faced each other; he would knock him on his tail. He knew Bagwell could hurt him, and he respected Bagwell. That’s where the game has changed; you can’t throw up and in on a guy. The reason it’s so dangerous at 60 feet 6inches is because the strike zone is so small, and the pitches that have to be thrown are normally hit up the middle. You can wear all the hats you want or a faceguard. There will always be that risk reward with that type of pitching unless we want to go out there and have machine pitch.

    Next: Houston Astros add to their bullpen depth w/Danny Reynolds

    Thanks to Billy Wagner, @wagsk13wjs_e, for taking the time to talk to two regular guys on an internet radio station. If you like this interview, follow @TalkingStros and @KTXFdbTheReel for more shows and interview with the past, current, and future Astros every Monday 8-10 PM CST.

    **Stats from Baseball-Reference**