By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
Billy Wagner knows a thing or two about taking a positive from a negative. When he was a boy growing up in the small Virginia town of Tannersville in Tazewell County, he broke his right arm playing football.
Not once, but twice.
So, he decided to train himself to throw left-handed. All Wagner was able to accomplish as a lefty was a 15-year career as a pitcher in the Major Leagues as one of the most dominant closers of his generation.
Talk about a turnaround.
Today, Wagner is retired — Hall of Fame eligibility comes in 2016 — but he is not done with baseball. The 41-year-old right-handed southpaw is the head coach at The Miller School Academy, a private school located in Charlottesville, Va.
Wagner brought his Mavericks to Beckley Saturday for a couple of scrimmage games at Linda K. Epling Stadium. The results were not good for Miller, which struggled against Richlands, Va., and 2012 West Virginia Class AAA runner-up Nitro.
For now, results are not nearly as important as learning — and Wagner is doing plenty of teaching.
“You get to see the other side of the field, that’s for sure,” he said. “When you are molding young people, you have to be very confident and very secure in what you are teaching. You’ve got to be very patient — I am understanding that.
“It’s a lot of fun. If I would have known it was going to be this much fun, I probably would have retired earlier. The kids are great, they work hard and they give you everything.”
Miller has a very young roster, with only two seniors, two juniors and two sophomores — and a whole lot of eighth- and ninth-graders.
“They are green, but I love the competition,” Wagner said. “I love coming out and playing in this (scrimmage), to give the guys an idea of what to expect. There’s other teams around the country that are good, and we’ve got to get better.”
Wagner was known for his fastball, which was regularly clocked in the upper 90s, so it probably comes as no surprise that he is big on the No. 1 when it comes to working with his pitchers. But that comes from philosophy, not personal preference.
Whether it tests the limits of a radar gun or approaches the plate with the urgency of a sloth, Wagner believes in an effective fastball.
“You’ve got to teach them to pitch with their fastball, because your bread-and-butter comes off your fastball,” Wagner said. “It may not be the best fastball, but it’s a pitch you’re going to have to throw for strikes.
“So they’ve got to learn to locate, and when they don’t they’ve got to see what happens. Every one of us who ever played this game had to learn this type of humility. Sometimes it’s not the worst thing to see.”
Wagner bringing his team to Beckley came about through his friendship with Tim Epling, manager of the West Virginia Miners and son of team and stadium owners Kay and Doug Epling. The two met in September through Brad Strong, the coach at Richlands and father of former Miners third baseman Bradley Strong.
“That allowed us to really (connect),” Wagner said. “We got to talking to each other, and now we talk all the time. He’s a great guy and he does a great job and has some awesome teams here.
“I told him any time it would allow us (to come again), please have us come. It’s entertaining, it’s fun. It’s a good opportunity, because we just came out of 18 inches of snow, so it was a lot of fun.”
Wagner played for the Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves. He had a career earned run average of 2.31 and amassed 422 career saves, fifth all-time in MLB history. He was a seven-time all-star and was the sixth and final pitcher in the Astros’ combined no-hitter against the New York Yankees in an interleague game in 2003.
Not bad for a guy pitching with the wrong arm.
“I ended up being left-handed and things worked out,” he said. “That’s what we try to instill in these kids, that everything happens for a reason, and when adversity strikes you have to take advantage of it and let it motivate you and work hard. Eventually, they’ll get it.”
— E-mail: gfauber