By BOB REDD
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
TAZEWELL, Va. —
Lou Peery, the long-time Tazewell High School Bulldogs baseball coach, welcomed his former player Billy Wagner and Miller School of Albemarle to Lou Peery Field for a much anticipated baseball game and homecoming for Wagner, former THS and National League All-Star who amassed 422 saves during his major league career.
Wagner is in his first year as head coach at MSA, located in Crozet, Va., not far from Charlottesville. In the two previous years since his retirement from baseball he helped the school’s JV team.
“The coach that left was pretty much a one-man show,” Wagner said. “He didn’t have a lot of help. When I retired and started helping him I started the JV program first and we just kind have built it from the ground up. We are going to play with a lot of energy, a lot of movement, chaos and just giving them an IQ crash course.
“He retired too soon. I told him I didn’t want to be the head coach, I just wanted to be working with development and working with the kids... But he’s still at the ballpark as much as I am.”
Miller is a young team with several eighth and ninth graders in the starting lineup and only one senior and two juniors on the roster. One eighth grader on the team is Wagner’s son Will.
“One of the reasons for playing Tazewell was so that my son could get to know Coach (Peery),” Wagner said. “We’ve done camps and he’s been around Coach, but now he gets to see how he was with me and how he treats everybody the same. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do with him and give him that experience.”
Peery likes the opportunity to play his former player’s team and believes that it is beneficial for all parties involved.
“I knew with the caliber of players they have and that they graduated, it was going to be a great team that was fundamentally sound,” Peery said. “It always is an honor to see one of my players come back and want to be a coach because I never instill on anyone to be a coach. I tell them to be what they want to be and I’m just honored he wants to be a coach and coaches as well as he does.”
Peery has always stressed that there is life outside the lines of baseball and Wagner is just one example who happens to share his former coach’s mantra.
“We try to prepare them for life,” Peery said. “This is a game. It’s a game very similar to life. It has its ups and downs, its failures, its heartbreaks, but we’ve got to prepare them for life because if we can survive in this game, we can survive in life.”
Wagner brought Miller to Tazewell so they could experience what he did as a high school baseball player.
“I’ve always been fond of Tazewell. This is really where I felt home was for me ever since I moved here with my aunt and uncle,” Wagner said. “When I talk to these kids about playing in Tazewell, I don’t talk to them about the glitz and glamour.
“ I said there is a type of grit on these teams when they play, that you can’t look at them and say, ‘Oh, they’re good or bad.’ You come and bring it every day. That’s what we want to be like. We want to be a gritty team that makes you play the full seven innings and you can’t take us for granted because as soon as you do, we’ll beat you.”
Wagner said that now he is in coaching he better understands Peery and others who dedicate their lives to the youth.
“It (coaching) is a blessing. I think the blessing is how the kids respond and play they game they respect,” Wagner said. “Now I know why Coach has spent this much time coaching. It’s not the joys of the wins and losses, it’s the joys of the individual that you see that comes in as a ninth grader who is insecure and doesn’t know what he wants to do, and you see him rise and grow and the next thing you know they’ve got an opportunity.
“They’ve become good young men and that’s what I like and that’s what I’ve learned from Coach watching his kids. It’s just a blessing.”
While he has gone from bright lights of the big leagues to the dimmer lights of high school fields in the Old Dominion, Wagner said baseball is baseball at whatever level you play, or your role.
“It’s no different, you’re still competing,” Wagner pointed out. “You have a work ethic that you are not going to come in and loaf around. The difference is these kids are trying to get where I got and I’m trying to provide the knowledge of how, the work ethic of what you’ve got to do to get to that level. The exciting part of this is that you’re still competing.
“I don’t have to feel like I have to pitch to say I am competing. I can compete through these kids and the kids respond real well and eventually they take on the attitude of their coach. Coach was a true Bulldog when I was here.
“That’s what I want our teams to be. I want to instill in them the same mentality Coach instilled in us when I played.”