Wagner's 'A Way Out' no typical baseball book
Former All-Star closer pulls no punches in heartfelt memoir
In 2010, Billy Wagner saved 37 games for the Braves. His ERA was 1.43. Wagner was with a playoff team, the team he rooted for growing up in southwest Virginia. And he walked away at the end of the season.
Wagner had announced it was going to be his last season. He stuck to the decision, perplexing many. He resisted overtures to change his mind. Wagner retired at the age of 38 even though he had another guaranteed year on his contract that would have paid him $6.5 million. Even though he was fifth on the all-time saves list with 422, just two behind John Franco for the most by a left-handed reliever.
No, Billy Wagner was never just another ballplayer. And not just because he had a rare tendency to say what was on his mind. Although that's a quality that came in handy when composing "A Way Out: Faith, Hope & the Love of the Game" with the able assistance of Atlanta journalist Patty Rasmussen.
Come to find out, every time Wagner came out of the bullpen he was more scared than the hitters who had to face a fastball that would occasionally reach 100 mph.
"I'm a nervous person with a terrible fear of failure. After 16 years, I still got nervous when I went in to close out games -- heart in my throat, about to puke," he wrote.
Who knew? But that's only one of the revelations in this engaging memoir. Wagner puts himself out there without bothering to sugarcoat his experiences. As former Astros teammate Lance Berkman put it in the foreword, "It's refreshing in today's world of image maintenance to find a public figure unafraid to present the unvarnished truth. It may not be pretty or what you want to hear, but Billy will shoot you straight!"
So Wagner is brutally honest, for example, about his upbringing. Born to teenaged parents, he grew up poor in a little town in rural Virginia. The families didn't get along. Wagner describes his mother and father as having a "classic love/hate relationship." They were divorced when he was 5, and young Billy spent the next several years shuttling back and forth between them. Wagner admits he was a handful, often getting into fights. Eventually he went to live with his grandparents.
That provided more stability, but there was also little opportunity to participate in organized athletics. So, the summer before he started eighth grade, he moved 45 minutes away to live with his aunt and uncle.
Given that background, it's much easier to understand why Wagner was so willing to give up the money and fame that come with being a star in the Major Leagues to spend more time with his family.
School was a struggle. Wagner reveals that he had a learning disability, compounded by the fact that he failed a couple grades, was older than most of the kids in his class and was attending his 11th different school. He'd study hard. He knew the material. But it didn't translate when he sat down to take the tests. His freshman year, he had to leave the football team because of poor grades.
Wagner liked football better than baseball, but was eventually convinced that while he was too small for the gridiron, he might have a future on the diamond. While most little lefties rely on guile to get hitters out, he was blessed with a great arm.
Drafted out of tiny Ferrum College by the Astros in the first round, Wagner's life seemed to be on track. He married Sarah Quesenberry in December 1995. He was promoted to Double-A the following season. "I was throwing the ball well and everything seemed to be working out," he wrote. And then, an unspeakable tragedy occurred.
Sarah's father and stepmother were murdered. That traumatic experience changed both of them, and again foreshadowed the decision not to continue to play until somebody took the uniform away from him.
"Baseball was no longer the only thing we cared about, the only thing that mattered, and that was something we'd continue to deal with as our family grew," he wrote.
There are plenty of anecdotes about playing for the Astros, Phillies, Mets and Braves, of course. And Wagner doesn't shy away from talking about how he found himself on the outs with his teammates in Philadelphia or the time he found himself being called a racist in New York.
The common thread that binds the narrative together is Wagner's belief that everything that's happened to him has been part of God's plan. He is as open about his faith as he is about every other aspect of his life. He doesn't preach, but makes it clear that he's convinced that he's been given this prominence to share what he's learned with others.
Cynics may roll their eyes. That doesn't bother Wagner. He never was a typical ballplayer. And this is far from a typical baseball book.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.